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The Public Phase Isn’t a Phase—Not Anymore

In our work as health care philanthropy communications experts, foundation leaders sometimes confide these fears:

“We need to stay in the quiet phase; the risk of failure is too great. We could never recover from it.”

“We’re not staffed or resourced to be in the public phase all the time.”

“We don’t earn any money in the public phase.”

And less fearful, but heartbreakingly wistful, they confide:

“We need to make the case—our community doesn’t know why they should donate to health care.”

“Our donors want to see the impact they are making—not just behind closed doors but also out in the community.”

“Nobody knows our foundation even exists. We’re getting crushed by the efforts from our local universities, churches and large organizations like St. Jude.”

Do these sound familiar? Quite the dilemma, isn’t it? Frustration emerges even further when we talk with clients about their hospital marketing departments’ presumed lack of interest in promoting philanthropy. But we get it. That isn’t their focus. Their assigned commission is to sell trust in the services of the hospital…to compete by demonstrating confidence, projecting excellence and promoting stability. That’s job number one for hospital marketing. They believe, perhaps rightfully so, that doing it well boosts the foundation’s ability to raise money. That’s a topic for another article—making the case for why hospital marketing should promote philanthropy, should leverage the deeply humanizing and powerful ability philanthropy offers to connect and galvanize our communities and should talk about urgency. And we’re not talking urgency for the hospital, but the urgency for people in our communities. Another time for all that…

Your donors and your community must see, feel, believe and ACT on the case for why investing in health care is urgent and rewarding.

Instead, let’s talk about what YOU can and should do now to stay visible, stay viable and stay valuable through continuous external communications to your community. What could possibly justify the risk and resources, while demonstrating strong return on investment in external, “public” philanthropy communications?

The answer? Your donors and your community must see, feel, believe and ACT on the case for why investing in health care is urgent and rewarding. Why health care, unlike any other enterprise or any other philanthropic investment, offers the greatest personal impact as well as the greatest positive impact to our communities. Why health care offers this return on investment, not just today, but far into the future. Do you believe this? If you don’t, keep reading.

The fact is, health care touches everyone—rich or poor, young or old, throughout almost every phase of our lives. Health care is an anchor institution that directly elevates every financial and cultural aspect of our most thriving communities. In our toughest neighborhoods, a hospital may be the only place that feels safe. When we shake our heads over something like “inappropriate emergency department utilization,” we might also feel compelling empathy for the families with few other choices, and then double down on our collective commitment to keep these doors open and services available. Health care saves lives, changes lives, brings hope, offers solace and keeps us safe unlike any other endeavor. When health care disappears, communities disappear.

Heroes by their very definition are powerful and in need of little support. Humans, however, need us.

However, in the United States, the health care industry has not done a good job of communicating this. We’ve instead relied on awards, accolades and achievements. We’ve competed against one another for market share and continued to play a finite game we simply cannot win. We’ve partnered and systemized to survive. We’ve raised costs and lowered resiliency for our providers. Sadly, we have also acted as if the finite game extends to philanthropy.

Sometimes to go forward, we must go back. Not backwards—back. Back to how our first hospitals were created, funded and supported, built by neighbors and philanthropists working together for the good of the community. Back to missions that have stood the test of time. Back to a place where hospitals stood for humanity and humility, and charity was openly defined as “love.” Back to a belief that financially supporting health care isn’t solely done through insurance, grants and out-of-pocket expenses. Back to a time when hospitals were embraced and cherished as moral, ethical and prestigious places where we sent our community’s brightest minds and most compassionate hearts to serve. Huge sigh…

Let’s talk about your foundation’s unique role in reframing the conversation about health care. Care is complex, caring isn’t. If we could rebrand health care in this country, we’d rebrand it with a foundation-first approach. We’d use an approach that isn’t so much focused on the transactional nature of raising money, or the transitory goal of funding more facilities, but on the transformational nature of promoting gratitude, kindness and caring. That’s our lane, and we’re good at it. Deserve is a terrible word, but we’ll use it in this one instance: “Philanthropy deserves to be a bigger part of our hospital’s brand.” Right now, we’re not. Get over it. Now get to it. Here’s how.

