COVID19 and what fundraisers need to know when asking for gifts for health sciences

UConn Health is an academic medical center supporting the town of Farmington, Connecticut, and surrounding areas. It’s home to the University of Connecticut’s schools of Medicine and Dental medicine. The health division of the UConn Foundation is based there, about 40 miles away from the main campus in Storrs.

We spoke with Peter Lamothe, Associate Vice President for Health Sciences Development, and Natalee Martin, Associate Director of Development, of the UConn Foundation on how they’re supporting the hospital and the advice they would give to fundraisers who are talking to major gift prospects about COVID-19 and health sciences for the first time.


"Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and emotional in these moments."

What’s the situation now at UCONN Health and how has your team adapted in light of COVID-19?

“The need here is much like it is elsewhere: protective equipment supplies, food donations, and support for staff. We haven’t moved away from those needs, but we’ve added to them,” Peter said. “We’re raising funds for temporary housing and childcare for frontline workers who choose not to go home for fear of infecting family members. We’re trying to grow a pool of unrestricted funds so that hospital leadership can respond rapidly as things evolve.”

As an example of unforeseen needs, right before we started this interview, Peter received word that the hospital was looking for families to donate RVs so healthcare workers could park them in their driveways. That way, they could remain socially distant, yet stay close to family and loved ones instead of staying apart in hotels.

We don’t know what fundraising needs might appear in the coming weeks and months, so it’s important to stay flexible, adapt, and move quickly.

How are you ‘starting with stewardship’ as you keep prospects and donors informed of the hospital’s needs?

“We’re using this time to steward our donors as much as we can,” Natalee said. “We obviously haven’t been able to do personal visits, so we’ve been in touch virtually. We’re checking in to make sure that everybody’s doing okay (and we’re not asking for money). It’s a simple FaceTime call or an email or a phone call just to see how they’re doing.”

“On top of that, we have our COVID-19 rapid response fund. We’ve been diligent with those donors to thank them beyond just an email confirmation. They’re getting updates from our CEO and we’re asking them to share a message of hope or thanks for our frontline clinicians. We’ve received beautiful videos and pictures of kids holding up signs that say, ‘Thank you.’ We share these messages all the way up to the CEO and to everybody in the hospital, which has been just really heartwarming.”

How are you equipping non-health sciences fundraisers to talk with prospects about COVID-19 needs and UCONN’s efforts? 

“COVID-19 is affecting everyone, so there’s an opportunity for us to partner with our Foundation colleagues because their donors and prospects and alumni are being affected by this, too. It’s on their minds. It’s in their community,” said Peter.

So the team has put together resources including impact stories, regular updates on hospital needs, stats on how many patients the hospital has served, and how the hospital is supporting frontline staff to share with the rest of the UConn Foundation. 

“We’ve put together resources not only on how our hospital is adapting to COVID-19, but also what it’s doing to support its employees and how it’s using the money donors give,” Natalee said. “We also want to arm our colleagues with as much information we can give, so that when they go to a donor they know well, they can say, ‘Our hospital is desperate for this, this is why, and this is what they’re doing.’”

They’re sharing updates with their team on a weekly basis and including videos and photos from the hospital that gift officers can share with their donors.

“Our university president walked through the hospital with a mask on, thanking everybody,” Natalee said. “Everyone from the janitors to the surgeons — and you’re right there with him in the hospital and the triage tent… We want to make sure that alumni across the country know that they can be proud of what their university system and their hospital are doing.”

What are your top tips for fundraisers who are asking for hospital or health science gifts for the first time?

You have to be okay with a sense of urgency. Major gifts can take a long time to close, but this pandemic has generated unprecedented needs that require immediate action. Donors understand that — many may be ready to help — but before you make an ask, ask questions first.

“You also can’t make assumptions,” Peter said “That’s one of the first things I learned when I entered medical fundraising. Don’t make assumptions about people who’ve experienced disease, medical trauma, or sickness. Ask them what it was like then and how they’re doing now. Fundraising is active listening and thoughtful understanding of where a person is rather than just what you need. So you balance those two things and then demonstrate through good stewardship of the impact of their philanthropy.”

“If you’ve never done health sciences fundraising before, ask a lot of questions,” Peter said. “Ask the experts on your team, ask the donor where their interests lie, what their experience is, and what their thoughts are.”

“Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and emotional in these moments,” Natalee added. “It’s okay to feel emotion when you’re talking to a donor or to a patient that you know who’s in the hospital or experiencing life-altering events. Don’t be afraid to ask because this is an immediate and necessary need.”

Here’s EverTrue’s take on the novel coronavirus pandemic and its impact on advancement: We don’t have all the answers, but we’re going to learn from each other and share best practices for remote fundraising, working from home, and handling uncertainty. Bookmark this page and subscribe for ongoing updates.

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