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Five Strategies for Major Gift Fundraising in a Pediatric Cancer Setting

“Your child has cancer.” Few words are more sobering for a parent to hear. And yet each year in the U.S., more than 17,000 children are diagnosed with cancer (an estimated 400,000 worldwide). While tremendous progress has been made in what was a universally fatal disease just a few generations ago – indeed, the vast majority of children diagnosed with cancer today will go on to become long-term survivors – cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease for children in America, and treatments themselves remain grueling and can result in long-term side effects.

Against this backdrop, major gift officers face a delicate balance: raise critically important revenue from families whose children are fighting for their lives.

To be sure, not all major gifts come from parents or grandparents. When I was raising major gifts in a pediatric cancer center, I worked with many donors who did not have a direct cancer connection. However, the majority of prospective donors whom I interacted with on a day-to-day basis were parents.

Here are five strategies that helped me to navigate the delicate and sometimes uncomfortable tightrope of major gift fundraising in a pediatric setting.

1. Develop trusting relationships with faculty and staff.

Faculty and staff (including doctors, nurses, social workers, child life specialists, etc.) rightfully hold their relationships with patients and families incredibly close. For children undergoing cancer treatment, these relationships often last several years. It’s vital that faculty and staff see you as a partner: someone they can trust to respectfully engage with their families and represent their work.

Before engaging faculty and staff in fundraising, build trust by developing familiarity with their research and/or funding priorities. Do your homework on the major donors supporting their work, and come to faculty meetings with questions that clarify your understanding and demonstrate that you’ve done your due diligence.

Here are some additional ways that helped me to build relationships with faculty and staff:

  • Provide transparency about how you’ll reach out to prospective families. Share a sample email or some of the talking points you use when first reaching out.
  • Develop an understanding about their strengths in communicating with prospective donors and where they’re most comfortable. For example, some may want to present a PowerPoint during a donor visit, while others may be more comfortable and effective speaking off-the-cuff.
  • Be sure they’re prepared in advance of any donor visit, providing them with briefings or other materials.
  • Share examples of successfully partnering with faculty members, including examples where you’ve worked with senior faculty. This is especially important when working with faculty members who are newer to their roles or may be skeptical of partnering with philanthropy professionals.

In addition, look for faculty who are both dynamic speakers and who can represent their work in a way that is lay friendly. Invite them to speak at donor events. Let colleagues on other teams (such as Annual Giving, Planned Giving, or an events-based team) know that they are good candidates to speak at such events. Be sure they are well prepared going into an event, steward them as you would your major donors, and monitor the requests for their time so that they are not inundated.

2. Understand funding priorities and the impacts of gifts at different levels.

The donors I worked with were motivated to make an impact. It was my job to help them make informed decisions, recognizing that gifts at any level – from $5,000 to $5 million – could move the needle, but that there were always limits to what philanthropy could accomplish.

To that end, I worked closely with faculty and staff to understand the total cost of projects or programs, and then worked backwards with them to articulate what gifts at incremental levels could accomplish. Often when talking with donors or presenting a proposal, I shared the total cost of projects or programs, even if their gift levels were nowhere near this. This served four main purposes:

  • It helped donors understand where their philanthropy fit within the larger context;
  • It helped to manage donor expectations and set parameters about what we’d reasonably be able to report in future updates or donor visits;
  • In some cases, it served as a motivator for donors to make larger initial gifts than they first planned, pay off pledges more quickly, or make larger gifts with their next donation; and
  • It inspired some donors to ask others in their networks, including family, friends, and colleagues, to support the same initiatives so that together they could make a greater impact.

3. Represent a range of ways in which families can make an impact.

I was often referred to families who were not in a position to make a major gift. Those conversations still proved to be incredibly valuable.

First, faculty were always grateful I connected with these families, some of whom ended up raising money for their research through events or other vehicles. While those fundraising efforts didn’t count toward my annual goals, it helped to strengthen my relationships with faculty, as well as with colleagues in my philanthropy office who worked on other teams and who were largely focused on unrestricted fundraising. Ultimately, this proved to be incredibly valuable, leading to additional collaboration across the office and keeping our pediatric program top of mind for my colleagues.

Second, I often used those conversations to present a range of ways in which families could be supportive and make a difference, such as participating in existing events, hosting events of their own, or inviting other family and friends to learn more about the work. (Incidentally, these ideas often appealed to my major donors as ways to maximize their impact, as well.)

Third, these conversations presented me with the opportunity to refine and strengthen how I spoke about our pediatric program and our philanthropy office. They also served as a source of inspiration and humility, reminding me of the grace with which patients, families, faculty, and staff carried themselves on a daily basis.

4. Develop a library of compelling stories.

Don’t spend time trying to create the next viral video or social media campaign. Instead, focus on curating a library of authentic content that will build an audience over time.

As Shabnam Mogharabi, Co-Founder and former CEO of SoulPancake explains in an article in Forbes, “If you’re focused on creating viral videos or viral campaigns, then you’re missing the point, and frankly, the beauty of social content, which is really to create a community that wants to come back over and over and over again for your content.”

While I can’t say I was involved in creating video or story content that went viral, I did have the good fortune of working with faculty and my colleagues in marketing to create a series of videos and one-pagers that were widely disseminated and well received, serving as helpful cultivation and stewardship tools.

5. Stewardship matters. A lot.

Your best major gift prospects are the ones who are already giving. Much has been written about the role that stewardship plays in a philanthropy shop, along with tips and best practices every gift officer should follow.

Here are some stewardship examples I found to be particularly effective:

  • Offer to set up annual meetings with faculty to provide updates on the impacts of their philanthropy. These meetings will ideally take place at the hospital, though COVID proved that for many donors, Zoom works well, too. For select donors and faculty, do this more frequently. Don’t sweat it if a donor declines the offer.
  • Share regular updates throughout the year so that your annual meeting or report is not the only time they hear from you.
  • Draft the occasional note for faculty to send donors.
  • Ask donors’ advice on something they are qualified to help with.
  • Use stewardship gifts sparingly, and make them count when you do. For example, when some of my larger donors were featured in a newsletter, I would print out a copy of their article, have a faculty member write a handwritten note on it, and frame it for them. It was a simple, yet meaningful low-cost gift that was always well received.

In Closing

It’s a privilege to work with donors who want to advance the mission of a place that holds deep meaning to them, as it is to work with faculty and staff who have dedicated their careers to caring for children and families. That doesn’t mean it’s easy. It can take time, persistence, teamwork, and a healthy dose of good luck and timing to close major gifts in this space. The return on investment is worth it.

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