As a patient care technician at Anne Arundel Medical Center, Bonnie Lovelady grew tired of just assisting nurses and wanted to become one of them.
Her biggest obstacle was the cost of a bachelor's degree, which had swelled to more than $10,000 a year. But five years ago, the hospital began reimbursing her for $3,000 a year of her tuition, and it awarded her a $1,000 scholarship for her first year of school.
"If they didn't have the tuition reimbursement or the scholarship, I would have gone elsewhere to look for money," said Lovelady, 30, who graduated last year.
In an attempt to keep more of its 800 nurses, the Annapolis-area hospital has turned to a relatively new tool in the nationwide struggle to stave off nursing shortages: philanthropy.
Last month, the hospital's foundation - its fund-raising arm - launched a "mini-campaign" to expand the scholarship fund that helped Lovelady from $250,000 to $2 million over the next couple of years. It marked the first time the hospital has widely solicited donations for the fund. Typically, hospitals dedicate fund raising toward new buildings.
About 12,000 people, including former patients and contributors, received letters that began, "When it's 3 a.m. and you're lying in a hospital bed, nothing makes a bigger difference than the care you receive from a special nurse."
The fund has swelled to $500,000, largely because of donations from foundation board members, said Lisa Hillman, the hospital's vice president of development and community affairs.
The fund was created in 1990 by the family of former Anne Arundel Medical Center nurse Marlene Reiter as a memorial to her. Gradually, and without any organized campaign, the fund increased to $250,000 from its initial $10,000. Each year, the hospital used the interest from the fund to provide scholarships and equipment and to enable nurses to attend conferences. The principal remained untouched.
Hillman said Anne Arundel Medical Center is part of a growing number of hospitals nationwide that are turning to philanthropy to help solve their nursing shortage.
The county's other major hospital, North Arundel Hospital, hasn't taken that route, but it offers tuition reimbursement and recently began a partnership with College of Notre Dame that allows registered nurses to earn their bachelor's degree in nursing within two years.
Across the country, hospitals are struggling to find and retain nurses. A recent survey from the Maryland Hospital Association found a nearly 13 percent nursing vacancy rate in the state's hospitals.
Compared with others, Anne Arundel Medical Center is in good shape: Its nursing vacancy rate is about 7 percent and its annual turnover rate is slightly more than 10 percent, said Vickie Diamond, the hospital's chief nursing officer.
But the average nurse age is 46, a year older than the national average, Diamond said.
Aside from hoping this program will help retain nurses, hospital officials intend to use it as a recruitment tool to attract more nurses.
After 10 years focused largely upon capital fund raising to build at the hospital's new site off Jennifer Road, which opened two years ago, the foundation has intensified fund raising for its nursing advancement initiatives.
"I've seen a lot of nurses here who have gone other places because they offered more money to help for school," Lovelady said. "It's better to keep the people who already know the system."