Sometimes physicians are reluctant to refer patients or family members to the development office because they are uncomfortable mixing healthcare with philanthropy. Besides their ethical worries, many physicians don’t feel they have the communication skillset necessary to bring up the subject of philanthropy. A physician we recently interviewed asserts that healthcare providers do have that necessary skillset: Explaining a patient’s diagnosis and treatment is similar to sharing philanthropic opportunities—both require the physician to explain what he or she is doing and the reasons for doing it.

The first step in diagnosing any malady involves assessing the symptoms. The same holds true for discovering whether a patient has an interest in philanthropy. Just as sometimes the physical diagnosis is easy, so is the diagnosis for philanthropy: The patient openly expresses a desire to help. Other times, the diagnosis is not so open-and-shut. Just as a physician watches for subtle physical clues to make a diagnosis, he or she should also be paying attention to the clues patients might give regarding their desire to contribute in some way.

“Sometimes patients will bring it up themselves. Other times we’ll talk about research and what’s going on in our clinic. That leaves an important opening for patients or their families to say, ‘How could we help?’”


Explaining a treatment and explaining a philanthropic opportunity are also similar. Both require the physician to use terms his or her patients can understand and to be open to questions. “In the case of patient care, that articulation can lead to mutual decision-making on what kind of treatments that patient wants,” the physician explains. In the case of philanthropy, the physician is also explaining a treatment of sorts—what he or she, or the institution, would like to accomplish. The physician adds, “Then you see whether that fits in with some of the things the patient wants to do.”

Once the patient or family member expresses an interest in helping in some way, that’s the physician’s cue to make a referral to his or her partner in development. When the care a patient requires falls outside the physician’s skillset, he or she refers those patients to specialists for care. In the case of philanthropy, the specialist is the development professional, who has the training and experience to determine what the potential donor would like to support.

Involving the development professional also eliminates ethical dilemmas, allowing the patient or family member the time and space to make decisions regarding philanthropic support. “The role of the physician is to describe what they do and why support would be valuable to them,” the physician we interviewed explains. “That’s the best way to do it because it takes the actual ask for money away from the physician, but it allows the physician to describe why this is so important.”

Physicians should be cautioned, however, that philanthropy does not have a strict timeline. While they should expect to be kept abreast of what’s happening with their referral, they should not expect immediate results. “Sometimes it takes years to develop a successful relationship,” the physician states, “and it’s not appropriate to ask for money right away. Sometimes it’s more appropriate to develop a long-term relationship that looks at the bigger picture, rather than being too narrowly focused.”

Physicians have a unique opportunity to help people in some of the most difficult and challenging times of their lives, and a special relationship between the physician and patient can form. “What you see laid bare is people’s lives and what they’re trying to accomplish with their lives,” the physician explains. “What we do for our patients is to help them through these very difficult times—through the physical parts as well as the emotional ones.” A physician’s diagnosis can heal the patient’s body while the offer of philanthropic engagement can heal a patient’s soul.


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The Art and Science of Healthcare Philanthropy