Linda Bonnell, senior director of development for Princeton HealthCare System Foundation, started her fundraising career without even knowing it. With two daughters at Stuart Country Day School — Alyssa, now a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, and Olivia, a freshman at Montgomery High School — she signed up to volunteer to call fellow parents to raise money for the school.
“I had a passion for all-girls education. I saw how good it was for my daughters, and that made it easy for me to help find the money to keep the good work going. I would call fellow Stuart parents and ask them to help with the annual giving program. I quickly discovered that I liked it. I so firmly believed in the strength of single-sex education for girls, it was easy for me to ask other people to support something that I supported so passionately. I started asking for larger gifts for Stuart, still among my fellow parents, parent to parent, and that’s a strong appeal to be able to make.”
When Stuart’s director of development retired, headmistress Frances de la Chappelle then tapped Bonnell, an already proven fundraiser, as the replacement. “It was a very natural position for me,” says Bonnell, “because I was very committed to Stuart as a parent and volunteer, and I believed in the mission.” Bonnell spent three years in that position, and then in 2007 joined Princeton HealthCare System Foundation as annual giving director. In 2009 she became the senior director of development, and since January of this year, she has been in charge of managing the capital campaign.
But fundraising for a new hospital isn’t quite the same as fundraising for the annual budget of a private school. Bonnell is undaunted and has been responsible for closing many six-figure gifts and, recently, one seven-figure gift that will support a patient bay in the new hospital’s emergency department and a Healing Garden within view of the infusion suite in the Center for Cancer Care.
The process involved in closing a deal like that, says Bonnell, starts by identifying the people who may have an interest in donating to the hospital. “They might be connected to our board or they might be people we know in the community who have had a particularly good experience with our hospital and want to express their appreciation in some way.
“After that, we have to engage them in the mission and develop a relationship. This would mean putting them on our mailing list so they can receive our newsletter, annual reports, and information about community events. We might invite them to dinner at a board member’s home so they can learn firsthand about the exciting things that are happening with healthcare in our region. For example, our new partnership with the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is generating a lot of interest in pediatric care.”
Case in point: it was love for his family and his appreciation of the excellent care given to Renee, his wife of 59 years who lost her battle with cancer last summer, that spurred Princeton resident and real estate developer Leonard Punia, still active in his 80s, to donate the $1.35 million that will build the Healing Garden. “One thing he always talked about was how much his wife loved gardens,” says Bonnell. “He felt that if he could help create this beautiful garden, this vista that could be enjoyed by patients who were so ill, to help make them feel better, that would be a meaningful thing to help his wife’s memory. He could almost imagine his wife being there.”
Bonnell says Punia had already given a major gift in 1992 in memory of his father. “What I like about him is how important his family is. He is very much about honoring his family, first his father and now his wife.” While the money for the Healing Garden is not the family’s first gift, it is by far the largest, and, for the new hospital, it is transformational.
“I was honored because I knew how much it meant to him,” says Bonnell, who had her first conversation with Punia when she joined the foundation board as the annual fund director. One of the first things she did was pick up the phone to say thank you, in person, upon receiving one of his annual giving checks.
“That’s one of the nicest and easiest calls you can make. I asked him about his interest in the hospital, and he told me that his wife was ill with cancer and he spent some time in the emergency room with her. I visited with him and his wife at home and got to know them and developed a relationship. They have two grown children, and it’s their hospital too. So they already had a very strong connection. At that time he thought he might want to support the emergency department and the oncology ward.
“When his wife passed away in the summer of 2009 he called and said he wanted to make a gift in memory of his wife. It’s been so wonderful to work with him and help his vision come alive.”
Bonnell and her younger brother grew up in Rutherford, in northern New Jersey just west of Manhattan. Her father was in senior management for Two Guys (a precursor to the Best Buy big box store). Bonnell speaks proudly of her mother, a nurse who worked in psychiatric emergency departments across the northern part of the state, including such hospitals as East Orange General and Jersey City Medical Center. She also worked at Columbia Medical Center, where she was responsible for setting up one of the first mobile crisis intervention programs in the country.
Bonnell earned a B.S. in pharmacy at Rutgers University in 1984, and then a doctor of pharmacy degree at the University of Sciences in Philadelphia in 1986. She worked briefly as a clinical pharmacist and then for Carter Wallace before deciding to work from home as a self-employed medical writer and editor, mainly because at this point in her life she was married and the mother of two little girls.
At Princeton HealthCare System Bonnell says she works with lots of different donors. “Some of them are active volunteers, others are members of the foundation board, and the auxiliary has a huge number of volunteers. We also have physicians who give their money and their time, including some who went to Haiti and volunteered at a clinic. When patients and donors see the doctors who are so invested, it gives them a powerful reason to be invested too and give back.”
While she says her experience at Stuart has helped her tremendously in her current role, she says that being a doctor of pharmacy helps her with credibility. “My background helps me understand how a hospital works, and that means it’s easier for me to talk to physicians and nurses because I understand their language, even deciphering the acronyms they use from time to time. I also understand how to talk to patients and their families.”
Bonnell says she is not intimidated about the amount of money needed to be raised; no matter how much money is involved, the process of fundraising has not changed much over the years. “We seek a broad level of support. Every dollar counts because we are building a new hospital and offering the programs that keep residents healthy. Big gifts are great because they move the needle quickly, but gifts range anywhere from less than $100 to $25 million and every bit counts.”
Bonnell lives in Montgomery with her second husband, Alan Hill, who is British and currently jobhunting in the IT field.
She hits the ground running every day and that means starting the day by opening her E-mail at home. “If that means I can solve problems before I walk in the door, I like that. There are daily operational issues. I oversee the receipt of gifts so I am aware of every check that comes in, stock transactions, and art work. A lot of my day is interacting with donors on the phone or through E-mail, writing notes, thinking about them and figuring out ways I can make it easier for them to learn about the hospitals. We take potential donors into the new facility for tours. We also built an exact patient room from the new hospital in the old, so we take donors on tours of that so they can see what the patient experience might be like.”
That room, by the way, is open to actual patients at the Witherspoon Street site so they can stay there and give feedback that has already been used to change design elements in the new location. “For example, one of our maintenance people told us there wasn’t enough space between the backsplash and the sink to clean it properly so they are moving it.”
All of these details mean that the care is going to be the best and the technology is the latest and unparalleled. “But when donors are giving, they are not thinking about it going for a fancy new building; they’re giving so they can help provide the best healthcare and they feel strongly that they want to help the hospital succeed. As a fundraiser, you’re helping that donor make a donation that’s really meaningful for him. I felt privileged to be part of that.”
Bonnell also feels a personal connection to the hospital, which makes her job easier. In addition to her current work, she worked briefly as a pharmacist at the Witherspoon Street location in 1989 while she was trying to develop her freelance writing business at home. It is also the hospital where both her daughters were born. “So it really is my hospital. I can’t tell you how many times my daughters and family were in the emergency room, so I really feel very connected to the place.”
The quest for funds is ongoing; it’s not going to stop even when the new hospitals are up and running. Capital Health’s Stephan and Bonnell both understand that their jobs are to nurture and grow long-term relationships within the communities they serve, including patients and their families, physicians, board members, employees, and vendors, as well as area businesses and the greater community.
Stephan says: “I strive to educate our friends about the many programs and services that we offer and then to match particular needs of Capital Health with the interests of that community member. If the potential donor has the interest and ability — whatever the dollar level — in investing in the incredible clinical and capital growth at Capital Health, we are all rewarded.”