April 2003 Bulletin

Point of View

Philanthropy in Academics

By James J. Hamilton, MD

In recent years, there has been decreased funding of our academic programs by the government, slashed budgets in our medical schools and withering payments for professional services. As a result, individual and organizational philanthropy has gained increasing importance as a method to support our academic mission.

As the chairman of the Orthopaedic Surgery Department at University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC) for 22 years, I have been fortunate to have raised more than $6.4 million in funding for our program (for endowed chairs for three of my four staff at Truman Medical Center, one chair at Children’s Mercy Hospital and substantial endowments for research). This funding has allowed my Department to grow and develop in a way that would not have been possible without it.

I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned over this period.

Recognize there are different donors and diverse ways for them to contribute. Donors can be categorized into three general categories: (a) people affiliated with the program (residents, alumni and faculty); (b) patients and (c) corporations and foundations. These donors can contribute to your department in numerous ways, all of which are helpful.

The most obvious way a benefactor can contribute is through a direct, non-earmarked cash donation. This may be a one-time gift or preferably an annual one. While people’s and organizations’ abilities to help out vary depending on their particular circumstances at any given time, they are generally, if approached correctly, willing to contribute at least something to a cause they deem to be worthy of support.

Donors may also make earmarked cash donations: for example, toward a scholarship fund or more importantly toward the creation/maintenance of a department chair. People who contribute large amounts to such causes are called "angels," and the importance of their donations cannot be overstated. Angels may be current or retiring faculty, current and former patients, wealthy benefactors in the community or corporations and foundations.

Some donors prefer to make non-cash (in-kind) gifts. For example, one of our contributors provides every new resident with a complete set of Browner and Jupiter. Another provides a sub-specialty Orthopaedic Knowledge Update (OKU) subscription yearly for every resident, so that each resident has four different sub-specialty OKUs by graduation. This program essentially funds the $7,000 we spend yearly on journal subscriptions for our departmental library, and it contributes to the libraries of each of our residents at a time when they can ill afford to—all at no cost whatsoever to the department.

Faculty and alumni can also assist after they pass away, via direct monetary earmarked or un-earmarked bequests as well as through the in-kind donation of their books, journals and other reference resources. Frequently, the physician’s family has no idea of what to do with such materials. We, on the other hand, are happy to receive them. Moreover, we can provide families with an accurate appraisal of the materials’ value as a donation to the university for estate taxation purposes. They are often surprised at the size of the donation and its financial impact. The department can add donated materials it does not currently have to its library, thereby building its collection. Duplicate books and journals can be distributed to residents who want them to build their own libraries.

Residents who receive such materials are asked to donate back to the program the equivalent of "one total hip" a year. This kind of donation is very much within the residents’ means, and it sets the stage for them to make greater donations, both in cash and in-kind, in future years after they develop their practices.

Targeted strategies

Over the years, we have learned that certain approaches to obtaining contributions work better than others and to apply different strategies to different types of donors. For example:

Develop a set of goals that you want to achieve as a department and make sure people and organizations that may be in a position to make donations know about them. These goals should all relate, in one way or another, to your commitment to improving the health and welfare of your patients. Write the goals so they are general enough to be attractive to a wide audience but specific enough that people can relate to them. Keep goals short, clear and to the point. Do not use technical language except under circumstances where you know this language will be understood.

It is acceptable to mail out targeted and department-specific solicitations to potential donors (being careful not to violate the HIPAA Privacy Rule), but it is inadvisable to send such communications around the same time that your institution as a whole is holding a general fundraiser. People and representatives of foundations and corporations may become annoyed at being contacted so frequently; at a minimum, receiving multiple solicitations may confuse them.

Recognize that persons and organizations that you hope will make large cash or in-kind contributions to the department will very likely need to be groomed for 10 or more years. In fact, it may only be when a person passes away that your efforts will come to fruition.

Cultivating donors

Grooming individual donors is an art, not a science, and how you undertake this task will depend in great part on your personality. Certain general rules, however, will almost always apply.

Maintain files on all past and possible future donors. Keep track of who gives what, when and under what circumstances. If necessary, retain photographs as memory aids.

