Success Story: Tell it All and Tell it First: Regaining and Strengthening Trust with Donors

THE CHALLENGE

Donors are among a tax-exempt health system’s most important – and delicate – constituents. A multi-hospital health system in the Northeast, which received $10 million to $15 million annually from donors, faced the challenge of communicating embezzlement of foundation funds by an employee.

After an internal investigation discovered the theft of more than $50,000 in donated funds, the health system discharged a trusted, long-time employee and notified the police of a suspected embezzlement case.

While there were no arrests at this point, the investigation and circumstances around the employee’s dismissal began to generate rumors. The system’s opportunity to control the message was quickly fading, and the system’s leaders grew concerned about the damage to donors’ trust and willingness to donate.

THE SOLUTION

We were engaged to create a communications strategy during this critical period. Quickly, we worked with system leaders and legal counsel to establish two specific goals: Keep the news cycle as brief as possible and restore stakeholders’ trust – immediately.

Based on those goals, our work included the following steps and principles:

Create a plan. We developed messages, identified credible spokespeople, prepped our communication channels, and fully equipped the organization with the right tools and information to respond.

Show authentic empathy. We helped the hospital system develop messaging that clearly conveyed the health system’s full responsibility for safeguarding the funds. The system acknowledged donors’ natural concerns and pledged to seek full restitution.

Stay true to your values. Through our work, we also clearly communicated that the health system’s decision to share proactively this information was reflective of its values of openness, integrity and transparency

Tell it first. To take control of the message and defuse malicious rumors, we ensured that our most important stakeholders heard the news from the health system first. This included sending letters to all donors, as well as carefully timing communications so internal stakeholders received the information before it hit the media.

Tell it all. We guided the health system to tell the whole story as they knew it. This is a sure way to restore trust, and is a major factor shortening the news cycle because reporters won’t continue to dig for information if there’s nothing left to uncover.

Tell it yourself. We worked with the system to identify the most credible internal spokesperson and selected the foundation’s president. We also provided intense message and media training to prepare him for communicating the message effectively with internal and external audiences.

Get others to help you tell it. We also identified a highly credible third-party spokesperson – in this case, a widely respected banker who also is a prominent donor and foundation board officer – to reinforce the messages and reassure fellow stakeholders.

Don’t stop communicating. As new milestones occurred, such as the ex-employee’s arrest and sentencing, we continued to ensure that our important internal and external stakeholders heard it from us first.

THE RESULTS

Through a strategic approach that focused on important stakeholders and the hospital’s values, we helped this health system achieve both of its overarching goals.

The news cycle was limited to well under 24 hours, and the community’s trust in the system and its foundation rebounded quickly. In fact, the year of the theft resulted in the second-highest fund-raising performance in the foundation’s history – and many donors attributed their continued and enhanced support to their level of trust in the organization.

 

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