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AANS Neurosurgeon | Volume 27, Number 1, 2018

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Philanthropy and Neurosurgery

Today more than ever, philanthropy plays a critical role in the practice of neurosurgery and career satisfaction. Philanthropy can be for enhancing the practice environment (hospitals, clinics and innovations), developing specialized programs, supporting research, humanitarian education/programs and more.  Everywhere a neurosurgeon turns, there are unmet needs. There is also increasing competition to receive funding for either clinical or basic science neurosurgical research. The various funding agencies, such as the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute (PCORI) and the Department of Defense (DOD) are inundated with high-quality submissions, which have been steadily increasing over the past two decades. In addition, the days of neurosurgery departments having sufficient excess funds to help cover these costs are essentially over. Research studies are likewise becoming increasingly expensive to perform, and as such, alternative sources of revenue have become desirable. 

              Philanthropy is defined as:

The desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes. 

There are two key components to this definition. The first involves a generous donation of money. While any amount of money donated is appreciated, to have a legitimate impact, the quantity needs to be substantial. Fulfilling this aspect of philanthropy requires a special dance that often includes special support personnel in a hospital or program. The second key component is just as critical –determining that the donation is for a good cause. If an individual seeking a donation has a meritorious cause for which the donation will be utilized, then the likelihood of success increases dramatically. Donors want to feel good about themselves and they want to feel as if their donation will make a difference. As such, having a good cause wherein individuals could potentially be helped by the results of the research lead the donor to be more willing to donate. In addition, the better the cause, the more likely a larger donation is received.

Starting out

Like any business proposition, do your homework and prepare before launching any philanthropic programs. Here are some specific suggestions:

  • Take an online course about philanthropy.
  • Define the program you wish to target first (endowed chair, new equipment, enhanced services, research laboratory, lecture series).
  • Create a business plan – understand all the costs involved, create a timeline, identify key players.
  • Establish necessary legal and financial documents.
  • Engage important stakeholders (partners, faculty, hospital administrators).
  • When ready, do a “launch” to make the plan public.
  • Create appropriate print or online material (depending on the scope of the program).
  • Insure a smooth and easy mechanism of giving.

Neurosurgeons and Philanthropy

How does a neurosurgeon go about getting started with philanthropy? There is one tremendous advantage that a clinical neurosurgeon has – exposure to patients and their families (often very grateful individuals). Through these contacts, the opportunity to pursue philanthropy becomes available. While it is never easy to ask a prospective donor for money, it does get easier with time. On occasion, a patient or their family member might comment, “Is there anything I can do for you?” As uncomfortable as it may seem at first, the answer should be, “Yes!” This can be followed with something like, we are establishing a research laboratory and are looking for potential donors to help either “get it off the ground” or “propel it forward,” if it is already off the ground. Responses are often surprisingly favorable. 

Hint: try a somewhat indirect approach. The potential recipient can state that he was wondering if the patient, or any family member or friend of the patient, was interested and able to make a donation to support a given project. When the cause is aligned with the patient’s clinical condition, it is more likely to be a successful request. For instance, discussing financial support for research involving experimental spinal cord injury is certainly a good cause and it is more likely to be responded to favorably, if there is a patient who has been spinal cord injured involved in the process. 

Follow-up is one of the key aspects of success. As soon as a donor has agreed to make the donation, they become a part of the project’s “family”. Providing regular, periodic feedback to the donors on progress is essential to maintaining interest. For tax purposes, it is best for donors to make their gifts in late December. As such, providing a yearly summary or enticing updates later in the year (late November) gives the donor time to review and be inspired to commit to additional support for the following year. 

Philanthropy, in many respects, is like a business. It is essential to treat one’s customers with respect to be successful. In a similar vein, it is critical to treat donors with respect and to provide them with regular, meaningful feedback on how the project is progressing  , as well as the donor’s impact. We have found when that type of strategy is applied, long-term success in the realm of philanthropy is possible.

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