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How to overcome the taboo of grateful patient fundraising

The most likely donor pool for hospital charities will inevitably be those that have benefitted from its services: patients and their families. So how can we take people on that journey from patient to donor and when is it the right time to do so?

Long-term government cuts, the rising population and increasing demand for healthcare services mean that hospital fundraisers are having to work harder than ever before. Itís not an easy environment. After all, people pay their taxes and no matter how stretched we know the NHS to be, the fact is that the public often feel that they have already paid for that medical care.

Looking to the US

Before touching on the ethical issues at play here, itís certainly worth looking to the US, where Ďgrateful patient fundraisingí is driving major gift philanthropy and has become an integral part of the funding model for hospitals and other medical organisations.

This didnít happen overnight of course. Fundraising wasnít a natural fit within the hospital culture initially, but over a number of years it became apparent that there was a deep and shared sense of community around hospitals, which meant that local people were keen to engage as volunteers or donors or both. The turning point was when medical teams began to recognise this too.

A whole-organisation approach sees doctors and nurses through to staff at the front desk ready to respond to queries and shape conversations around how people can contribute towards the hospitalís equipment, services, buildings and more.

As a result, healthcare philanthropy has grown massively and now raises more than $10 billion annually in the US, according to the latest data from the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy.

Gratitude-based fundraising is not unique to the US, but holds huge potential for the UKís hospital charities if they too can make this shift. But is it really ethical to ask people who could be vulnerable to help?

Putting supporters in the driving seat

Perhaps the most important thing about gratitude-based philanthropy is that it is supporter-led. Itís not about asking people for money or to do something. Itís about having the right culture, environment and systems in place that enable people who wish to express their gratitude or give back to do so.

First and foremost, hospitals are here to look after people that need medical attention. To promote healing and provide a safe and secure place for recovery. But that is not to say that patients and their families cannot also be donors or volunteers if and when the wish to be. And Ė even Ė that giving back can be a critical part of their own healing process.

When my first daughter was born, complications meant that she was hospitalised for many weeks, first in the Neonatal and then the MRI unit. The medical team at the hospital worked tirelessly to help my daughter and still to this day I feel an overwhelming sense not only of relief and gratitude for what they had done.

I remember asking what I could do to help. I wanted to feel that I was doing something useful that would contribute to the very environment that rescued my daughter and made us a family. But I was told not to worry.

The same thing happened a few years ago when my wife was admitted to hospital with a severe allergic reaction. I wanted to do something to help, whether this was making a donation, volunteering to raise funds or spending time talking with other patients and families. Again, I was told that I didnít need to do anything.

The potential for gratitude-based fundraising in the UK

The point here is not so much about the loss of a ready and willing supporter, of which there must be thousands or more, but that having the opportunity to give back was something I needed. Doing so would have been a positive and uplifting experience at a time of great trauma.

Was I a vulnerable supporter? Potentially. Was I profoundly grateful to the hospital? Yes. Would accepting my offer to donate have been the right thing to do at the time? Absolutely. Would being allowed to express my gratitude have made me feel better? Undoubtedly.

Over the past decade, NHS charities have become much more active as fundraising organisations within the community, but there is undoubtedly far greater potential yet to be achieved when it comes to working with past patients, their families and friends.

Andrew Watt is senior principal with Accordant Europe. He has previously worked as Deputy CEO of the IoF, president and CEO of the Association of Fundraising Professionals and the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy in the US.

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