The following is a conversation between Kelly Dolan, the Chief Executive Officer of Ronald McDonald House Charities, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Kelly Dolan, President and CEO of Ronald McDonald House Charities

Denver: For nearly 50 years, the mission of Ronald McDonald House Charities has been to create, find, and support programs that directly improve the health and wellbeing of children and their families. And like most nonprofits, the past 18 months have been a tumultuous time for them and the families they serve.

And here to tell us about that and all that they do is Kelly Dolan, the president and chief executive officer of Ronald McDonald House. Welcome to The Business of Giving, Kelly!

Kelly: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be with you.

It started with a group of people who saw that there were families in need that were visiting their children in the hospital but weren’t able to be at bedside the way they needed to be because they didn’t have a place to stay. And they didn’t have, by that nature, ongoing access to their child, their sick or injured child, and to be a part of the care process that’s involved when you have a sick or injured child.

Denver: So, the first Ronald McDonald House, it was opened in Philadelphia in 1974. Where did that original idea come from, and how did it grow from Philadelphia to now over 60 countries across the world? 

Kelly: So like how we have grown across the world, it all started locally. And it started with a group of people who saw that there were families in need that were visiting their children in the hospital but weren’t able to be at bedside the way they needed to be because they didn’t have a place to stay. And they didn’t have, by that nature, ongoing access to their child, their sick or injured child, and to be a part of the care process that’s involved when you have a sick or injured child. And so, it started on a local level, and there were a group of people who came together that purchased a house, and it moved from there. 

And so, we continue. And I think part of the reason why we have been so successful as an organization and have grown so much through the years to now over 260 chapters in 62 countries and regions is because we pay attention to that. We start with local feasibility studies. We take a look at: what is the landscape of the healthcare marketplace in the towns and regions that we serve, and we assess those needs, and we build locally. We build from the ground up with all of our programs that best serve the specific needs of communities, specific needs of the hospitals and healthcare systems that we partner with.

So, we want to make sure that we do everything we can so that the family is able to be part of the child’s care and that they can be part of the decision-making. And the concept of that is called family-centered care.

Denver: Give us an idea of the people that come to Ronald McDonald House, the people that you serve? 

Kelly: We serve, quite literally, every demographic group, every ethnic orientation, any type of person or family that you can imagine. Again, because we are across the world. We are dealing with families that are in immediate crisis. 

So, as you can imagine, if you have a child or you have any family member that is suddenly ill or injured, or has a progressive disease where the child is getting sicker and sicker, the world stops for these families. And they quite literally drop everything, very often travel great distances, especially if it’s for a certain specialized care. But often, sometimes it’s not even a great distance, but it is still life-changing. 

And so, these families come in, and we work with them through our Ronald McDonald Houses. Most people are, I think, most familiar with our house program because so many people have one locally. And so, when they hear Ronald McDonald House Charities, they think, “Oh, the house!” which is great. And we have 377 of those, again, all over the world.  

And we provide a place for them to sleep. We have everything from laundry service. We certainly provide meals for them, snacks that they can take to the hospital. We can talk a little more about that program, I think, a little later. But we have that. That’s available to them. So that we satisfy those immediate needs, so that they’ve got a place to be where they’re safe and secure, and very often adjacent or very nearby the hospital where their child is being treated. 

We also have Ronald McDonald family rooms, which are… actually a lot of people don’t know about those. Those are located in the hospitals. And that is like a little respite place for families. Very often, they need to be right near the NICU. They need to be right near bedside. But they need a little place for some peace. They need a little place away from the blinking lights and the beeps and the sounds. 

So, they can go into one of these places. They can have, again, something to eat. They can rest. They can have private time with their families. They can even do laundry in some places. We also have nap places in some of our family rooms. So, we want to make sure that we do everything we can so that the family is able to be part of the child’s care and that they can be part of the decision-making. And the concept of that is called family-centered care, and we are an enabler of that through those two programs. 

And then the last primary program, “core program” we call them, is our Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles. And those vary. We have over 50 of them, again, around the world. And those actually provide direct services or education, particularly in areas of the world where access to pediatric healthcare is limited.

But we also, like here in the US, we serve, again, all kinds of children and families of all different economic backgrounds with dental care through the Care Mobiles and also through public health education. So, I think that was a long answer to your short question, which is: who do we serve?   Because who we serve so closely mirrors how we serve.

When we knew we had to limit capacity in the houses, we found other ways to be able to continue to help these families and these children. Because the pandemic happened, but childhood illness and injuries didn’t stop. So, we had to find ways to, again, make sure that the families had access to be able to get the best care for their children.

