How Healthcare Philanthropy Can Recover in the COVID-19 Recession

By: Tom Hileman  | 09/09/2020

For many healthcare systems, philanthropy is more than a way to fund research, program development and general operations. Philanthropy comes from the heart of their mission. Unfortunately, giving has seen expected decreases during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, we’ve seen this before in the financial crisis of 2008, and today, the Great Recession can provide guidance in how healthcare philanthropy and development teams might respond.

2008: A Snapshot at Recovery

The recent past tells the story of how a global recession can impact philanthropy and its recovery.

Two years into the Great Recession, 71% of healthcare systems were still reporting losses in fundraising efforts. During that time, large-amount donors were the most likely to reduce or stop their total charitable giving. Large donors often go into “saving mode” during a recession and decrease their discretionary spending. Accordingly, The New York Times reported charitable giving fell by 4.6% between 2006 and 2012 for Americans earning $200,000 or more each year. Unfortunately, these donors make up a significant portion of total fundraising.

However, there’s another side to the story. Those earning less than $100,000 actually increased their giving by 4.5%. And charitable giving overall went up and continued to recover past pre-recession levels just three years later.

That said, there’s at least one key difference between then and now. The 2008 recession didn’t have a pandemic to navigate. The current strain on hospitals at a time when resources are most needed means that a solid recovery strategy will not only look much different in 2020 — it’ll be vital. Making a plan for continued and effective philanthropy efforts in the unique environment of this recession is crucial to seeing a quick recovery again.

Grenzebach Glier and Associates, a global philanthropic consulting service, notes that donors are likely to keep giving in a recession, especially if asked and approached proactively. Donors may reduce the number of causes they give to or the amount they give, but they still give. At a time when hospitals are top-of-mind, finding ways to maintain engagement with prospective and current donors is an important cornerstone of a smart philanthropic strategy. And based on what we’ve seen in 2008, making consistent efforts with large donors and small donors alike is also a key factor in the equation.

But what do those continued outreach efforts look like, and what’s going to be the most efficient and effective strategy? Here are a few ideas.

1. Turn Philanthropy Digital

The digital landscape has changed drastically since the Great Recession. In 2008, only 74% of American adults were internet users, compared to 90% just a year later. Facebook was edging out Myspace in popularity, Twitter was just gathering steam, and search engine optimization was as simple as using the right keywords. In 2020, digital is a powerful space for healthcare philanthropy campaigns — and even more so amid the pandemic.

People are staying home, and that’s where digital can meet them as nothing else can. Fundraising galas, dinners and other traditional philanthropic events are off the table, but digital still gives you an avenue to reach your audience in a personalized and personable way. It also enables you to find more of your audience through both a broader reach and greater targeting, particularly with small and mid-range donors.

The expanded reach of digital also affords lower donation thresholds. In other words, it can be easier to get a hundred $10 donations than one $1,000 donation — as long as you pair smart messaging with data-driven insights.

2. Seize Data Capabilities

A huge affordance of digital campaigns is the ability to gather data. Traditional advertising and philanthropy events don’t always deliver measurable data on who you’re actually converting to a donor relationship. Digital campaigns can collect numerous success metrics to help you understand what messages are working, which ones are falling short, and where you can refine and improve.

Metrics like click-through rates (CTRs), bounce rates, new visitor and return-visitor conversion rates are just a few ways to tell where and why your campaign is succeeding. Deemphasize “vanity metrics” such as page views or social media followers. These may look good, but they don’t always deliver true performance insights about who’s engaging meaningfully with your content and calls to action.

3. Don’t Throttle Back on Relationships

At the same time that an increase of digital outreach can especially boost small and mid-range donors, high-touch relationships with large donors are as critical as ever. Large donors, as we saw in 2008, are more likely to pull back now and give their money to fewer places. Maintaining those relationships is paramount for that quick recovery we saw a few years post-2008. To do that, retaining your development staff — the people who have built those relationships — is the first priority.

The next is continuing outreach, even if the return isn’t immediate. As donors make more selective decisions about where their dollars go, make sure they continue to know the value you place on your relationship with them and what it means for your mission. You may also consider lowering donation thresholds to keep them engaged with exclusive communications as well so they continue receiving your message.

4. Refine Your Messaging

As the choice of where to give gets tougher for donors in a recession, clear and compelling messaging is critical. “Smart” messaging in a philanthropy campaign might look different for each unique healthcare system, but there are a few concrete strategies for creating messages that speak to and engage potential donors.

For example, making the impact of a donation tangible can show donors what their gift is really giving. Messaging that connects donations to relevant supplies like facemasks, sanitizer and personal protective equipment (PPE) can appeal to a large audience. An example like “A gift of $50 buys X amount of PPE—and safe, more secure conditions for frontline workers” puts a donor’s gift in concrete and emotionally impactful terms that matter today.

Anything that can help people can see the connection between their gift and a greater good can help bring in small and mid-size donations, but specific causes like cancer, heart disease and diabetes don’t need to fall from attention. Hospital visits for top-10 disease treatment are down, even though these diseases continue to affect people. Bringing this awareness to philanthropy campaigns (without being tone-deaf to the COVID-19 pandemic) can also help connect your message to your audience effectively.

However, in a time when needs are many, everything should tie into and reinforce a clear expression of your healthcare organization’s mission. Put simply, the right messaging aligns with the mission of your organization and the mindset of the donor. Turning messaging into a tangible, measurable and relatable campaign with a lower donation threshold — paired with digital’s ability to widen your audience — can make for an impactful philanthropy strategy amid the pandemic.

Putting in All Together

While plenty has changed since the Great Recession, 2008 still provides insight on how philanthropy is affected and what we can expect in the COVID-19 recession. Armed with those insights, a 2020 healthcare philanthropy recovery strategy is that much easier to create. Pair clear and tangible mission-focused messaging with data-driven insights in a high-touch strategy to give new vitality to your healthcare philanthropy.

If you’re interested in partnering to strategize and build a tailor-made digital campaign, contact us. It’s what we do, and we’re happy to do it with you.



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