Mongkolchon Akesin/shutterstock

Mongkolchon Akesin/shutterstock

The coronavirus pandemic is having a dramatic impact on all types of charities, but healthcare charities are at the center of the storm. Will they be able to raise enough money to offset the mounting costs of treating sick and dying patients?

Hospitals and medical centers are scrambling to obtain respirators and other essential equipment as the caseload of coronavirus patients surges; meanwhile, revenues from elective surgeries and more routine medical care has dried up, says Alice Ayres, chief executive of the Association of Healthcare Philanthropy, a membership group of fundraisers at hospitals and medical centers. 

Ayres cites rough estimates that hospitals and medical centers could face $250 billion in lost revenue from non-urgent procedures like hip and knee replacements. A recent article in the Harvard Business Review said those losses could comprise 25 percent or more of total hospital revenues, which could plunge many nonprofit hospitals into financial crisis.

“Healthcare Philanthropy has Never Been More Important”

Meanwhile, the federal stimulus legislation includes $100 billion earmarked for hospitals, with more aid likely in a new stimulus bill now making its way through Congress, but it’s unclear which nonprofit institutions will benefit—or when.

“There are costs in all kinds of places piling up,” Ayres says. “Healthcare organizations are just trying to deal with patients now, and possible financial disaster later.”

In this climate, she adds, “healthcare philanthropy has never been more important.” 

The good news: Some nonprofit hospitals and medical centers are having fundraising success now. Many, if not most, have set up online sites to accept contributions to newly established emergency funds. After all, face-to-face meetings, along with fundraising events, are out of the question, even as fundraisers strive to maintain connections with donors. 

Sharp Healthcare in San Diego, for example, set up a COVID-19 Emergency Response Fund on March 23.

“We’ve gotten some quite significant gifts,” says Bill Littlejohn, the lead fundraiser at Sharp Healthcare, which includes four acute-care facilities, three specialty hospitals and 23 outpatient clinics. As the largest healthcare provider in San Diego County, Sharp has treated coronavirus patients at all four of its acute-care facilities in a region with more than 2,000 coronavirus-positive patients and over 500 hospitalizations.

The new emergency fund has attracted two anonymous $1 million gifts since it was established last month. It has also received numerous gifts of $5,000 or more, and a challenge grant from the Conrad Prebys Foundation that is matching donors’ gifts dollar-for-dollar up to $350,000.

The emergency fund is drawing mostly new contributions, Littlejohn says. “Before we started the fund, we raised about $11 million through the first six months of the fiscal year, right on target.” In the month since the pandemic hit, he adds, the new emergency fund has raised $3 million, far exceeding Sharp’s monthly fundraising goal of $1.8 million.

“This is Fundraising 101, 24 hours a day,” says Littlejohn.

One approach Sharp is taking with select donors who have outstanding pledges: asking them to direct their next pledge payment to the new COVID-19 emergency fund. And rather than reducing the amount of the original pledge by the emergency donation, Sharp is instead giving donors an extra year to pay off the total amount they promised before the virus took hold.  

Emerging Needs

The pandemic has prompted some unanticipated needs the hospital’s fundraising arm is addressing. “We recently received two gifts of $100,000 each to pay for the purchase of new robotic disinfecting equipment at Sharp Coronado Hospital and Sharp Memorial Hospital,” Littlejohn says. When the health crisis is over, he notes, Sharp’s fundraising focus will pivot back to fulfilling capital and other longer-term needs. 

Less obvious, perhaps, are other demands hospitals and medical centers are facing now, like unanticipated needs among nurses and other frontline personnel, says Steven Rum, vice president for development at Johns Hopkins University. Rum leads fundraising efforts for both the university and its extensive medical research and treatment organization, now tracking coronavirus cases and deaths nationwide. 

Along with seeking donations online for patient treatment and research on the virus, Johns Hopkins has raised about $5 million in response to the coronavirus. It is using some of that money to provide food, childcare assistance, transportation to and from the hospital for its medical staff, and even hotel accommodations when needed. 

Bruce Bartoo, senior vice president at the MedStar Foundation in Baltimore, is also raising money to help non-management, frontline medical staff. “We’ve established a fund to provide direct support,” he says, and hospital staff can access money from it by applying through the human resources department.  The money, he adds, is designed to cover needs like a healthcare worker’s spouse being out of work or unexpected childcare costs. The MedStar Foundation has raised $3 million so far for this purpose in what Bartoo describes as “a huge groundswell of community support.” 

Like others, MedStar established a special COVID-19 website where people can make contributions to help with new expenses of its medical staff. MedStar’s team of 28 fundraisers has been emailing and inviting potential donors to watch a video on the site about “care for our caregivers.” Donations, including some six-figure gifts, have resulted. For healthcare groups treating coronavirus patients, Bartoo says, “it’s a time to be boldly invitational.”

Supporting frontline healthcare workers is an increasingly common fundraising theme. The Association for Healthcare Philanthropy has joined the American Hospital Association and the Creative Coalition, a group that supports the arts, to establish a giving vehicle called “Protect the Heroes,” an online portal that allows people to support medical workers in a healthcare organization of their choice.

Some Bright Spots

As fundraising demands increase, there are a few bright spots, including the fact that large gifts from corporations are easier to obtain now, says Johns Hopkins’ Steven Rum. Typically, he notes, there is a long and complex decision-making process that hospitals and universities have to navigate to unlock corporate largesse. The urgency of the pandemic has swept away such time-consuming barriers.  

Amy Eisenstein, a fundraising consultant who serves healthcare organizations and disease-specific causes, also sees fundraising advantages to the coronavirus pandemic. She is holding a “weekly townhall” online about fundraising through the pandemic, and she doesn’t assume fundraising returns will decline, especially for hospitals and medical centers. She says the weekly online meetings have drawn people who raised more money in March than expected.

When she was recently asked to predict fundraising declines as a result of the coronavirus, Eisenstein says that she retorted, “Why aren’t you expecting it to go up?” 

As the pandemic rages on, it’s still not clear how hospital fundraising will ultimately fare, or if a surge in donations is enough to offset lost revenues at these organizations. Plus, many donors are facing economic hardship and uncertainty now, and that’s never good for fundraising, as past crises have historically shown. But hospital fundraisers must adjust to these new conditions or risk failure in this changed and changing environment.

Share with cohorts