Pivoting Communication Strategies From the Epicenter of a Pandemic: A Q&A With the Mount Sinai Health System Development Team

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By Caitlin Young, Development Officer, Mount Sinai Health Systems

When the COVID-19 pandemic first struck in the United States, non-profits across the country faced unprecedented changes in how to address the needs of their constituents and how to conduct day-to-day business. Based in New York City, the Mount Sinai Health System quickly found itself in the epicenter of the pandemic, and its Office of Development responded with new communications strategies to address these quickly shifting needs.

The Mount Sinai Health System oversees eight hospitals, a medical school and more than 400 ambulatory care facilities in the New York area. Recognizing the fundraisers’ need for streamlined information, the prospect management, stewardship and communications teams came together to develop strategies to deliver information to a newly-remote workforce.

We recently spoke with Stephanie Rigione, senior director of prospect strategy and management (PSM), and Erin Greene, senior director of stewardship and strategic initiatives, about how they implemented this new process and what they learned from the experience.

How did PSM and stewardship respond to COVID-19?

Early on in the pandemic, we knew we needed to provide gift officers with resources to engage their donors and prospects around COVID-19 — first in terms of informing them, and then to solicit their support. Like with any disaster relief fundraising, we needed to make sure our officers had real-time information that was valuable. We had the opportunity to mobilize the office around one message and ensure consistency around it. The stewardship team provided the lens of how to underscore the impact of philanthropy in all communications and PSM’s role in moves management highlighted how and when gift officers would use the information. We saw this as an engagement tool that could be used across the spectrum — whether a gift officer needed to qualify a suspect or communicate with a longtime donor. We wanted to help enhance the relationship with information and encourage involvement and giving at a time when Mount Sinai needed it the most.

We partnered with Alex Morrison, director of development communications, to plot out what the gift officers needed and began sending daily emails. This contained long-form email templates, quick phrases, an updated introductory email, explanation of the science, etc.

At the start, we mostly aggregated different information we had access to and tried bringing it together into language that gift officers could “plug and play.” Then we began to get more strategic in our communications. We made sure that every week, we provided language that could be used for prospects in all stages of the donor cycle.

We tried to get into a rhythm with the communications we provided. For example, “Why Give Wednesday” emails always included solicitation language, and “Thank You Thursdays” included quick thank you verbiage and longer-form stewardship updates. We also solicited regular feedback from gift officers as to what they needed and what they were hearing from donors, so we could respond accordingly. That feedback mechanism was very helpful in tailoring and targeting our approach.

How is this new reality different from your usual responsibilities?

This kind of concerted effort and partnership was new for us; however, our teams had just started to work closely in early 2020 to implement an office-wide engagement calendar. On the stewardship side, reporting and content creation was primarily focused on high-level donors and their specific gifts, not broad-based updates. On the PSM side, the tactical moves we were discussing with gift officers were always in concept, and we too were looking for engagement opportunities to offer as touch points when we were stuck on a strategy.

In January 2020, the PSM team devised a calendar of possible evergreen, broad-based updates to ensure portfolios were being engaged. The stewardship team created the first piece, a year-in-review document. We started to plot out more of these engagement opportunities in a systematic way to be opportunistic. With everyone so interested in COVID-19, it offered us the chance to reach out to a much broader donor population — and at that point, our idea of an engagement calendar, or centralized messaging, really took off. 

How long did it take to institute these new processes?

With our leadership’s buy-in, we swiftly implemented this process. Our chief development officer and deputy chief development officers approved this approach on a Friday in mid-March. That following Monday we started the daily emails. We provided this service for 15 weeks; we had daily emails for eight weeks and then pivoted to three emails a week.

Who are your main partners for gathering communications?

Since the onset of the crisis, the health system leadership had been sending out daily emails that had great content and statistics, and our central marketing team sends daily digests of articles that mention Mount Sinai. The Development team also participated in team calls with the marketing team to get up-to-date information. Gift officers who liaise with physician-scientists have provided content around research and our colleagues in hospital administration and construction have also been very helpful. We always make do with whatever we can find, and we try to be as creative and resourceful as possible.

What are key challenges you’ve seen, and your favorite successes so far?

The main challenge was sifting through the volume of information (especially at the peak of the crisis) and getting sufficient updates from physician-scientists who are understandably extremely busy doing their incredible work. The success was definitely the positive feedback we received from colleagues who have found this helpful in doing their jobs. They were receiving feedback from their donors that this information and messaging was helpful. Knowing that the content we produced enabled our officers to deepen their relationships and help move the needle in fundraising for these extraordinary efforts was very rewarding.

Are there any workflow changes or new tasks that you think would be helpful to keep, post-pandemic?

We think that this helped highlight how our teams can work together and enhance gift officers’ productivity; the less they had to think about what to send and how to phrase it, the more time they could spend getting on the phones or personalizing the messaging, which helped deepen relationships. We had also already been partnering on evergreen and area-agnostic engagement opportunities and communications before this happened, so we will continue to pursue that post-COVID-19 as well.

Do you have any advice for other shops about COVID-19 specifically, or instituting new ideas generally?

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” comes to mind. This crisis provided an opportunity for unique collaborations to take form and for us to innovate. Our advice is to not be afraid to test new approaches — if they work, terrific, and if they don’t, move on.

Ask your gift officers what they need to be successful and what their donors are saying, then be creative about how you can answer their requests. Just because it’s not how things have been done previously doesn’t mean it won’t be successful. This pandemic has been challenging in extraordinary ways but being able to partner with each other and the communications staff on something as impactful as this has been a motivating and rewarding experience.

Are there any other details you’d like to share?

Throughout this experience, we understood that the more knowledge our gift officers had, the better our donors would understand what was happening. Mount Sinai has an impressive and robust research enterprise and the information we received was fascinating. Alex, who is a talented science writer, started to break down some of this science in our emails to our officers. It helped connect the dots and provided extra background that might otherwise be superfluous in a piece for a donor. This was an appreciated tactic which even many officers ended up sending out to donors — a wonderful, unintended perk. 

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