How UPMC Children’s Foundation Connects Philanthropy and Mission to Advance Pediatric Healthcare with Rachel Petrucelli

Released: 8/8/23

In this episode of That’s Pediatrics, our hosts talk with Rachel Petrucelli, president and Chief Development Officer for UPMC Children’s Hospital Foundation.

In this episode our experts discuss:

  • Ms. Petrucelli’s personal journey, including growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and her passion for fundraising and philanthropy.
  • How Ms. Petrucelli became involved with UPMC Children's Hospital Foundation after her daughter required medical care, and she was inspired by the impact of pediatric healthcare.
  • The four key areas that the Foundation focuses on: clinical excellence, research, patient experience, and community outreach.
  • Current fundraising efforts that are directed towards initiatives such as expanding the Heart Institute at UPMC Children's Hospital through a $62 million construction budget.
  • The importance of storytelling and connecting donors to the emotional impact of their support to inspire engagement.
  • How the Foundation aims to expand its reach beyond the immediate area and engage donors from across the country and internationally.
  • And much more.

Meet Our Guest

Rachel PetrucelliRachel Petrucelli was named President and Chief Development Officer for UPMC Children’s Hospital Foundation in November 2018. As an energetic and inspiring leader, she is an accomplished manager bringing together individuals in development, operations, and fundraising in pediatric health care and higher education.

As president, Rachel leads the Foundation with strategic planning and insight, helping to create a high-energy, ambitious environment for the mission-oriented organization. In her years at the Foundation, she has held various leadership roles including Director of Major Gifts and Annual Giving; Director, Major Gifts and Capital Campaign; Senior Director of Principal Gifts; Associate Vice President, Major and Principal Gifts; Vice President of Development; and Senior Vice President of Development and Chief Development Officer. In these roles, she was responsible for influencing organizational growth, motivating and supporting volunteers and trustees, overseeing annual expense and revenue budgets, establishing a dedicated Principal Gifts team, aiding in developing new events and donor societies including Walk for Children’s and the Children’s Trust, and providing strategic direction and oversight for several campaigns including the Masterpiece of Hope Campaign to support the Creative and Expressive Arts Therapy program expansion and construction of new studio space.

Prior to joining the Foundation, she held various development positions at the University of Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and the Tepper School of Business at Carnegie Mellon University. Rachel currently serves on the board of The Friendship Circle of Pittsburgh.

Rachel lives in the Fox Chapel area with her husband, Shamus, and their two daughters. She holds a Bachelor of Science degree in business from University of Pittsburgh.

Meet Our Hosts

Allison WilliamsAllison “Alli” Williams, MD, is a pediatric hospitalist and is certified by the American Board of Pediatrics. She is a member of the Paul C. Gaffney Division of Pediatric Hospitalist Medicine, medical-surgical co-management team director, and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Williams received her medical degree from Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, and completed her residency at UPMC Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh. Her clinical interests include non-RSV bronchiolitis, febrile neonates, and the enhanced of patient care through medical-surgical co-management.

Sameer AgnihotriSameer Agnihotri, PhD, is director of the Brain Tumor Biology and Therapy Lab and an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Dr. Agnihotri earned his bachelor’s degree in biology, specializing in genetics, followed by his doctorate degree in medical biophysics, both at the University of Toronto. While there, he used genetic screens to identify novel drivers of glioblastoma, an incurable brain tumor. He subsequently completed his post-doctoral fellowship at the Arthur and Sonia Labatt Brain Tumor Research Centre at the Hospital for Sick Children, in Toronto, and the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre, Division of Neuro-oncology Research, also in Toronto. Dr. Agnihotri’s lab studies pediatric and adult high-grade gliomas.


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Voiceover: This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgements when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider. Welcome to "That's Pediatrics", where we sit down with physicians, scientists, and experts to discuss the latest discoveries and innovations in pediatric healthcare.

Dr. Allison Williams: Hi, I'm Alli Williams. I'm one of the pediatric hospitalists here at UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Dr. Sameer Agnihotri: I'm Sameer Agnihotri, one of the scientists here at Children's Hospital.

Dr. Williams: And we are so excited to have Rachel Petrucelli here, who is the President and Chief Development Officer for our UPMC Children's Hospital Foundation. Thank you so much for coming today. We're so excited to have you, to come and chat with us about the foundation. I think this is going to be a great episode. I am excited to even personally learn more, because I know it exists, but...