Learn to Play the Infinite Game.

The infinite game is a concept first introduced by James Carse and recently popularized by Simon Sinek. The basic premise is that finite games are played for the sole purpose of winning. An infinite game is played for the purpose of continuing to play. A finite player seeks power—market share, dominance and winning. An infinite player seeks meaning—participants, community and progress. Raising money to build a hospital versus raising money to remove barriers to health care are easy examples to think about in these terms. There is a beginning, middle and end to building a hospital. It’s a finite game. We then immediately try to re-engage our donors to play the next game and stumble to create an even more compelling project to compete for donor dollars and attention, which creates fatigue. Donor fatigue shouldn’t exist. We create it through our inability to communicate the infinite game we want to pursue with them. Don’t get us wrong—projects like building hospitals are terrific and tangible. However, there is often a missed opportunity to connect our donors with a bigger, more meaningful mission. The mission to pursue greater health and well-being for our communities. The mission to be a part of something that will outlast our abilities to directly impact the present. An opportunity to pioneer and cultivate the next generation of donors wishing to join the infinite game.

Our “why” is fixed. It’s a story from our past. Our “purpose” can evolve and grow to encompass all the impact we wish to make in the world, and THIS is how we inspire the philanthropy we crave. This isn’t a phase, it’s our very reason for being. This is about continuous and public communication of health care as a cause for all. We must learn to tell a bigger story about why giving to health care matters.

Humanize, don't Heroize.

Our care providers answered a call to serve. They’re not robots, and despite their incredible abilities, most prefer to not be seen as heroes. They prefer to be seen as humans. Heroes are untouchable, unflappable and unapproachable. Humans have families, dreams, worries, personalities and problems. These individuals are not a product to sell, they are people. People who make up our families and our communities. People who answered a call to support. When donors give, they don’t give to the hospital, they give through the hospital. They give to support people, both those who give care and those who receive care, and even those who will receive care in the future. Heroes by their very definition are powerful and in need of little support. Humans, however, need us.

We have an opportunity in our foundations to humanize our care providers. We must learn about their dreams, their values, their passions and then share those with our donors and our community. Let’s learn about their deep connection to the patients they serve and how this adds meaning to their lives and the lives of their patients. After all, this connection is where gratitude is born and where the embers of health care philanthropy are fanned into flame.

Tell This Story.

Doing this unites us all, provides us with a shared mission and lifts our collective resolve to give. This story never gets old. It doesn’t have a cycle. It’s something we can and should pursue endlessly. Not only inside the walls of our organizations but also externally with our communities.

Our foundations have an emerging role to play: a role for broader, more meaningful, very public communication about health care’s value to the community. We have a positive, inspiring and urgent message to share. Staying in the public phase isn’t about a campaign. It’s about sharing and openly inviting others to play an infinite and humanizing game we call philanthropy.

Get to it.

Accordant Perspectives_Public Phase
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About the Authors:

Michael Beall is a Principal Consultant and Communications Practice Leader with Accordant. He specializes in communication strategy, foundation branding and donor engagement. Mike can be reached at or through LinkedIn.

Cindy Reynolds, CFRE, is a Principal Consultant with Accordant. She specializes in design thinking, innovative fund development approaches, data-driven performance strategies, executive and clinical leadership engagement, as well as foundation board design, development, diversity and engagement. Cindy can be reached at or through LinkedIn.


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The Accordant Team has published a number of books to advance the efforts of health care philanthropy and help development leaders everywhere. 

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Accordant is honored to collaborate with American Hospital Association Trustee Services to provide issue papers, templates and webinars to support the involvement of healthcare trustees and foundation board members in advancing philanthropy. These resources can also be found on the AHA Trustee website.

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