Denver: That’s a very a nice suite of things that you do. And really, it’s a very sweet idea, just in terms of the health and the family and the linkage. Because really, when a child gets sick, the whole family gets sick. 

Kelly: No question.

Denver: And supporting that entire unit is wonderful.

In a given year, how many overnight stays for families are there at Ronald McDonald Houses?

Kelly: In a given year, it can be as much as two million. 

Denver: Wow!

Kelly: Yes. So, it’s amazing. And last year with the pandemic, we had to suspend some of our programming. We had to limit the number of families served in some of the programs. But we definitely want to continue to deliver on this mission.

So last year, what we did was we were able to partner with hotels all over the world. And we were able to provide 54,000 hotel nights for stays for family. So, where there’s a will, there’s a way. So, when we knew we had to limit capacity in the houses, we found other ways to be able to continue to help these families and these children. Because the pandemic happened, but childhood illness and injuries didn’t stop. So, we had to find ways to, again, make sure that the families had access to be able to get the best care for their children. 

Denver: With those kinds of pivots, Kelly, were there any other innovations that you think may have occurred over the last year… year and a half that might stick with the organization going forward because it will just only help amplify the work that you do?

Kelly: No doubt about it. We would be remiss as any organization would be if you didn’t take advantage of the learnings that you go through, especially in a period of acute change for everybody. 

So we already have, as you might imagine, as an organization that works with immunocompromised kids and sick children, we have incredibly strict protocols that are already in place operationally with all of our programs. So, if there was ever an organization that was prepared for a sprout of infectious disease, we were it. But we also realized that we had to take even more specific precautions around that, so for sure, we will continue to look at maintaining some of the protocols that we put in place in our programs moving forward. 

But if I could, I think the biggest thing we were able to do was we were able to pivot in terms of how we could use access to our programs to help the communities beyond the families and children we serve. 

So for example, we repurposed 115 of our programs for frontline healthcare workers. So those family rooms that I was talking about, we partner, of course, with the hospitals in which we have them. So when the hospitals weren’t allowing guests and non-patients into the hospitals, many of those got repurposed for places of respite for frontline workers. We used some of our Ronald McDonald Care Mobiles for actually warming stations for some of the frontline workers that were providing COVID testing, and then later, COVID vaccination. 

So, as an organization, we quickly, as we have done in other crisis situations, local crisis situations, we can pivot, and we can broaden our mission beyond family and children to community writ large. We’ve done it in cases with wildfires where there’s immediate need. I’m happy to say we did it, but I’m sorry for the circumstance – the mass shooting in Las Vegas, where we became a center that provided food for so many of the workers that were brought to that crisis.

So, as an organization, we stand ready to support the community. And those lessons will continue. We will continue both on the operational side, but also recognizing our ability to pivot.

Denver: Well, I love organizations that can do that old mission morph and redeploy assets, really on a dime, to meet the crisis of the moment.

What do you think it is about the culture of Ronald McDonald House that allows you to do that? Because a lot of organizations, they may think about doing it, but they don’t quite have the capacity to pull it off. What makes you so nimble in terms of doing that? Do you have any thoughts on that?

Kelly: I absolutely do! The fundamentals were in place. As an organization, you have to have— as a federated structure, as you know, we need to have that kind of trust and relationship that we have from the global charity with our chapters. So that when we had to change protocols, when we had to make tough decisions about suspending some of the programming that we had, the fundamental relationship in place between the global charity and our chapters, that they trusted our judgment. 

We were making tough calls early on. We were working with the World Health Organization, with the CDC. And we were gaining knowledge at a faster pace than maybe some of our chapters were in different areas of the world, or even in places in the United States. And so, we were making very aggressive calls around protecting the safety protocols for our families in places that had to adhere to that even though they may not have been quite as affected by the pandemic yet. But in the end, all of our judgment, thank God, was proved out, and people realized why we were making those calls.

So first we have to have that cohesion. You have to have that built ahead of time. If you don’t have those relationships in place, if you don’t have the guidance that we’re able to provide the chapters on an ongoing basis… If you don’t have that already, the fundamentals definitely in place, and you’re not already operationally sound, there’s no way you can pivot. But if you’re operationally sound, and if you have an organized approach of how you’re going to change guidelines, and if you have the trust, and you have the two-way communication that we have with the chapters, then you can execute. 

Absent those fundamentals though, you’re not. To your good point, it’s just going to be a great idea, but it won’t be something that you’ll be able to make actionable.