Ms. Rachel Petrucelli: We haven't had the pleasure to really work directly together.

Dr. Williams: I know.

Ms. Petrucelli: So it's exciting. Yeah.

Dr. Williams: It'll just be so great to chat about this. Tell us a little bit about your story.

Ms. Petrucelli: Sure. Happy to share a little bit about my story. So I technically grew up in Erie, spent most of my childhood in Erie. I wasn't born in Erie, but I was raised in Erie, Pennsylvania, with the exception of about three years that my family went down to Austin, Texas and lived there for eighth to 11th grade. And then, we move back to Erie for family reasons. And ultimately, coming to Pittsburgh came about because I went to the University of Pittsburgh. H2P, so hail to Pitt. I came to Pittsburgh, loved my experience at Pitt, and then, met my now husband while I was at school, and put down roots here. So that brought me to Pittsburgh.

What brought me to Children's stems from what brought me to fundraising, and most fundraisers, which is my core profession, usually find their way to it coming from a lot of different places, sales and marketing experiences, business, volunteering, early experiences, like raising money as a participant in Dance Marathon at the University of Pittsburgh, or doing telemarketing type jobs, a lot of different ways that people are influenced to find their way to the field. I came to it right out of college and was primarily guided there by my now mother-in-law who had a very wonderful career in development in fundraising. And she really provided the mentorship I needed to know that that would be a match for me.

So with her support and an entree to develop a lot of relationships, I began my career at the University of Pittsburgh School of Nursing, supporting the development director there. And from there, had a number of experiences, all within the field, trying to develop expertise in different specific aspects of fundraising, individual fundraising, annual giving, corporate and foundation fundraising, special events, major gifts. And then, I became a mom. And in 2001, I had my first child, a beautiful girl, and I was working at Carnegie Mellon at the time, Tepper School of Business. Had a lot of expectation in my role to be traveling to visit alumni that were outside of the region.

Dr. Williams: Oh, that's challenging.

Ms. Petrucelli: It is very challenging as a new mom. And my husband also travels a lot for his work. And about three months old, my daughter started to slip off of her growth curves for her weight and her head circumference. And that started us on a journey at Children's, to know many of the experts at Children's. That's how I first got to know Children's, as really a parent. And then, after a few years of really doing the struggle and the juggle of trying to be a working mom and traveling and caring for her needs, it became a lot, that I wanted to make a change.

Fortunately, there was an opening here at the Foundation for Children's Hospital, and I had the good fortune to come on board. And that was over 18 years ago. That brought me to Children's. I am a passionate advocate about what we do here, about what all of you do here. And it is really a privilege, on a regular daily basis, to know that what I'm doing is impacting the lives of children and their families and hopefully making the journey for parents like myself and those that struggle with children with much more significant issues a lot easier.

Dr. Williams: It's amazing that the stars seemed to align, I guess, is maybe the way to describe it. You were needing a change, but then, you found a job that would fit your passions really at this point in time. Because you went from this bedside experience to helping those who are at bedside, which is just so wonderful. Could you tell our listeners a little bit more about the foundation, because I think that there are probably some listeners who don't know exactly what the foundation does for our patients and our families? And so, just giving a little bit more information would be awesome.

Ms. Petrucelli: Sure. So the UPMC Children's Hospital Foundation was established when Children's was acquired by UPMC. That's when we first became into being. That was in 2001. And our sole purpose is to convene contributors, members in the community, who want to help our mission and facilitate that. We are the sole fundraising arm for UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and we have a separate board. We have separate finances in managing the dollars that we receive from our community. And we know that, while we are a hundred percent aligned with supporting the mission of UPMC Children’s, it is also very important that our donors appreciate that we are a separate entity. Because our whole purpose is to ensure, when they make donations, that they're used for the intention that they made for that gift. And we, the foundation, help to assure that.

Dr. Agnihotri: That's fantastic. Can you highlight a couple of initiatives that you're excited to talk about a little bit?

