Nurse Philanthropist: Making A Difference

Marion Leary, MSN, RN, lives by the belief that if you have it, share it. She has almost singlehandedly built an organization that helps uninsured and underinsured patients with overwhelming medical expenses. In the process, she has proven that one person can make a difference.

Marion holds a master’s degree in nursing and health leadership. By day, she is assistant director of clinical research at The Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania. At night and on weekends, she runs Sink or Swim Philadelphia, a medical crowdfunding microphilanthropy organization. She founded the organization almost two years ago.

Crowdfunding gathers modest contributions from many individuals to help people or organizations in need. In this case, it is used to help pay medical expenses. “We get a large number of people who each donate small amounts of money,” she says. “Together, it makes a big difference,” Indeed, microphilanthropy is based on gathering small amounts of money from individual donors who are more meaningfully connected to the recipients. Donors can visit the Sink or Swim Philadelphia website and choose the recipient who will receive their donation.

From ICU Nurse to Nurse Philanthropist

A number of years ago, Marion worked as a critical care nurse in the medical ICU at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. Some of her friends had family members who had suffered catastrophic illnesses accompanied by monumental medical bills that they couldn’t pay. “I felt that I needed to do something to help,” she says. Before becoming a nurse, Marion had produced fundraising events for nonprofit organizations, so friends would sometimes ask her to organize a benefit to help people who were struggling to pay medical bills. Eventually, Marion wanted to establish a more sustainable way to help. She thought that Sink or Swim Philadelphia could be the answer.

Marion didn’t have start-up funds, so she started putting the word out on Facebook. In November 2011, Philly Stake chose Sink or Swim Philadelphia as its recipient. Philly Stake hosts a recurring crowd sourcing dinner in which locally raised money is granted to help relevant community projects. The grant helped Sink or Swim Philadelphia launch a web site.

The idea behind Sink or Swim Philadelphia is not to pay all medical bills. Contributions are intended to give recipients some breathing space between having to decide whether to buy food and pay rent or pay medical bills for a month or so. Most donations come via social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, and through website donations. Before posting a recipient on the website, Marion meets with each recipient to determine what they need most. Then she verifies the recipient’s need through the physician, nurse practitioners, billing and collection agencies, and insurance companies to be sure that everything checks out. Any funds that are raised are paid directly to the billing or collection agency, not to the recipient. “It means a lot to these recipients, she says. “They are so grateful because they are going through such horrific life events.”

Sink or Swim Philadelphia will celebrate its two-year anniversary in October. So far, the organization has raised close to $35,000 and helped 19 recipients. Marion has been able to take on only about one case a month. She works at night and on weekends to keep the organization going with help from a few board members and some volunteers. One volunteer was a Sink or Swim Philadelphia recipient. He was injured in an accident when he was only 16 years old and suffered a broken neck, leaving him paralyzed from the shoulders down. That was 30 years ago. His mother is now too elderly to continue to transport him so he needed a wheelchair van. Sink or Swim Philadelphia made a contribution to his fund. He helps the organization with social networking efforts and speaks at fundraising events.

Bigger Dreams

Marion hopes to receive larger grants in the future that will enable her to hire more people. And she’d love to see organizations like Sink or Swim start up in other cities. “We’ve had a number of people reach out to us and say they’d like to start a similar organization in their city,” she says. “We would need more staff and more grant money to be able to do this.” Marion can’t apply for bigger grants for about a year because many grant agencies won’t consider applicants that have not been operating for at least three years.

Marion stresses that her organization relies on the generosity of donors who see recipients’ stories, feel compelled to donate, and share the stories with families and friends. “The more people who know about us, the bigger the difference we can make,” she says.

For more information about Sink or Swim Philadelphia and how you can help, go to or like them on Facebook.

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