Stephanie Foster is the Director of Philanthropy at MedStar Health, a non-profit, community-based health system serving the Baltimore and Washington regions. Having spent 30 years in the fundraising sphere, she has made a mark on the MedStar foundation and has consistently closed gifts. We asked her recently to share her story with us regarding her background, her experience with Gobel, her approach to her work, and her tips for succeeding as a gift officer.
Let’s start with some background. How did you first get into working with Gobel Group?
My personal history with Gobel Group goes back before I even came to MedStar. I was introduced to Chad back when he was first starting the company. I was probably one of the very first recipients of Gobel’s Top Producer book. I was one of the early – can we say, frontier? – success stories for Chad, because of that initial relationship we had. Then several years later, when I came to work at MedStar, I was so excited to find that MedStar was also working with Gobel Group. Honestly, as a fundraiser, the Gobel method just kind of stared you in the face – it was such an obvious way to raise funds for an institution, even though it involves looking at fundraising in a completely different way. Being able to build those relationships with physician champions to gain access to grateful patients – that was, for me, just so exciting, because it was so natural.
What’s something unexpected about fundraising that you really love?
It’s inspirational to me that there really is a science behind the work that we’re doing. As a fundraiser, you have to appreciate that it’s not just “willy nilly”! People who don’t understand our work think we spend all of our time going to lunches, attending parties, rolling in money – there’s no real sense of appreciation for the science behind the work. It’s very methodical. In order for any of it to work, you have to know the patterns necessary to cultivating a relationship and know the steps to take in order to get the gift.
What would you say is one of your main strengths as a gift officer?
If I were to take a step back and reflect on my strengths, I think I’d say that I’m very relationship based. I am all about building relationships with the physicians, and understanding and appreciating the relationship that they have with their patients.
You connect to so many physicians on a daily basis. How do you manage to do it?
Sometimes I can’t manage to get a particular physician – even if they’re comfortable with the philanthropy work I’m doing – to make the introduction between me and the patient. So, I need to find more creative ways to do it myself, and normally that means using the Gobel scripted letter or the scripted call. Shannon Tower, a Gobel consultant at MedStar, has been completely indispensable to me – she’s been a real inspiration when it comes to figuring out ways to go about getting a visit. I remember the first time I ever met Shannon, and I asked her how she managed to visit another city, a new city, and fill up an eight-hour period of time with visits with folks who didn’t even know who she was. She’s given me so much feedback and so many tips.
Also, I find that having an introduction arranged by the physician is absolutely gold. As a fundraiser using this method, I’ve definitely had to be flexible in approaching the physician about a relationship. It’s not always a comfortable place for them, and I have to be adaptable in figuring out how we can both succeed in the relationship. And it’s always a unique approach, because every doctor is unique. I can categorize them into orthopedics or heart surgeons, there are some similarities across disciplines, but every single physician is unique and requires a singular approach.
How would you say you tend to approach your job as a gift officer?
I follow the Gobel model to the extent that I can, but some of my success comes from combining the model with my intuitive nature. I tend to start very traditionally, according to the Gobel model – I get the introduction, develop a relationship with the physician, ask for a visit. Then, when I’m in front of the patient, often times (even if it’s a first visit), it turns into an invitation to invest. You just don’t get the opportunity that often. Someone has made the time for you, so you as a fundraiser should have done your homework, your research; you should know their interests, so that when you go to see them, face-to-face, you’ve done everything you needed to do. That’s the magical visit – the first one. If I can meet with both the patient and a partner or spouse, it’s an even better visit.
I always bring material with me, never a proposal, never anything to suggest its transactional – I just bring the materials that help me articulate the need and impact so the patient can make an informed decision. Ninety percent of the time, I end up finding the appropriate time to invite the patient to invest.
What do you think are a few important characteristics for every gift officer to emulate?