Denver: No, you won’t execute it. The same thing holds in many respects for technology. Those organizations that had invested in technology, hit the ground running come March 13. And the others – well, if you don’t have it in place, you can try to do what you can do. But it’s not the same thing.  

We mentioned global a couple of times– 62 countries. Tell us a little bit about that work, and specifically, you have a partnership, don’t you, with USAID over in Ukraine? Tell us about that.

Kelly: We sure do, so we are delighted with this. So, it’s an example of us reaching out to other organizations and being really a trusted partner for somebody like USAID – where they want to go in and invest in an area of the world, but they want to make sure that they have a partner that has already engaged and has real clear goals, and has the staff in place to be able to execute on whatever investment they have.

So, we are partnering with USAID to expand what I mentioned earlier, the concept of family-centered care throughout the entire country. Also, to build a Ronald McDonald House in Ukraine. So, it is broader. 

We have been working in Ukraine with a chapter there for a number of years. And we have been able to effectively work with the national health care system, the Ministry of Health, to really start to affect change writ large in their policy around families having access in hospital, in healthcare systems, where it was quite limited before, so that they would, again, be part of all of the decision-making and the care path for their child.

I think for those listening in the United States, it just seems odd that the hospitals would not provide full access to children for the families when they’re in hospital. But that’s not the case all over the world. And so, we are beyond the actual physical structures and programs that we have in the houses, in the family rooms, in care mobiles.  We also are working in other areas of the world on building out that concept of family-centered care, where the parents are fully involved in the healthcare of their child

And so, USAID recognizes that. They recognize the work that we were doing, the impact we were having. And so, they have come in to partner with us to broaden that. And then also, help us build a Ronald McDonald House actually in Ukraine. So, it’s an exciting partnership and one that we hope to replicate in other areas.

Companies are looking for meaning. They’re wanting to find meaning for their employees. Employees have a high expectation that the company they work for is going to be aligned with social causes. And so, we are a bit of” right place, right time” for that.

Denver: There you go! That is one ambitious objective. I’ll tell you that. That really is.  Speaking of partners, tell us a little bit about some of your corporate partners and what they do for you, and what you do for them. 

Kelly: Well, this is very, very interesting. So, again, as a charity that has this kind of reach both globally and in the US pretty much, we have been very fortunate to have major corporate partners with us…people like Southwest Airlines that have been with us for 20, 30 years. Because we offer both the combination of, we like to think, a very strong brand partner for sure – one that is quite well-respected and trusted. We have high trust ratings, as you might imagine, as a brand. But we also have opportunities for them to do employee engagement.

So, unlike a lot of other charities, we actually have those programs where employees can come in. They can do everything from bake cookies for families in our houses to– we have gardens at our houses. We have employee engagement in that. We have employee engagement and education in our programs. And also, of course, meals. In most of our houses, we do three meals a day. And so, we have volunteers that come in to do all that work. And very often, it’s through those corporate partners. 

So, as you know, companies are looking for meaning. They’re wanting to find meaning for their employees. Employees have a high expectation that the company they work for is going to be aligned with social causes. And so, we are a bit of “right place, right time” for that. Because we are an organization that has universal appeal. It’s taking care of children. And also, we provide opportunities for that employee engagement. So, we have been very fortunate in that. 

We also are looking to work with corporate foundations and companies in areas of transformational gifts. We were delighted and really humbled by a $100 million investment from AbbVie Pharmaceutical a few years ago. And the focus on that was in accelerating our ability to add houses and expand houses in the United States. And through that gift, we were able to take that $100 million and deploy it within the first year. So that takes us back to the scope of our organization, and that funded 32 expansions and house builds in the United States. 

So, when you look at the scope of what we provide as an organization, it’s quite attractive to corporations and to foundations that we can deploy their investments so quickly, that we can operationalize on it. And that was a big factor in AbbVie choosing to invest that level with us. So, we feel quite fortunate. We have long-term partners that stay with us, but as you might imagine, we are always looking for more. 

Denver: I did imagine that as a matter of fact. It’s interesting that you say that about the $100 million because I’ve consulted with a lot of nonprofit organizations. And if I ask them sometimes even $5 million or $10 million, much less $100 million, if somebody showed up today and were to give it to you, what would you do with it? And often they say, “I don’t know.” And then you say, “Well, don’t worry then. Nobody will come. Nobody’s going to do that.”

Kelly: That’s right. But we know–

Denver: And also, along those same lines, you also know about the volunteers. You have a half-million volunteers. Many, many nonprofits can’t handle volunteers because they don’t know what to tell them. So sometimes–it gets back to our previous conversation– having things baked in and pre-set allows opportunities to come because you can’t figure it out on the fly. And as you say, “We got the gardens, we got the meals. We got everything else.” 

Well, talk a little bit more about that fundraising because that is your background. You were the director of marketing and development. And I know in your five-year plan, you’re looking to grow the systems and your fundraising capacity. Share with us a little bit of what you’re thinking is around that.

Kelly: Well, we are definitely looking at, and I’m using that word again, “transformational funding” in partnering with foundations. So, we’ve proven that. We’ve proven the case, to your point, that we can operationalize major gifts. And so, we are looking at that as a real key focus area for us to work with some of the major foundations.

So, we’re working on building that out. Right now, it has been, something that has happened because it’s been a personal passion of mine, frankly. And we’ve been able to look at it, but we’re realizing that there is such opportunity here that we are actually building out around that as a core objective. And we’re going to be putting resources, intentional resources, behind that because when we do present opportunities to foundations or major corporate partners or corporate foundations, we have a pretty high success rate.

Denver: Decent batting average.

Kelly: Absolutely! So, to me, that’s an area that we need to really amplify, and that’s what we are starting to do and have been doing.

The other thing that we want to do is we are a separate, obviously, charity 501(c)(3), but we do have the good fortune of having opportunity to have access to the McDonald’s restaurants all over the world for what we call facilitated giving. So, customer giving.

So, what does that look like? So, we used to have, and we still have, I should say–boy, I’m talking about it like it’s already gone and it’s not–donation boxes in the McDonald’s restaurants. So as families came in, as individuals came in, they would drop extra change in the donation boxes.

Well, we’ve become cashless and are becoming more and more a cashless society. So, what is it that we can be doing to make sure that we continue to access individual giving at the restaurant level? Because this is a key point of differentiation for us that we have from other charities. We have access to– McDonald’s has 65 million customers a day. So, when you think about that volume, and you think about that scope, how can we better access those 65 million customers to be able to make donations to Ronald McDonald House Charities? 

So, we are on two tracks. I am of two minds. I am in the purely philanthropic space of thinking about how to maximize foundation partners and transformational gifts. And then the other half of our brain is on how we best partner with McDonald’s in ways that we can access all of the new touchpoints on how people order food. And if they do it through a drive-through or they do it in the restaurant, if they do it on an app…all of these ways, so that we continue to build that relationship with McDonald’s and continue to see if we can have even more access to fundraising through that. And we seem to be making some good progress on that. 

Denver: It’s the way we’re doing it these days. We’re adding a contribution to our bills, and we have our credit cards there already, or whatever the thing is going. So, we might end up more than having somebody drop a couple of pennies or a quarter or a buck or something like that.

Let me stick with McDonald’s for a minute, because I want to ask you about something and that is: In the social sector, there’s such fascination with innovation. But replicating what works, or maybe you could say franchising it, can actually lead to more impact. 

So, notwithstanding what you said earlier about really getting into the local community and understanding their needs and their healthcare system and things of that nature, when you’re looking at building a Ronald McDonald House and bringing it into a community and want to do so in a very consistent high-level way, are there lessons you learn from the company, McDonald’s, who is really the ultimate franchisee about replication and making sure that there is a high standard of service?

Kelly: Well, I think we learn from McDonald’s like we learn from all organizations. I think that there is definitely always learnings that you can get from different corporations that can inform you in terms of how you look at what your processes are and how you develop. But as you know, with all of your background, nonprofit is quite different. 

And so, it is definitely a different approach. You need to have the funding mechanism in place that is concurrent with your desire to develop programming. In the for-profit world, you can, from a top-down approach, say, “We’re going to go conquer this market, or we’re going to take over this area.” And you have capital investment that you have set aside for those kinds of things. In the nonprofit world, you have to build it and fly it at the same time. 

So, there’s a different approach in terms of not only do we need to develop the medical feasibility studies by the markets to make sure that we are appropriately gauging the market, and what the needs are, but we also have to look at a business case for what the funding would be in that market. So, there’s a whole other dimension to our program development than a for-profit company would have. 

But certainly, we look at, definitely systemizing things, and we have a very clear guidance, very clear operational guidance. Our COO, Janet Burton, has been with the organization over 20 years and has really built a team that is extraordinary. And our field operations team is unparalleled in my opinion, and I’ve worked in a number of large voluntary health organizations. And so, I refer to it as airtight in terms of how we approach and how we develop in these markets.

So, we take lessons from all on how to best replicate and what that looks like.