Ms. Petrucelli: Yeah. So there's so many good things going on, and I'm so glad you asked that question, Sam. Because as I mentioned, the foundation has really worked on its alignment to be in lockstep with what the hospital wants to accomplish, to improve the lives of children and their families. We really are about creating healthier futures for children. That's what our donors want to be a part of. And when I became president in 2018, there were a couple things that were at the top of my priority list. And first and foremost, I wanted to position us for growth, growth and certainly the amount of money we were able to raise on an annual basis and make available to support the mission, growth in terms of the staff and the people that we have, and growth in terms of our reach and how we were engaging or can engage donors and stakeholders from across the footprint of UPMC Children's, but even outside of that footprint.

When we thought about a couple of the key strategies to do that, one included looking at our brand, how we were positioned. At the time, Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh Foundation, UPMC was not part of that name. And also, what were we raising money for? And how are we communicating that to our constituents? We wanted to be sure that, when the hospital went through strategic planning, we aligned our priorities, our fundraising priorities, in a way that we're going to help them achieve those goals. And there are some very cool things that are coming out of that. First and foremost, one of the things that I'm excited about is that UPMC Children's is going to expand its footprint on the campus with the addition of a three story tower, if tower is not too grand, for our Heart Institute and elevating the presence and the resources for our Heart Institute at UPMC Children's.

Dr. Williams: That's awesome.

Ms. Petrucelli: It's so exciting, but also extremely expensive. And the timing is tricky on that, as you can imagine.

Dr. Agnihotri: Some challenges, for sure.

Ms. Petrucelli: And while we know that the hospital wanted to go in that direction, and we know that UPMC also wants to support that investment, it was going to be challenge to try and cover the whole cost, which is a 62 million dollar construction budget. So the foundation is in for half. We are going to raise 31 million dollars toward that goal. That's one of our many priorities.

Dr. Williams: Oh my goodness. And has that fundraising already started? Is that in the process? Or where are you with that goal?

Ms. Petrucelli: It is very, very much in process, we're making some good headway. And a lot of people think that it's easy to raise money for Children's. It's like the best mission ever. And I a hundred percent agree. I find it very easy to talk about Children's, to certainly educate folks about how their dollars can make a difference, and to ask for support. But there's a lot of competition, and people are really thoughtful about how they want to support charities. And we benefit from a great base of donors, a strong reputation in the community, but it's still, it's not like a slam dunk at every conversation you have. But we're making some great progress in that initiative alone.

Dr. Williams: That's amazing. I can imagine too, with everything that's been going on in the world and some of the economic changes we've been seeing, I imagine it's been that much more difficult for fundraising, with the high prices of everything too. Have you seen any differences in people's ability to give and to support the foundation recently?

Ms. Petrucelli: That's a great question, Alli. So where we're seeing some interesting shifts, and part about fundraising that I've seen throughout my career, people give because that's part of their value system. And that doesn't change, no matter what the economics are. If they have less and they really want to actually find how they're going to do that, it might be a little less, but they still give. So that doesn't really go away from a core number of people, when they are philanthropically minded individuals, wanting to make a difference in the world, being altruistic, and then, finding the organizations that accomplish a better world. So where we are seeing some impact from the economic changes over the last couple of years is, for our donors, who give annually and they give maybe smaller or more frequent donations, that has softened a bit. And I would attribute that to a couple of things.

One is definitely inflation affects that. Less discretionary money in somebody's pocket would impact somebody's ability to make an annual donation or to keep pace with what they had been doing. So that changes. And the other thing is tax codes changing. So there were some nice incentive changes in tax credit for donations during the height of the pandemic, and that changed back this year. So that's not one of the factors that people process when they're making their year end donations, as going to be a benefit. So I think that that's part of it. But overall, what we stay focused on is telling a good story, making sure to connect people to the real emotional impact of what philanthropic support does for UPMC Children's, for the doctors, the nurses, all the care providers, and for then, the patients and the families. How are they actually making a difference?

And when we tell that story well and we create transparency about that, we establish really strong loyalty with our donors. And year over year, I think our numbers show that. And you're never going to meet a fundraiser who says, "Oh yes, that's enough. We don't need any more money."

Dr. Williams: Oh yeah, no.

Ms. Petrucelli: No nonprofit will ever say, "Yep, we've got all that we need." Because we know that the opportunities, the ambitions, and the vision for the leadership of Children's and the daunting needs that families encounter when a child is hospitalized or chronically, medically complex, they're way outpacing the philanthropic support that we can receive. So there's never a point when we're going to say, "Oh yeah, we've gotten to the top," because there's always an opportunity.

