| Research

10 ways philanthropy teams innovated last year

Learn how fundraisers found new ways to support their organizations and foster connections in a year of being apart.

Covid-19 related challenges drastically shifted the way hospital philanthropy teams functioned last year. Fundraisers not only needed to engage donors in a remote environment but also needed to fund critical priorities and step into different roles for their financially strained organizations. With their traditional donor engagement toolkit wiped out, many teams deployed new tactics.

At Advisory Board’s first ever Philanthropy Innovation Showcase, 13 development leaders revealed how they pivoted in a remote environment—and the risks they took along the way. Leaders pitched their top innovations to development professionals and Advisory Board staff. At the showcase’s culmination, participants evaluated innovations based on creativity, durability, and impact.

The top three innovations selected by 35 development professionals were the Norma Pfriem Breast Center’s Virtual Rose of Hope Event, Geisinger Health Foundation’s “Thanks to You” Virtual Series, and UR Medicine’s Virtual Reality Donor Engagement.

Read on to celebrate and learn about the full list of innovations from the Philanthropy Innovation Showcase below.


The challenge: Pivoting from traditional priorities to supporting the hospital through Covid-19 era challenges.

The innovation: The foundation launched a Covid-19 Response Fund, focused on supporting staff and removing barriers to care. They used a full suite of marketing materials—social media, community town halls, a song written by clinical staff, internal newsletters—to reach the community.

Why it matters: The campaign raised $1.73 million and procured 31,000 packages of PPE from 965 donors, including 607 new donors. The funding supported critical investments in testing, telehealth, supply management, space capacity, and training. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Sharing documents and information in a remote setting without overusing email and shared drives.

The innovation: Development staff created a cloud-based “Staff Hub”, built with SmartSheets, to share internal information. The Staff Hub includes a customizable dashboard with tracking forms and workflow queues to help staff manage requests.

Why it matters: The Staff Hub provides a centralized location for all shared documents, reduces email volume, and streamlines processes. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Engaging 1,288 new donors while keeping costs low.

The innovation: Foundation staff developed a series of one-hour informational webinars. The webinars connected donors with providers and community leaders who presented on a various topics, including local Covid-19 facts. 

Why it matters: Half of webinar attendees were new donors; 76% of those donors made a second gift to Geisinger Health after attending a webinar. The foundation plans to continue to use webinars as a low cost and effective stewardship option in the future. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Helping your organization maintain financial stability and ensuring a safe environment for frontline workers.

The innovation: Hebrew SeniorLife created an earned time pool—allowing employees to donate up to 40 hours each to frontline staff. Donated hours were credited as an in-kind gift to their fundraising campaign.

Why it matters: 75 employees gave 2,394 hours to frontline staff who were sick, quarantined, or caring for a family member. Donated hours credited to $180,585 and received a $100,000 match from the City of Boston. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Generating unrestricted dollars for your organization in the wake of unforeseen Covid-19 expenses.

The innovation: Fundraisers re-engaged a lapsed, high-level donor by appealing to his interest in providing Covid-19 relief. The foundation created a 3:1 match which included unrestricted dollars and donations for specific projects negatively impacted by the pandemic.

Why it matters: Fundraisers achieved their matching gift target of $2.5M in unrestricted funds in just four months. The matching gift also reestablished a relationship with the donor. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Communicating Covid-19 response updates while building a donor pipeline and engaging 10,000 first time donors.

The innovation: Development staff produced a monthly webinar series featuring presentations by faculty and community experts on the frontlines of the Covid-19 response. Gift officers sent personal follow-up to targeted attendees after each webinar.

Why it matters: The webinars conveyed critical information to large audiences, engaged 5,000 of their new donors and added more than 1,000 unique prospects to their pipeline. Michigan Medicine plans to host webinars on topics other than Covid-19 in the future. Dive deeper

The challenge: Shifting your hospital’s premier fundraising event from in-person to virtual while retaining sponsors and donations.

The innovation: Fundraisers relocated their annual breast cancer event to the virtual setting and delivered party supplies to attendees' homes. Their virtual programming included a performance from a Broadway singer, videos highlighting patient stories, and after party music with a DJ.

Why it matters: Donors and sponsors felt connected while remaining in the comfort of their own home. The foundation lowered event costs and netted more revenue than previous years’ in-person galas. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Offering high impact tours to donors and prospects in a virtual environment.

The innovation: Advancement staff offered virtual reality tours of UR Medicine’s simulation lab to donors via Zoom. A faculty member wore virtual reality glasses to give donors an up-close look at the lab’s robotic equipment, poly molding, and 3D printing of live organs.

Why it matters: Donors and prospects appreciated the out-of-the-box approach. One attendee immediately gave a high five figure gift, and they gained traction with several other donors. UR Medicine plans to engage another 500 attendees with a virtual simulation of a robotic surgery in April. Dive deeper.

The challenge: Sharing Covid-19 information with external stakeholders and ensuring the community feels connected to the hospital during a critical time.

The innovation: The foundation developed a series of 30-minute virtual presentations by medical experts about Covid-19 issues for their top major donors and prospects.

Why it matters: The series generated a net return of $1.25 million and attracted 225 new donors and gained several community partners. The foundation is currently developing a podcast, “Huddle Up” which will be targeted to a broader audience on similar Covid-19 topics . Dive deeper.

The challenge: Rallying the community around your hospital and securing critical financial support.

The innovation: The foundation created a social media challenge to show appreciation for frontline workers. They sent costumes to donors and asked them to film themselves as superheroes, challenging others to donate to the hospital.

Why it matters: The challenge raised $95,892 for the organization’s Emergency Response Fund which helped the hospital purchase necessary equipment, expand facilities, and support care teams. Dive deeper.

Keep on innovating and trying new ideas

As you read about the innovations your peers implemented in the last year, reflect on your own team’s bright spots and consider what new tactics you can carry forward in the year ahead.

Have an innovation of your own? Share it with us at





Katie Everts

Consultant, Value-based care research


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