Denver: Let me ask you about leadership in a crisis, Kelly. What have been some of the keys that you have found through this experience over the last year, year and a half? And are there any takeaways that you think is going to inform the way you lead going forward? 

Kelly: I think leadership in crisis is, in some ways, no different than leadership, period. And I think it’s really about– the difference I think in crisis is the ability to keep a cool head. You need to be able to take in and assimilate a lot of information quickly, and you need to be able to prioritize quickly who needs to be informed and what needs to be shared. And I think that is sort of an accelerated, kind of compressed way of leading. So, in that sense, that is different than general leadership. 

But I think the same always applies, which is just always take in information unemotionally. Take it in. Take it in as fact. Distill out any emotion. Distill out any fear, any of those things that are very human, that we all have. But as much as possible, just look at it factually. But also, really be empathetic to the audience that you need to communicate with; really listen; hear what is being communicated to you; hear how you think it’s going to be received. And that’s really where that empathy comes in to really understand how you’re going to best communicate. 

And then I’m going to tell you the same thing that probably everybody has ever told you ever, in answer to this question about leadership: communicate, communicate, communicate. You just cannot over-communicate in any shape or form, but especially during a crisis. 

Again, it needs to be done in a way that is calm. That really demonstrates the position of confidence because that is, in a crisis, that’s what people are looking for. They’re looking for calm direction. And they’re looking to know: What’s your credibility? What’s your bonafide? Where are you getting your information? How are you getting it? How are you making these decisions? And I think all that comes in really through good communication.

But I think first and foremost, taking in facts, separating out emotion, and really making decisions that you know you can stand behind and that you have to feel 100% comfortable and 100% behind, whatever decision you make. And in a crisis situation, that’s the challenge. Because you don’t always have the facts. You don’t always know where something’s going. And then just communicate, communicate, communicate. 

Denver: You’re right. You need to be decisive because in many of those decisions, they are two-door decisions. So, if they’re not right, you just can switch them. But nobody wants a namby-pamby decision because you have to sort of energize. 

The other thing I hear about communication too, is that communicate, communicate, communicate. They’re sick and tired of hearing the same message. And then you find out – no, they’re not sick and tired of hearing it. You’re bored giving it. So, keep on communicating. 

Kelly: That is too true. And everybody, myself included, and I have to stop myself often, often, often. Everybody thinks everyone listens. No one listens. No one listens the first time. No, I mean, some listen the first time. But you have to repeat, repeat, repeat. And people receive things when they’re ready to receive them. So, we make these assumptions that we say something and it’s being received. We don’t know how it’s being received. We don’t know why it’s being received. 

And so, I agree that consistency across is so important, and especially in a nonprofit where you’re dealing with your boards. I tell my team all the time: this is not their day job. That’s my phrase. If we have a meeting and then we do a little bit of follow-up, we need it to continue. There needs to be more communication. And you don’t inundate them, but that to remind them of where we are on things, to update, because this is not what they think about every day like we do, so let’s not make these assumptions. It’s threading that proverbial needle of how much communication versus too much communication. But I’m a big–

Denver: On communication— it’s really interesting, too, because I think that, as you say, sometimes they’re ready for the message, and sometimes they’re not.

And I had Jim McKelvey on the other day and he co-founded Square with Jack Dorsey. And he’s a glassblower. That’s his passion. And he couldn’t get this technique down, and he brought in an expert to help him. And he was about to do it the way he’d always done it, and the expert told him, “No, not now. Wait.” And he waited about 30 seconds and then he fused the two pieces of glass. And he said it was from that experience that he became a student of timing. And he says that we are so taught in this society of how to do things, but not when to do things. 

And I think when it comes to your communication sometimes, you have to have the right “when,” and for your audience, that “when” may be different. It’s when they’re going to take in that message. So, I really hear what you’re saying. 

Kelly: That’s absolutely the case. And I love what you said that they’re not bored of hearing it. We’re bored of saying it. I think that’s hilarious.

Denver: Hey, for listeners who want to learn more about Ronald McDonald House Charities or financially help support this work, tell us about your website and what they can expect to find there.

Kelly: Well, they can go to RMHC–Ronald McDonald House Charities–org, , and we like to think it’s a great website. It has a tremendous amount of information about the programs, but it also has incredible impact stories – stories about the families and the communities that we serve.

So, I think people can find ways to donate. They can find ways to volunteer. They can find ways to get a chapter that’s nearby them so that they can do something locally. And so, we think it’s a great resource that really explains the story of RMHC, our impact, and then ways that people can get involved.

Denver: That will be my takeaway – they can find ways. Thanks, Kelly, for being here today. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show. 

Kelly: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.

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