Dr. Agnihotri: There's so much to ask here. One of my favorite questions, Allie, and I love to ask, is, if you had a five and 10 year vision, what would you love to see happen here?

Ms. Petrucelli: So five and 10 year vision, it speaks again to growth. We have a donor base that's mostly localized, covering Allegheny County and the surrounding immediate counties. But we know our footprint is so much larger. We have events like Walk for Children's. And we can see that the participation for Walk for Children's, especially when we incorporated a virtual component of that, which we learned to do as part of the consequence of a pandemic, we have people participating from all across the country and from other countries.

Dr. Agnihotri: Wow.

Ms. Petrucelli: So the reach is really exciting when you think about those platforms for fundraising and how it really does go beyond the borders of your county and your state. And you can engage so many people in support of your mission, because we know our patients come here, get care, go back home, wherever that may take them. And that is also an international body. So we want our fundraising to reflect that and provide opportunities that are accessible and relevant, no matter where someone lives, because it's all about, what will their support do to help us advance healthier futures for kids? And especially as our footprint for UPMC Children's has grown regionally, over into Harrisburg, up into Erie, all parts of Western Pennsylvania, you notice that it's UPMC Children's Hospital Foundation, no longer of Pittsburgh, and that was part of a brand realignment we engaged in over the last two years, so that our donors know that their gift is going to make a difference for UPMC Children's, regardless of sort of the location.

Dr. Williams: I'm so glad you brought that up, because that was going to be another question that I was going to ask you. So you had briefly touched on the rebranding, and I'm glad you kind of described in a little bit more detail that the rebranding of dropping the word "Pittsburgh" is because we are not just UPMC Children's of Pittsburgh anymore. We've definitely worked towards stretching our arms a little bit more, so that we can help those that are in our surrounding communities. Because other tertiary and quaternary care centers are few and far between in this area.

You had also briefly touched on, I think you called them major donations? Or is that the correct terminology for that?

Ms. Petrucelli: Yes, yes.

Dr. Williams: How do major donors and donations kind of affect what you're able to do as the foundation?

Ms. Petrucelli: Sure. So when we fundraise, we have donors at all levels that give to us unrestricted support. We have obviously a wonderful tradition of raising money for free care, for our free care fund, because it's part of our founding mission that we never turn a child away, regardless of their family's ability to pay or lack of insurance. So free care is really established. And major gifts are primarily given with some restrictions on them to support very specific programs, research, the patient experience. And actually, that brings me to the fact that we focus a lot of our fundraising opportunities around four key areas, four pillars. One being clinical excellence. We talked a little bit about that great exciting project of the Heart Institute, that certainly fits in there as an example. We do a lot of things to support clinical excellence, transplantation, cancer.

A lot of our service lines, we have donors that want to support them, support what they're doing, and make a difference. We also raise money for research. Sam knows. He's been the beneficiary of our donor support, doing some great things in cancer research and brain tumor research. And then, we also have patient experience, because we have a lot of programs that are unreimbursed by insurance. And we know they're essential to a pediatric experience, pediatric hospitalization. Certainly, as a top children's hospital, those are the types of programs that round out all the clinical excellence and are really essential to delivering the kind of holistic and expert extraordinary care that we aim to deliver on a regular basis.

And finally, there's a lot of support that happens, prevention and in delivering care out in the community for our children. And we are a beacon for that. Here up on the hill, so while we have a lot of fantastic things happening inside this hospital and in our satellite locations, there's a lot of outreach and people with boots on the ground in the community neighborhoods where care is less accessible, where they're underresourced, underserved, in many ways, and face a lot of disparities in care and social determinants that impact their ability to access that care. And so, philanthropic dollars help us with those areas too. Major gifts are typically with restrictions to support something specific, like I named.

Dr. Williams: Thank you so much for describing those four pillars. They're all equally of important, and I'm sure that all four are in equal need. How do you determine where money goes for the four pillars? Or what's the best way to have the most success with getting donors to be interested in those pillars?

