“Stop asking me about this!” the doctor thought.

She was packing her bag after a visit to a patient in palliative care. This patient had endured a long illness, and today the doctor’s focus was making her as comfortable as possible at the end of her life. Many family members were gathered around, and the mood was somber. The doctor was eager to get out of their way and provide space for them to grieve their loved one—but one family member just wouldn’t leave her alone.

“Are you sure there isn’t anything I can do?” she asked the doctor. “I know you work with a lot of patients just like my mom. There must be somebody who needs help.”

“No,” the doctor replied, smiling gently. “Just focus on your family right now.”

“I am focused on my family,” she insisted. “That’s why I want to do something.”

The doctor appreciated the young woman’s kindness. This family was in the midst of a terrible loss; it was admirable that she was thinking of others despite her own pain. Still, the doctor felt uncomfortable. Wouldn’t it be unethical to have a conversation right now about this? The doctor politely declined again, then hurried to get out the door.

Yet again, the patient’s daughter stopped her. “Doctor,” she said emphatically, “what can I do?”

Suddenly, the doctor’s perspective changed. It was clear that giving back was deeply meaningful to this person. In fact, giving back seemed like a response to the tragedy—a way to do something good. A part of healing.

“I realized,” the doctor later recalled, “that this wasn’t about me and if I was comfortable. It was about her.”

So the doctor stopped resisting. Knowing that the hospital had a philanthropy office with professionals equipped to have conversations like these, she promised to pass along the woman’s contact information to one of her fundraising colleagues. Later she learned that the family had made a meaningful gift in their mother’s memory.

It can seem counterintuitive for a family to desire to make a gift after experiencing a negative outcome in a loved one’s care. Yet research shows us that in fact grief is one of the most powerful motivators of meaningful philanthropy. Are the healthcare professionals you work with equipped for the possibility that a conversation like the one this doctor had could occur in their own work?

Ask and Act:

  • Which clinicians are more likely to receive expressions of gratitude from patients or family members? Identify those clinicians whose area of care is often associated with life-changing experiences—even if those experiences may be negative.
  • Are the clinicians you work with appropriately prepared to respond to a patient or family member’s desire to be involved? Provide clinicians with language and processes to respond appropriately when patients express a desire to give back.
  • Do the clinicians you partner with have confidence in making a referral? Build trust with clinicians, so they can refer their patients to you with confidence and know that they will be kept in the loop.


Click here to learn more about engaging clinicians in referral-based philanthropy.