Marilyn Parker’s dedication to patients, to donors, and to her colleagues as Benefis Foundation’s chief operating officer has helped countless people overcome hardships and find hope during challenging times.
Marilyn’s work has touched patients of every age. She raised money for the hospital room suites and technology in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit that serve the tiniest babies and their families. She has helped donors realize and sustain the dream of a dedicated Hospice House for people’s final days.
She was instrumental in campaigns that gave pediatric patients a healthcare home in the shining new Women’s and Children’s Center and cancer patients a place to heal in Sletten Cancer Institute. The next generation of nurses and doctors finds support for their futures because of the scholarship program she helped grow.
After 31 years with Benefis Health System, Marilyn’s last day is May 27.
She’s seen faithful donors steadfast in their giving for 30 years; she’s watched their children grow up and continue their legacy as leaders in philanthropy. She’s learned from diverse boards who have moved the Foundation forward, and she’s seen firsthand the impact donors make for the people they help.
Among the many Benefis Foundation programs close to Marilyn’s heart is Angel Fund, which helps families when their child must travel for medical treatment.
“When you see people come in overwhelmed with what they’re going through, and you can present them with an Angel Fund gift, you know it’s meaningful for them,” she said. “It’s powerful when you know a donor helped people get through one of the worst times of their lives. Angel Fund is a small gift, but it makes a big difference.”
In 2005, Benefis Sletten Cancer Institute opened. It was the biggest campaign Marilyn had ever been involved in, and she ends her time at Benefis fundraising for a “revisioning” project that will help carry SCI into the future, while respecting all that has made the institute so special.
“It’s touched many people’s hearts,” she said. “SCI has held up. The ambiance is there, and that was the vision – a calming, peaceful, reassuring place to be. A lot of thought went into it and input from patients. It’s very patient-centered.”
Marilyn began her Benefis career in Hospice as the program was evolving out of home health. As office manager, she helped set up processes for donations, establish database management, and set up billing procedures.
“Hospice will always be dear to me,” she said. “It was so touching to be part of Hospice as it was getting started. I have a great affinity for nurses and social workers. It was great to work with them; they’re just good people.”
She’s been able to see Benefis Peace Hospice grow and succeed and make all the difference for patients and families. She remembers when the donation came into the Foundation that built the Hospice House.
“That was my first big project, and it was really exciting,” she said. “It’s a fantastic facility and was the only one of its kind in the state at that time.”
The Hospice House began with 12 rooms and expanded in 2012 with eight additional rooms – thanks to generous donors.
“People came and gave,” she said. “Even when you haven’t had a loved one there, you can grasp its importance, and when you’ve had someone you love spend their last days there, you realize our Hospice staff members are ‘angels on earth.’ We hear that all the time.”
Marilyn joined the Foundation team in 1999 as a staff accountant and then became director of planned giving and finance before taking the helm of the organization in 2017 as the chief operating officer.
Benefis Foundation was a new entity then, formed by the merger of the Deaconess and Columbus hospital foundations. The checking account was still penciled out on notebook paper, and the staff was still trying to bring everything together from two foundations.
Marilyn found a particular interest in and aptitude for planned giving, learning how to help donors make the most of tax credits, how to think through estate plans, and to support what’s important to them through IRAs and gift annuities.
She’s seen Montana go from the bottom of the stack for endowments to donors prioritizing establishing and supporting endowments to sustain programs during good times and especially during bad times.
Benefis Foundation had $8.5 million in assets, including Gift of Life housing, when Marilyn began, and she’s helped grow that more than five-fold, with endowments a significant part of that.
“Some people want gifts used right away, and some want gifts to be there forever continuing the work. Both ways are good. You need money to function now and to sustain you in the future. At the core of all of this is the donor and fulfilling the donor’s wishes, to help people in the way they want to help them,” she said.
“It’s important to steward those gifts. If you give to Benefis Foundation, it’s based on public trust, and that is sacred,” she said. “We commit to making sure it’s spent according to donors’ wishes, and we all take that very much to heart.”
People were skeptical when the hospitals merged, and fundraising was tough going for a while. Ultimately, the merger has been great for the community and patient care.
“We’ve just come so far,” she said.
Mayfaire, the Foundation’s signature fundraiser, has evolved, too. The first Mayfaire raised $15,000 in 2000 for Gift of Life. The event has now raised well over $5 million, with the 2022 Mayfaire bringing in a record $1,080,000 for Sletten Cancer Institute.
The annual employee giving campaign has also become a vital support for the work of Benefis Foundation, raising around half a million dollars every year with support from around 1,500 employees.
“The culture of philanthropy has grown so much over time, and that has been amazing to me,” she said. “I’m really proud of Benefis employees and how they’ve embraced what their donation means and how they help the system, their department, and most of all, their patients.”
Marilyn is optimistic about what’s next for Benefis Foundation.
“There’s an incredible future for Benefis Foundation with new staff and leadership bringing new ideas,” she said. “As the system has grown, we have so many opportunities to help people. There were a million and 16 things I wanted to do, and Benefis Foundation is only going to be needed more. Philanthropy is going to be more important to keep to the standard we’ve set at Benefis as margins tighten for hospitals nationwide.”