Ms. Petrucelli: That's a great question. So we do it in two different ways. Certainly, our hospital leadership points us to the priorities that they have for the institution on a big level. And then, we also spend a lot of time working with our leaders, our physicians, our researchers, our nursing staff, to understand what difference they want to make in the hospital and where there's a need for philanthropic support to make that happen. We love partnering with our colleagues in the hospital, because it's their perspective and their vision that our donors want to support. And I want to put emphasis around how important vision is and being able to articulate vision. Because what I would say is that the part that resonates with donors the most is why you want to do something, what you're trying to accomplish, and what will be different in the world, in healthcare, in pediatrics, if you're successful. And they care a little bit less typically on all the stuff in between, what you need to spend that money on and how long it takes you to get there.

Because if you said you wanted to cure cancer, they're actually inspired by your desire to do that and that you might have a vision, a plan to get there, even if it takes longer than the timeframe that their dollars would be spent, even if you keep moving those deliverables out. They just want to back someone who's got a vision and a passion to make a difference. And so, we have a lot of our partners across the hospital that reach out to the foundation, say, "Ah, can you help me fund this need? Can you help me fund that need?"

And sometimes, those are easy answers "yes," when we have a donor that's naturally aligned with that area. But it also sometimes deserves a lot more incubating of the idea, brainstorming that, thinking about in a bigger why, telling that story in a way that's more impactful, so that donors can really resonate with it. And it gets out of, "I need to hire a fellow. I need to have these computers updated. I need these supplies, and this is the lab I need." It's "But why do you need all that? But what are you going to accomplish in a way that's inspirational?" That part is always a lot of fun, and I love sitting and helping to bake those ideas.

Dr. Agnihotri: Wow.

Dr. Williams: Well, that's telling the story. So it's not only, you use the term "vision," which I think is a great term to use, but it's exuding the passion for the vision that gets everyone excited about it. So I can imagine that it's easier to provide for the foundation and have donors get excited about a project, if you yourself are excited about it and have that vision to move forward with your big ideas.

Ms. Petrucelli: That's right. Donors totally connect on that level.

Dr. Williams: Gotcha. So if our listeners are wanting to learn more about the foundation or donate towards the foundation, where could we guide them to? Is there a website? Is there an email address? Where should we tell them to look?

Ms. Petrucelli: Absolutely.

Dr. Agnihotri: Social media.

Ms. Petrucelli: Yeah, social media, for sure. Follow the channels. But we do collaborate with the central communications team, that does social media for UPMC Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. So a lot of our stuff is integrated into those channels. And I'd say we have a website It's a great way to navigate a lot of the things that we do, understanding our events, seeing a lot of the patients' stories that we like to share, especially with our donors, and it's a place that you can make a donation. I will say, one of the things that we also work really hard at is to give the opportunity for everyone at the hospital to be able to support this mission. We know that employees and the professional staff, they give of their talent, they give of their time.

So many people, especially this last winter, can point to giving so many more hours than what they'd like to or think is reasonable. But for some, and we'd love for all, to think about how your gift at any amount can make a difference in what you do. It can support your trainees. You can direct your gift to support your department and your programs. You can direct your gift to support your patients. You can direct your gift to support the overall mission of the hospital. So we have more than 400 funds. I'm sure we have a fund that can resonate with anyone, but it's a big part of signaling to the community, when you have strong internal philanthropic commitment, that those closest to the mission are confident in what we're doing, have trust and belief that what we are asking others outside of the hospital to support, that it's important. And when we go to foundations, when we go to a lot of people in the community, they want to know, "Are your employees giving? Are your doctors giving?" So it matters.

Dr. Agnihotri: That's great messaging.

Ms. Petrucelli: And we like to extend that invitation each year. And it's easy. It's so easy. Your payroll deduction, do it on a credit card, become a rockstar during Radiothon, join a walk team. There's lots of ways to make a big and small difference, but it all counts. And it's part of participating in the mission of Children's.

Dr. Agnihotri: Well, Rachel, we could sit here and talk for hours.

Dr. Williams: We really could.

Dr. Agnihotri: We really could. But we really wanted to thank you for everything you do, highlighting some very important initiatives that you guys have undertaken, and just sharing with us and the audience of what philanthropy at Children's at UPMC really does for us. Thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Williams: Yeah, thank you so much. We really appreciate it. And thank you to all those out there for listening to another episode of That's Pediatrics.

Ms. Petrucelli: Thank you. I so enjoyed being a part of this. This was fantastic.

Dr. Williams: Good. Thank you.

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This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgements when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider.