Since 1985, enCourage Kids Foundation been working with the pediatric divisions to humanize healthcare for children and their families by resourcing impact-driven pediatric programs and supporting the Child Life Community. Serving more than one million children annually, their network now encompasses 286 pediatric facilities to help a child experience joy, hope, resilience, and healing no matter what their medical journey is.
As the President and CEO, Michele Hall-Duncan began her career at enCourage Kids as a volunteer and joined the program staff full-time in 1996. Having been hospitalized for a serious illness as a child, Michele felt a deep connection to the mission and now oversees all of their programming. For more than two decades she has cultivated relationships with Child Life staff and all levels of hospital administration, as well as developed an integral understanding of trends in creative therapies and the ability to identify and meet the needs of our hospital partners. With the new onset of complex medical challenges the world is facing, Impact Wealth speaks to Michele as to how enCourage Kids is prepared to implement their philanthropic endeavors while continuing to make an impact and change within the pediatric healthcare system.
Nonprofits always have challenges. What is the biggest challenge for the enCourage Kids during the pandemic?
The biggest challenge we’ve experienced has been having to pivot our fundraising focus. In mid-March, our board made the very painful decision to cancel our Annual Gala, our largest fundraiser of the year. This was a tremendous blow to the organization financially. We likewise had to cancel two other spring/early summer fundraising events. In navigating these changes, our staff have had to reassess traditional fundraising methods and resources, and pivot our fundraising focus to foundation and corporate grants, and peer-to-peer and individual fundraising. We’re also planning a series of virtual fundraising events with our Young Professionals Committee.
Has the enCourage Kids Foundation been called upon for help from hospitals, families that are in your program, etc.?
Absolutely. The pediatric footprint has shifted dramatically in the NY Metro area and in pandemic hotspots across the country. Every day for the past 3 months we have been learning new information surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Especially at the height of the COVID-19 surge, our hospital partners were experiencing that frightening and rapid change ten-fold. From the very beginning, we reached out to our network of Child Life contacts across the country to find out what they needed and tried to respond to that and we continue to do so as their needs evolve. Each hospital is different, and we’ve been able to pivot our resources to respond to their requests as they have had to adjust the type of therapies and care they can provide to their pediatric patients.
As a leader, what have you done to pivot your team and look ahead to the other side?
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. In the wake of having to cancel our Gala, we had to quickly scramble to regroup and refocus our resources. We’ve been in an all-hands-on-deck situation for 3 months. We don’t feel the same sense of urgency that we felt in March or April, but this isn’t over yet. Our hospital partners are still providing care and we are still there to support them with whatever they need. I think at this point, we’ve settled into a grove, but it’s by no means one of complacency. We are carefully strategizing next steps, but remain aware that things can change—good or bad—in an instant. Communication has been key, both internally and with our hospital partners and donors. We plan to stay innovative and 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 2 events in the fall—a golf outing and our tasting event in October, Serving up Smiles.
Have you had to let go of some of your team members?
Unfortunately, we had to lay off some staff, which was the toughest decision I’ve had to make as a CEO. We had applied for a loan through the CARES Act Payroll Protection Program that we hoped would help with our payroll expenses for a couple of months but were initially denied because the program ran out of money.
We understand that a nonprofit has to run like a business. What does your plan look like for the rest of the year?
Remote working has forced us to reassess how we do everything, from fundraising to program delivery to administrative processes. We’ve learned a lot in a short amount of time. At our core, we’re going to continue to stay true to our mission. We’re going to continue to stay fluid and respond to the needs of our hospital partners, and look for innovative programs and technologies that are not only useful now, but will have far reaching impact well beyond the scope of the pandemic. We have a couple of fun and engaging initiatives in the planning stages right now so be sure to follow us on social media to learn more as they roll out.
What has the grant process been like during this time?
We are finding there are grant opportunities for nonprofits, but many of them are geographically specific or restricted to critical-need services such as housing instability, food insecurity and medical care. Competition is strong and the pool of available funding isn’t unlimited.
Does the competition of nonprofits come into play during this time?
Yes. It’s a very hard time to be a nonprofit. The competition is fierce and so many organizations are doing such incredible work, some with missions that overlap each other. Your messaging must rise above the competition and resonate with potential donors. We have definitely seen evidence of donors diverting funds to other organizations that may be delivering services that address more universally urgent needs. That is why we feel it’s so important for people to know what enCourage Kids does, that in providing resources and support to Child Life Specialists, we are supporting a relatively hidden population of medical workers who are on the front lines delivering critical care. With elective surgeries and procedures being postponed, the children who are in the hospital right now need to be there and many of them are in isolation. Child life specialists are having to adapt and reinvent how they provide care while worrying about their own health and safety. It’s made my team more determined than ever to try everything we can to make sure enCourage Kids fulfills its mission.
We know you have the upcoming Serving Up Smiles food event in October. What is your vision for the event?
We are very excited for Serving Up Smiles! Since we began the event 5 years ago, it has grown into one of our most anticipated events. This year it’s being held at the beautiful waterfront space The Lighthouse at Chelsea Piers. Our vision is to bring together some of the best chefs and restaurants the city has to offer. Additionally, we will have excellent wineries represented and handcrafted cocktails. It will be a wonderful opportunity for our community to support the work of enCourage Kids Foundation and to sample food from some of the city’s finest dining establishments while enjoying live music and an exciting silent auction.
How can some of our corporate sponsors get involved with Serving Up Smiles and what are some of the perks of being a sponsor for this event?
We always need corporate sponsorships, and this is the perfect event for corporations who want to make a significant impact to dive in! Sponsorships are available at $5,000, $10,000 and $15,000 and include company logo on event invitations, programs, signage and the enCourage Kids’ website; line credit on event press releases and media alerts; sponsor acknowledgement during the program; the opportunity to provide items or experiences for the silent auction; credit as sponsor in enCourage Kids’ Fall newsletter; acknowledgement in enCourage Kids’ annual report and most exciting of all……tickets to the event!
How can our readers learn more and get involved with the enCourage Kids Foundation?
The best way to learn more and get involved is to visit our website and follow us on social media so you can see the kids we serve and the ways we are partnering with hospitals across the country. Look at the critical programs that we are funding and see what interests you. If you are in the New York City area, please consider volunteering or joining our Young Professionals Committee if you are interested. We have multiple fundraising initiatives people can join such as the NYC Marathon where runners can have a guaranteed spot and fundraise on behalf of enCourage Kids. If you want to stand in the gap between a sick child and the trauma that illness can inflict, consider joining us to bring joy, hope, resilience and healing to kids all across the country!