Fundraising Ronald McDonald Kindervallei hit hard by pandemic
‘Our entrepreneurship is more important than ever.’
Thea Coolen saw her entire sponsorship income disappear at once. Now she hopes to guide her Ronald McDonald Kindervallei (Children’s Valley) through the crisis with creativity, warm relationships, and a clear mission. ‘The impact of the pandemic on families and fundraising is huge.’
That impact is huge. Everything has been canceled until December. We completely miss out on those proceeds.
The Kindervallei is unique in all respects within the international Ronald McDonald House Charities: its design, its function as a vacation destination, and its approach. Thea Coolen has been leading the Kindervallei since its foundations were laid in 2006. In 2007, the special house opened its doors and SimonsVoss Technologies has been involved as a sponsor ever since. Not long after, in 2008, the Kindervallei met its first challenge, faced with the banking crisis. Thea candidly explains how she and her team, the volunteers, and partners got through it and how the approach and experiences from that time can help the Kindervallei to also cope with the current crisis.
What does the Ronald McDonald Kindervallei do?
‘We have two functions that are completely different. Firstly, we are a vacation destination for families with a child that needs intensive care. A normal vacation is virtually impossible for those families, their lives revolve around the care for their child. In the Kindervallei, we ensure that all family members have a good time and that those tired eyes start sparkling again. Also, some children rehabilitate at Adelante, next door. While the children are rehabilitating there, the parents can stay here in the Ronald McDonald house. That is often for a long period, sometimes up to eight months. In that case we are not talking about sparkling eyes, understandably. Those people only want one thing and that is going home.‘
Management support team Nicole, Anique en Paul
I am convinced that you have to keep doing special things to get support and earn applause. That is more successful than business as usual.
It is a special building. Why the choice?
‘That was indeed a special choice. We work with children that need intensive care. They are used to hospitals, rehabilitation centers, and special needs schools: practical furnishings without much ambiance. The designs by architect and artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser are all about adding that ambience. The unusual part is not just the choice for this design, but also the fact that we let go of ‘the practical’. That was daring and we had to explain it well. Because, being a charity, it would have been much cheaper to build a building shaped like a box. That way, you expect to have more money left. But choosing a unique building, and focusing on the experience and ambiance instead of the practical, has helped us tremendously. It’s unbelievable what that means for the children. Moreover, it turned out to be much easier for us to involve sponsors, volunteers, and the media in our plan. SimsonsVoss was also prepared to help us from the very beginning. Now I am convinced that you have to keep doing special things to get support and earn applause. That is more successful than business as usual. It makes such an incredible contribution on all fronts to connecting people. So yes, it was more expensive, but by the time we opened the doors, we had already paid off the building. And that gives peace of mind every day, and especially in these challenging times: we do not need our donations to pay the mortgage.’
How do the children and families react to the building?
‘The lives of these children revolve around care 24/7. A special needs school, therapy, hospital, nurses who visit, the physiotherapist, you name it. When you and I take a vacation, we want to enjoy a different environment, away from our ordinary lives, and taste new flavors. Those children and their families are looking for that too. As soon as they arrive here they are immediately in a completely new setting. That is the vacation feeling they need. Our mission statement says ‘We want to make tired eyes sparkle again’. That’s all that we want.’
Ronald McDonald Kindervallei (source: bezoekmaastricht.nl)
Yes, it was more expensive, but by the time we opened the doors, we had already paid off the building.
That hospitality stands or falls by the employees and volunteers. How do you organize that?
‘We are a very small, permanent team of four paid employees, supported by 110 volunteers. When we started, the story seemed complete. But within a week, two things happened to me: a mother called to tell us they couldn’t come because she couldn’t handle it no longer. ’When I stay with you, I have to take care of my Kees 24/7. I am in a beautiful building with all the tools, but I still have to do it all myself.’ That was an eye-opener for me: we are lacking somewhere. The second incident concerned a family with a child in a wheelchair and her sister: sixteen years old, beautifully made up, and ready for her vacation. I thought ’Oh no, what are you doing here? We have nothing to offer you.’ I knew we lacked somewhere in what we could offer. We had to do a lot more for the families to make sure these people could enjoy a lovely vacation. Together we started to define our real mission. What did we really want? That was for those tired eyes to start sparkling again. And that’s what we started to implement and monitor everywhere, in everything we did: whose eyes will start sparkling from this? That applied to the four of us as well, because only then other persons will profit too. If we don’t think someone is going to love it, we won’t do it.‘
‘This has meant such a turnabout. And we also approach the sponsors in a completely different way. We really look at whether an offer will add to the sparkle. That means that sometimes you have to say no.’
