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Be the Cure

Eight strategies that could help you get personal with your health-care philanthropy

CEEYA PATTON-BOLMAN AND HER HUSBAND, R. Morton "Chip" Bolman III, don't have to wonder whether their philanthropic efforts are having an impact on real lives. He's a cardiac surgeon at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and she's an ICU nurse. Together they co-founded Team Heart, a charity that provides surgery, education and preventive care to Rwandans suffering from rheumatic heart disease, a life-threatening complication of untreated strep throat.

Since 2008, the couple has taken teams of physician and nurse volunteers to Africa each year for marathon surgery trips. Through 14-hour days in the operating room, they've saved more than 130 lives so far, says Patton-Bolman. "Here are two people who became incredibly devoted to a particular cause," says the Bolmans' Merrill Lynch Financial Advisor, Chip McConnell. "And they have focused much of their personal time, resources, skills and drive to saving the lives of Rwandans."

That drive continues here in the U.S., where Patton-Bolman (shown above with Erneste Simpunga, a medical student in Rwanda) spends upwards of 50 hours a week fund-raising and educating the public. "Before we began, the disease was virtually unknown outside a small circle," she says. "Today, conquering it is on the national agenda." The Bolmans' ultimate goal is to build a facility in Rwanda, to be staffed, administered and funded by Rwandans and international partners, so their work can continue long after they are gone.

Team Heart is an example of the life-or-death impact a health-care charity can have. And while not everyone has the money or time to launch an ambitious, effective nonprofit, those willing to give time and/or money can change lives in other important ways. The following steps can help you get the most from every hour or dollar you give.

Make it personal. Most of us don't have to look very hard to find a cause we feel strongly about—often, personal experience is the best guide. "One person's life may have been touched by cancer, while another's child was saved in neonatal intensive care," says Matthew Laufman, a senior nonprofit advisor for U.S. Trust. "People need to ask themselves what their personal mission is."

As tempting as it may be to spread your time and money among a variety of deserving nonprofits, it's usually more effective to focus on just one or two. "I have seen what devoting your life to a single charity can do," says Greg Mojica, senior vice president, Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "If you care that much about its mission, you're also likely to feel more richly rewarded for what you do."

"Donors are no longer passive. They ask more questions and do more research about an organization to see whether it's achieving its goals."
—Greg Mojica, Senior Vice President, Global Commercial Banking, Bank of America Merrill Lynch

Choose your organization carefully. Within your chosen area, the number and variety of local, national and international health-care nonprofits can be huge—so explore all the options before writing a check to the biggest or best-known charity. For example, foundations fighting to defeat cystic fibrosis, Parkinson's disease and other conditions are now partnering with pharmaceutical companies to develop new treatments, and your contributions to those foundations can multiply the impact of your gifts.

And just as important, do your due diligence. "People are no longer passive," Mojica says. "They ask more questions and do more research about an organization to see whether it's achieving its goals." If you're considering a big-dollar donation or a serious commitment of time and skills, don't be shy about requesting a meeting with a charity's CEO or another senior executive. "As a potential donor, notice whether they're offering to let you watch surgery or showing you their neonatal unit and telling you how many lives it has saved," Laufman says. "Or are they just sending a handout or emailing you something that says they're great?"

Determine your budget. Laufman points out that nearly three out of four people surveyed for the 2014 U.S. Trust Study of High Net Worth Philanthropy said they have a strategy for their charitable donations, and 62% have a budget. Even if you don't have big chunks of time or money to give, examine your household budget as well as your job and family responsibilities before you make a commitment. "Not budgeting could lead to spending what you don't have and creating stress and frustration that makes you stop working with an organization," says Ken Vance, senior vice president, Global Commercial Banking at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. "The same thing applies to budgeting your time."

Find your place. Volunteering comes with many different degrees of involvement. On the most basic level, participating in an event like a marathon, dance-a-thon or some other challenge can raise money and awareness without requiring a major allocation of time or resources—especially in today's social-media-driven world.

But you can also boost your impact by matching your interests and skills with an organization's needs. Professional expertise is always welcome. "If I'm an accountant or work in finance, I can assist with record keeping," says Vance. You could also look for opportunities to widen your skills—trying your hand at fund-raising, for example. Whatever role you take, ask for a written job description that clarifies the responsibilities you'll take on and how much time you're expected to devote to them.

Be creative with your giving. Rather than just writing a check in December to support your favorite charity, consider alternative ways to give money. Laufman says donors increasingly look to tap investment assets in innovative ways. "Whether it's charitable gift annuities, trusts or bequests, people are seeking tools designed to create a long-lasting effect," he says.

Use your leverage. Sophisticated estate planning techniques or non-cash vehicles can help you "give the most bang for the buck," Laufman says. But leverage can also be simple—for example, taking advantage of your employer's offer to match all or part of employees' donations. Before you do, speak to an estate planning attorney for advice.

Measure your impact. It's often said that we measure what we value. If for you that means fighting a disease or improving health care in underserved areas, then Laufman suggests that you look for ways to gauge a nonprofit's progress toward those goals. "If donors can see how a specific program they support is affecting the community, and the institution successfully shares that story, that can inspire others to give," he says.

Done right, support for a health-care nonprofit can help to improve the lives of many, many people. But the Bolmans believe they may be the ones who feel the greatest impact of their philanthropy. "Team Heart is one of the most rewarding aspects of our careers and puts balance in our lives," Patton-Bolman says. "Seeing patients return to visit who could not have survived without surgery has been incredibly rewarding."

3 Questions to Ask Your Advisor

  1. How much can I afford to give to a health-care charity?
  2. Which giving vehicles could help me make the most of my charitable giving?
  3. Are there any investment choices that align with my particular charitable interests?

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