Leading the Conversation on Community Benefit (Before a Watchdog Calls)

Hospitals and health systems are duty-bound to serve their communities. In the world of nonprofit health care, that duty is also a legal obligation.

In return for a broad tax exemption, nonprofit hospitals and health systems must demonstrate their contributions to the health of the local communities they serve. Nonprofit hospitals are required to publish financial assistance policies and conduct community health needs assessments at least once every three years. Under IRS rules, these hospitals must also report their investments in community benefit on Schedule H of their Form 990.

Public tax filings, community health needs assessments and community benefit reports are often closely scrutinized by policymakers, labor unions, watchdog organizations and media outlets. With proactive planning, hospitals and health systems can, and should, optimize this information to convey the organization’s beneficial impact on the community, protect brand reputation and demonstrate true value to patients.

Know Your Numbers

Whether you operate a community hospital or multi-site health system, it’s important to capture all the investments that benefit your community – not only the items reflected in the community benefit line of your Form 990, but also programs or initiatives that fall outside the mandated requirements. Measurement criteria may vary depending on who’s doing the measuring; because third-party groups don’t always calculate community impact based on the same definitions, reported results can vary widely.

For example, if your organization dedicates a large chunk of revenue to research and educational activities, but a third party doesn’t factor research into their assessment of community benefit, that can affect the numbers and your hospital’s ranking in the third party’s report. The same might be true if your hospital allows other nonprofits to use your facilities or if you provide grant-writing support to a community agency. By consistently communicating your community outreach and investments, you can lead the narrative around your nonprofit’s community impact. It all starts with knowing what’s measured, what isn’t, and how you can tell a story that reflects all your organization’s good works.

Say It in Pictures

A picture is worth a thousand words, especially one that captures your community benefits in action. Create opportunities throughout the year to highlight your investments in the community through compelling photos and personal stories from those you’ve directly supported through your efforts. Newsletters, email campaigns and other written communications are effective vehicles for spreading your message and can be further enhanced through the power of imagery.

Many hospitals and health systems produce a publicly available annual community benefit report detailing their accomplishments and milestones. This kind of document provides an ideal way to feature the faces and personal stories of the people touched by your organization. With some creativity and design, the numbers can be simplified and presented as an infographic or even an animated video. And this kind of visual storytelling lends itself to social media, of course, which can be a high-impact way to share your community benefit information.

Tell the Larger Story

In addition to investing in the health of local communities, hospitals and health systems are also major drivers of local economies and often serve as the largest employer in a community. As you tell your community benefit story, make sure your stakeholders understand your organization’s role in strengthening both the health and financial well-being of the local community. This includes providing high quality jobs – direct and indirect – and the purchase of local goods and services that create an economic ripple effect in the community.

A powerful message like this can be incorporated into a number of communications and channels, from local media coverage and updates to your occupational medicine partners to articles in the chamber’s newsletter and presentations to Rotary. (Even better if you can invite the Rotary, Kiwanis or other civic clubs to hold one of their meetings at the hospital so you can share your information with their members directly.) This kind of data also provides a compelling reason for local residents and community leaders to support the local hospital to ensure both the sustainability of health care services and the long-term economic health of the community.

Nonprofit hospitals and health systems are held to a high standard—as they should be—and it’s critical they take advantage of every tool and channel available when communicating their community benefit.

If you’re looking for help telling your story, reach out to us at info@lovell.com.