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Healthcare Philanthropy: It's Your Job

 |  By Philip Betbeze  
   October 01, 2010

Let me start by stipulating that I know you have people on your staff who work on increasing philanthropy for your organization. Heck, even if you're the CEO, you might not even have direct managerial control over them, for example, if your institution's foundation is a separate operating entity from your hospital or health system. You should know that their jobs are tough right now. But do you know how tough?

The statistics are sobering, and the recession has much to do with it... Charitable giving for nonprofit healthcare institutions dropped 11% in 2009, the latest period for which figures are available, according to the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy. That compares to an overall charitable giving decrease in the U.S. in 2009 of only 3.6%, according to Giving USA, a report compiled annually by the American Association of Fundraising Counsel.

What does this mean?

AHP, as I mentioned, largely blames the recession for the steep drop, but that doesn't account for the 7.4 more percentage points that healthcare giving dropped compared to general giving in 2009.

I speculate that there are other reasons people are less willing to give to healthcare organizations these days. Perhaps one is that many healthcare donations are of the epic variety. By that I mean several million dollars given at one time to an organization to build a new building named after somebody—in other words, big donations for big projects. That makes charitable giving for healthcare a little more volatile.

Still, that's not all of it. I'd also speculate that healthcare giving is down because of the relentless villainization of the current healthcare system, politically. Compared to insurers, hospitals have largely been left out of the political blame game for annual healthcare price increases that routinely double the rate of inflation, but they haven't escaped unscathed. Hospitals generally have been called out for inefficient practices and for focusing on the wrong goals during the national healthcare debate we've been having now for the better part of two years.

Further, members of the general public have a tendency to lump all of "healthcare" together in the same way that "the banks" or "irresponsible borrowers" are blamed for the recession. Health insurance costs so much because of the greedy doctors, hospitals, and insurers, or so that line of unsophisticated thinking goes.

Whatever the reasons, the downturn in charitable giving for nonprofit healthcare institutions is alarming.

"This downward trend is a very serious problem in the U.S." said Gregory Pope in the AHP statement announcing the decline. The chair of the AHP board and vice president of philanthropy for Saint Thomas Health Services Foundation here in Nashville, says the downturn "comes just as some in Congress want to make it difficult for taxpayers to earn deductions for their donations, and as healthcare reform puts new pressure on nonprofit hospitals to serve more patients."

Are you listening CEOs? That's the message you need to get out there. Regardless of whether you think healthcare reform legislation is long overdue or a giant boondoggle, it's going to put a dent in your revenues over time, and you need potential donors to understand that.

Running a healthcare institution is about to get a lot more challenging, and in many cases there won't be a financial cushion to fall back on. As heads of the bully pulpit, that means CEOs have to do a better job of articulating the continuing need for more charitable giving to their institutions and identifying potential donors. It appears your peers in Canada have already gotten that message across. Despite the recession, giving from 2008-2009 actually increased there, by 5.2%.

It's time to make philanthropy a strategic imperative.

Philip Betbeze is the senior leadership editor at HealthLeaders.

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