Flexibility and resilience are definitely important character traits of a successful fundraiser. It’s also important to know the difference between when it’s time to persist and when to give up. I tend to lean towards “never giving up,” but it’s often not realistic. I’ve learned over the years how to tell when it’s time to give up on a constituent. Maybe the timing isn’t right, so I sometimes end a conversation with something like, “I see that my timing is not perfect – would it be all right if I followed up with you next summer to touch base and see how things are going?” Most people say “Yes,” and you’ve left the door open. That’s so important.
As a gift officer, it’s also really important to be organized. You can’t lose your place, otherwise it’s like reading a good book and not knowing what page you’re on. You should have a tool (like a donor database, for example) that helps you keep on track with meetings and follow-ups without driving yourself crazy.
It’s vital to pay close attention to how you handle the closing. Once you’ve educated your physicians, signed the gift agreement, delivered your “thank-you’s” – once you’ve done all this great work, you have to make sure the doctor knows how much you appreciate your relationship with them and the relationship they have with their patient. That way you can ensure a continuing relationship that benefits the next steps – that is, guiding the physician in stewardship and cultivation.
Don’t make this step too difficult or complicated! First, you’re not going to enjoy it and, second, your physician won’t want to participate or will become frustrated. Think about what tools you have available to you to ensure your physician in on board. Make sure you’re always genuine. After all, you’ve just done something incredible, and the patient has given their heart and money to help the physician achieve something very special. So think about what this follow-up should look like, given this context.
Do you have any recent clinician engagement stories you’d like to share?
I’m currently closing a lot of six-figure gifts for one physician – he’s an orthopedic spine surgeon. He is having such an incredible impact on patients – patients who couldn’t walk before can now walk, run, or pick up their grandchild! Really special things are happening for these patients. So, usually once or twice a month, I create a list of patient names – first names, this part is very important – and send the list to the physician with a stamped and addressed envelope and some notecards on very nice stock. I’ve asked the physician to write a personal note to each of the patients who has given a gift – he really loves the idea, and usually write a few every month, at his leisure. I see this physician every week, so I keep the list handy and follow-up with him whenever I see him, to make sure he’s sent them out, and that we’re on track. That way, when I chat with a grateful patient of his in four months or so, I can say, “Hey, I saw Dr. So-and-So, and he told me he sent you a note – that was so nice of him. Did you receive it?” That lets the patient know that I am in constant contact with their physician, and that I’m a good guide for any new developments at the hospital. It makes the patient much more comfortable with me, knowing that I keep in touch with their doctor, and that I’ll therefore ensure they’re well cared-for. It really takes the relationship to another level.
I guess I kind of look at it like a concierge service and make sure that those 150 people in my portfolio receive the fullest extent of that service I can offer. I love giving the highest level of service I can, and I can tell the patients really appreciate it.
Any final thoughts you’d like to share with us?
Looking back today, I just don’t know how one can be successful without Gobel Group’s gratitude model. I find that being a gift officer is such an honorable profession, in terms of being able to capture gratitude at the right moment in order to bring a life-changing experience to a patient. The relationship you build with the clinician is really key to accomplishing that, and Gobel’s clinician engagement trainings as one of our first gratitude model partners, paired with their gift officer trainings, really make that possible.
I also want to say that Gobel gives you the tools to figure out where you fit in, in the grand scheme of philanthropy. The Gobel system helps you understand that there will always be something that will require you to step back and say, “This direction isn’t working. Why? And how can I change it?” I have a personal knack for maintaining relationships, and although I’ll never lose sight of the fact that I represent MedStar, I’m definitely grateful for what Gobel has helped me achieve.
“Stephanie is superb at connecting with physicians – she has no problems getting meetings with them. She never gives up. She never takes rejection personally. She never lets anything get in her way. That’s why she’s so productive and that’s why she always gets the job done. We tweaked her call script together, and she almost immediately closed five ten-thousand-dollar gifts – since then, she has consistently closed major gifts.” – Shannon Tower, Vice President and Principal Consultant at Gobel Group