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Community Benefit Reporting: What it's Not Might Surprise You

Gienna Shaw, for HealthLeaders Media, June 24, 2009

One of my favorite responsibilities here at HealthLeaders Media is editing our series of marketing books. The latest, just moments from heading out to the printer, is on community benefit reporting and IRS form 990, Schedule H. The author, Patsy Matheny, LLC, is a real 990H pro—she works with the national organizations that are leading the charge for standardized processes and reporting, including on the new form.

One of the things that I learned while editing this book and during my frequent conversations with the author is that community benefit reporting is much more complex—and strategic—than it appears at first blush. That's evident in Matheny's explanations of what community benefit is not.

It's not just about the tax form
Matheny sets the bar high for marketers from the very first line of the book. "Hospitals must tell their community benefit story to everyone, everywhere, every day," she writes.

Community benefit reporting is not just about the once-a-year task of reporting the data that the new form requires. She's filled the book with examples of how hospitals across the country are going beyond 990H—with regular press briefings, community benefit reports, internal education, and more.

Of course, there is that form—and it is important. "Congress, the IRS, state attorneys general, and local officials want to know how hospitals are fulfilling community benefit expectations," she writes. "Just as important is the quest to gain public trust, as community residents questions whether the hospital is truly serving the needs of the community.

It's not just about marketing
Finally, Matheny writes, community benefit is not marketing. That was the one that most surprised me—until she explained it. Everything I had heard was that marketing should lead the charge of gathering the data throughout the year and communicating it to internal and external audiences—especially the press.

And, I thought, explaining all the "good deeds"(she doesn't like that phrase, either, by the way) your hospital does for the community surely helps improve your image in the marketplace.

"A primary purpose of community benefit communications is to provide education about community benefit: what it is and why it is important to the community and to the hospital," she writes. "Hopefully, community benefit activities will yield a positive perception and image of your organization. But the reasons for these programs is to meet the needs of the community—not to bring market share into the hospital."

It's not just about 'good deeds'
Matheny is also a firm believer that community benefit reporting is not about promoting your good deeds. It's an organization-wide strategy and a business imperative.

"Investing in community benefit activities serves many purposes in addition to preserving tax exemption," she writes. "Mission-driven hospitals operationalize their values and vision through community benefit activities. Activities can positively impact clinical quality and the hospital's business strategy."

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