Home Is Where The Heart Is: Behind a $10 Million Gift For a New Heart Hospital

Harold and Nancy Zirkin recently gave $10 million for a new heart hospital on the campus of MedStar Washington Hospital Center. The couple's contribution is the largest single gift in the history of the hospital center and MedStar Health overall. The gift supports the $59 million, 164-bed Heart Hospital at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in northwest Washington D.C., planned to open next year.

A little bit about the Zirkins: Zirkin is the founder of Zirkin-Cutler Investments, which he sold to United Capital, where he is now managing director. Nancy, meanwhile, is the executive vice president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

What are the forces at work here?

Well, for starters, the couple are longtime Washingtonians. As Zirkin puts it: "Nancy and I share an abiding respect for this city and we have enjoyed success here in our careers... we wanted to share this success in a way that would benefit the entire community." 

In another recent gift I wrote about, Dwight Schar, founder and chairman of homebuilding and mortgage giant NVR, and his wife gave $50 million to create a new cancer institute. Part of the story, there, is that NVHomes does much of its business in the region where the institute will be built. Location and proximity often matters when it comes to individual giving, and close regional ties are frequently a motivator.

Related: Why This Homebuilder Gave $50 Million to Help Build a Cancer Institute

Zirkin, in particular, is a third-generation Washingtonian, who founded his own investment firm in the region decades ago, in 1973. 

There are other personal elements involved with this gift, as well. When Zirkin was just 15, he lost his father to a heart attack. Again, we see this all the time when it comes to health philanthropy, as individual donors dig in to health issues as common as heart disease and as rare as neurofibromatosis. The common denominator? A personal connection to the disease.

This can even be the case a long way down the line, as a funder remains commited to a health cause that was activated by personal experiences decades prior. Recent grantmaking out of the Harold and Nancy Zirkin Foundation, which has given around $100,000 annually of late, has involved Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

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Finally, it's worth noting that a few years back, in 2013, MedStar Heart formed a groundbreaking clinical and research alliance with Cleveland Clinic. This brings up another lesson: Funders often get excited about new and innovative research and researchers poised to tackle medical research from a new angle. In case you had any doubt, here are Zirkin's own words: "When we learned about the vision of MedStar Heart & Vascular Institute and its important alliance with Cleveland Clinic, we saw this as an ideal opportunity to bring together our strong interest in better health with the region’s need for world-class heart care.”