New York City
The enCourage Kids Foundation, We Will Overcome!
Life is different for many of us both personally and professionally, especially for nonprofit organizations. During this COVID-19 crises, Michele Hall Duncan, President & CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation had to make decisions on the fly, pivot her fundraising strategy and unfortunately, let go of staff who have been an integral part of the company.
I had the chance to interview Michele and speak with her about our “new norm” and life during these challenging times. Her vision, leadership skills and positivity are just a few of the reasons why she is known as an industry leader.
OR: What is it like for nonprofits during this time?
MHD: Nonprofits face challenges under the best of circumstances. Now, the challenges are tenfold. The competition is fierce and so many organizations are doing such incredible work, some with missions that overlap each other. Add to that the fact that now we are facing a lack of resources, having to cancel in-person fundraising events and donors diverting funds to other organizations that may be responding to more universally urgent needs. It’s a very hard time to be a nonprofit.
OR: Are there relief programs that have been designed specifically for nonprofits to benefit from at this time?
MHD: Yes, we are finding there are grant opportunities for nonprofits, but many of them are geographically specific, and again, competition is strong and the pool of available funding isn’t unlimited.
OR: What does COVID-19 mean to you as a leader?
MHD: Stress. Seriously, leadership is always shown the most under duress. Most of my team, myself included, didn’t know what we were doing when this all started. Like many other organizations, it was the first time every single employee was working from home. A month ago, we were still reeling from having to cancel our annual Gala, our largest fundraiser of the year. But we’ve been able to regroup, pivot and refocus our resources. I’m proud of my team and what we’ve been able to accomplish in a short period of time. Everyone has something individually that they are dealing with and we are all coming together toward a common goal in a way that is different than before. I’m learning to manage each individual personality in a different way. I try to have more individual check-ins. I hope, as a leader, that I’m giving everybody a safe space to do their work. We’re all in this together and I’m trying everything I can to make sure enCourage Kids fulfills its mission, and I hope that resonates.
OR: What is the enCourage Kids Foundation working on at this time?
MHD: Recently, we created a really meaningful campaign in response to the pandemic that we feel is going to make a real social impact. It’s called the VIRTUAL HANDSHAKE CHALLENGE and it was born to help us keep our promise to deliver joy, hope, resilience, and healing. As hospitals have had to close their playrooms, impose visitor limitations and shift resources toward fighting this pandemic, pediatric patients have become more secluded and more scared than ever before. But the feelings of isolation have reached beyond the hospital walls. Outside, as social distancing has become the new social norm, we realized today, every one of us is feeling that same overwhelming impact. The simple act of shaking hands, a tradition that shows respect and breeds familiarity, is now taboo, and could potentially endanger your life. Our staff started to think about what we as an organization and as individuals could do to stay connected in a fun and inspiring way. The answer was, the VIRTUAL HANDSHAKE. We are encouraging our friends and family and complete strangers to share videos of their version of a virtual handshake on their social media platforms to support enCourage Kids. Every dollar raised with every virtual handshake, fist bump, and high five helps pediatric patients feel connected and stay positive during these uncertain times. We’d love for this idea to spread across the world! Anyone who would like to learn more and post their own Virtual Handshake video can visit our website: www.encourage-kids.org/virtual-handshake
OR: Last week was National High Five Day. How did you encourage High Five’s across the nation?
MHD: We started a High Five Fundraiser campaign across all of our social media platforms in conjunction with our Virtual Handshake Challenge. We are collecting virtual high fives, $5 donations, to make sure our hospital partners have the power to meet the ever evolving and urgent needs they are facing right now, every day. https://encourage-kids.org/high-five-fundraiser/
OR: How has remote working changed your business strategy, if at all?
MHD: Remote working has forced us to reassess traditional fundraising methods and resources. Our fundraising strategy has had to change since we had to cancel three fundraising events. We have had to pivot our focus to foundation and corporate grants, and peer-to-peer and individual fundraising.
OR: What will be one of the first things you will do once you get back to the office with your team?
MHD: We’re going to celebrate coming through this challenge, and then figure out how we move forward in this new world order, because everything will be different after this. COVID-19 is going to have a lasting effect beyond just a return to “normal”.
OR: Tell us how you’re continuing to support the children in the hospitals across the nation?
MHD: Our support changes day to day as we respond to the needs of our hospital partners. Every day we are learning new information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Our hospital partners are experiencing that frightening and rapid change ten-fold. We continue to reach out to our network of Child Life contacts across the country to find out what they need and try to respond to that. For some, it’s breathing toys such as kazoos, pinwheels and harmonicas that are used for breathing treatments, helping to build lung capacity in preparation of the spread of the virus. Others have requested craft supplies that children can use to communicate with their friends and loved ones who are no longer allowed to visit them. One way we have responded to some of these requests is to create COVID-19 Coping Kits that will include crayons, coloring books, model magic, colored pencils and stickers that will be packaged in clear Ziploc baggies for easy and safe distribution to pediatric patients. We are creating a teen version of these kits that will include items such as adult coloring books and gel pens, inspirational journals, playing cards, and small electronic games and other items geared toward teens, who are often an overlooked population.
OR: I know we all can agree that our respect for the frontline workers, first responders and child life supporters has grown tremendously. Can you share with us some first-hand stories of some of the child life supporters that you work closely with?
MHD: This definitely hits close to home. One of the Child Life Specialists with whom I’ve worked closely over the past 20 years, was stricken with COVID-19 early on and was out for more than a month. She said one of the most difficult things about the experience was that she felt guilty. She wanted to get back to work and felt guilty that she couldn’t. She wanted to get back to her team. I received a message from her just today that she went back to work and she’s so happy to be back.
OR: We know you missed your 35th Anniversary Gala and we saw all the great coverage by donating the meals to feed the food insecure at the Bowery Mission. What can we expect in the coming months?
MHD: For enCourage Kids to stay innovative and to stay in lock step with our hospital partners. Keeping our finger on the pulse of what they need and what the kids in their care need. We are optimistically preparing for our fall tasting event in October, Serving up Smiles.
OR: Please share your favorite inspirational quote with us.
MHD: When life hands you lemons, make a difference.
Every day, enCourage Kids Foundation is making hospitals a better place to get better for kids and families. What we try to do is help everyone in the hospital who is on the frontline — the Child Life Specialists, the doctors, the nurses — with the things that they need that insurance doesn’t cover, to help those hospitalized children and their psychosocial well-being. We have been doing this for 35 years and we are a true leader and an impactful partner with hospitals across the country. We’ve invested over 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals, and we’re excited to do even more. It’s our passion for improving the lives of these kids and their family members that continues to drive us, especially now.
OR: Thank you Michele for sharing your insight with us. We look forward to speaking with you again soon.
MHD: My pleasure!