Familiarize yourself with potential donors’ professional backgrounds, their families and their leisure interests. This information will stand you in good stead during social occasions. It will also give you a sense as to when the time is appropriate for soliciting a contribution and when it may not be. Soliciting gifts at inauspicious times may turn donors off forever.

Develop a true friendship with each benefactor. Small tokens of appreciation—a birthday card or a personal note, for example, are important. These seemingly routine actions can serve as a basis for the formation of strong, long-term relationships.

If a donor happens to need hospitalization, make sure you send a card. Pay a visit—based on your personal relationship with this person. If you are in any doubt about visiting, contact the donor’s family.

Don’t mention the possibility of a potential donor funding an endowment every time you see him or her. If the donor initiates the subject it is appropriate. Each time you talk with a donor about making a contribution, be sure to note this in your file. Then, when you think there is a good chance you will see the person, all you need to do is check the file to see if the time is appropriate to discuss the subject again.

When people do make donations of any kind, thank them frequently for their support and interest in your department. Let them know what impact the donation has made.

Several grooming rules apply specifically in connection with foundations and corporations.

As with individuals, keep a file of all foundations and corporations that may be in a position to make a donation to your department or program. The file should contain detailed information about the organization’s focus, its financial situation, its officers and its board members. Be sure to update the file regularly.

Do your homework in terms of identifying the foundation’s or corporation’s interests. Usually, an organization’s interests are noted in its mission statement and promotional material, as well on as its Web site. Learn about past gifts and grants each organization has awarded.

Tailor any formal donation request you make. For example, do not approach a foundation interested in providing sports opportunities for underprivileged children with a research proposal for cartilage growth. However, a foundation interested in women’s health is a natural source for a spine surgeon or group and the problem of osteoporosis.

Find someone who is involved in the foundation or corporation and develop a relationship. Then, when you make a presentation, you know you will already have an ally "on the inside." At the very least, this person will be in a position to brief you on changes that may take place within the organization. Note these changes in your file.

If you have doubts about your public speaking abilities, take time to improve them. Your demeanor and persuasiveness may be key in causing the organization’s representatives to come to a favorable decision.

Finally, if you are asked to make a presentation, plan it out carefully. Be sure it is professional but not too flashy. In particular, find out in advance if the people to whom you are going to be presenting like PowerPoint presentations or not, because not everyone does.

If you are going to establish an endowed chair, think carefully about what the name will be. One obvious name choice would an emeritus professor who has taught countless residents and who is fondly remembered by all. Another would be an orthopaedic oncology professor who has assisted patients for many years in their time of dire need.

Without fail, exercise great care in what you say to potential donors and how you say it, every time you speak with them. Most people will know intuitively that they are being groomed, and they will not object if this is done with good taste. However, nothing will turn off a donor faster than your appearing to be coveting their money.

This may be second nature to all healthcare professionals, but when discussing a current or potential donor with anyone, be sure you are not in a position to be overheard. Many people (particularly the wealthy) object to being the subject of discussion by third parties even if the discussion presents them in a favorable light.

Where this is possible, legal and appropriate, think about "perks" that you can give to donors, particularly people who may have made large contributions. This may be a challenge because awarding perks may be the sole purview of senior administrative staff at your institution. Nonetheless, there is no question that most people who make special gestures like to be treated as special, and anything you can do to make sure they feel there is a certain reciprocity is likely to yield positive results.

Finally, recognize that, no matter how good you are at obtaining multiple donations from multiple people and organizations, some contributors are going to stop giving, either due to their death or because they turn to other causes. It is therefore necessary to always be on the lookout for new contributors. These may surface in the context of virtually any professional or social occasion. All you need to do is talk briefly about what it is that you do and why your work is so important. The seed will have been planted and can subsequently be cultivated.

In closing, it’s been my experience that most people truly want to help. I’ve also found that a donor’s decision comes from the heart—the brain only determines the amount of the gift. Only then, will your program—as well as your patients reap the benefits.

James J. Hamilton, MD, is Rex L. Diveley professor and chair of the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at the University of Missouri—Kansas.


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