Thea Coolen is the manager at Ronald McDonalds Kindervallei in Valkenburg aan de Geul. For 12.5 years, families from all over the country with a child that needs intensive care have been able to recharge their batteries in this vacation resort. After her training as a care worker for the mentally challenged, Thea worked with autistic children and moved to Switzerland in 1989, where she managed a team at a private institution for autistic children. She learned a different approach: to think not only in terms of treatment plans, but rather what you can achieve if you focus on the needs of the care recipient and use a personal approach. After traveling through Asia, she completed a post-graduate management course and held various management positions at Childcare Netherlands. Since the start of Kindervallei in 2006, Thea has been working on a clear mission with a team of three managers and 110 volunteers: to make the tired eyes of all the guests in the Kindervallei sparkle again. Thea lives with her partner Ad and sons Arjan and Bart in Maastricht.
It is about more than just money?
Laughing: ‘Well, money always makes someone’s eyes sparkle at Kindervallei, we just need it badly. But when it comes to sponsoring in kind, the situation is different. For us, the key is to receive as few invoices as possible. That can be achieved because sponsors only invoice their cost price, and then there are companies that won’t charge anything. That is of incredible value to us. This is what also works best in our fundraising. Companies like to see that we use their product or service. This makes their help more visible and it is therefore more rewarding for them.’
Fundraising is an art in itself. How is that working for you?
‘When I started this job in 2006, many things came together for me, especially my experience working with children with disabilities and my management experience. What I did not realize at the time is that the Kindervallei does not receive any government subsidy and is therefore completely dependent on donations and gifts. In a way, that was a good thing because a large part of my work involves fundraising and if I had known that beforehand I would have pulled out, while I now consider it a very nice and enjoyable part of my work. Yes, it really requires different skills.’
What makes it that special for you?
‘I am building a beautiful network of people who want to do something for the Kindervallei. People sometimes ask me if I don’t get tired of begging. Well, I wouldn’t call it begging. If it would start feeling like that to me, I would stop right away. There is always a sense of equality, you look at what you can mean for each other. Okay, sponsors usually have more to offer us than we can offer them, but that’s the deal. That also encourages us to do something extra in return. For example, we invite them to have a meeting with their team in our building and we arrange a special day for them. It always works out very well.’
Contacting entrepreneurs has become much more of a hurdle now.
Homeride, Homerun and Homewalk
The participants of the Homeride, Homerun, and Homewalk cycle, run or walk in teams for 24 hours, covering a long distance and getting sponsored for it. The proceeds will go to the Ronald McDonald Houses and Vacation Retreats. Besides the long distance, the additional challenge is that the participants also cycle, run, or walk at night. Many participants consider all that toiling away at nighttime a great challenge . The teams raise at least € 7,000 in donations, and thus ensure that ill children and children who need a lot of care always have their families nearby.
Picture: One of the Homeride cycling teams (source: Kinderfonds)
That approach is therefore mainly aimed at corporate sponsors?
‘Most of our fundraising is business-related because we have real estate and a very large household to run. So we need many products and services. And companies prefer donating that over money. A sum of money equivalent to the value of a digital locking system such as that supplied by SimonsVoss would not be readily donated in euros. And even if the economy slows down, almost every partner is still committed to us. That says something about the level of engagement.’
‘SimonsVoss was involved from the very beginning, and is a very close contact. This doesn’t mean that we talk to each other on a daily basis, but they are there for us when we need help . Last year they renovated the entire system throughout the building. When this crisis broke out, we contacted them. We wanted to let them know that we are thinking of them. It made us realize how nice the contact is that we have had for so long. I think that’s where the strength lies, that reciprocity and mutual appreciation. It goes much deeper than just a financial transaction.’
And now we are in a crisis. What does that mean for the Kindervallei?
‘It’s empty here. Our house is closed for vacations, but we are preparing the opening. We will open in phases, first with four families, and then we will scale up. We hope to be fully open again during the summer vacation. In the common areas, we are creating more space by removing furniture and we will limit the number of guests who can use those areas at the same time. Many of our activities will be moved outside: bingo, reading out loud, craft work. Instead of eating in a common room, a food truck will deliver meals and people will eat in their own apartment. Everything will be even more customized.’
How do you keep everyone involved?
‘At the moment we are having remote discussions with the teams about how we can still make fun things happening for the families. We are organizing a treasure hunt through the garden. And recording fairytales on video with ourselves in wacky clothes and a child in the lead role.’ Thea laughs: ‘Those have become very funny, just last night I edited such a video with my son. The families will receive it soon. And all these things we can organize remotely.’
What does this crisis do to families?
‘They are at home now and miss us very much. We canceled almost ninety vacations. But the real problem is much bigger. These children are normally in a daycare center and are now at home 24/7, without their normal structure. For an autistic child this is a disaster. That child is having a hard time, will display even more difficult behavior than before, and the parents and siblings have him or her at home 24/7. I talk to those parents and it is really hard for them. But on the other hand, I also hear: some families experience much more peace and quiet. It differs per family.’
And then the impact on fundraising, that will not be easy now.
‘That impact is huge. Throughout the year, there are various events of which we are a beneficiary. Now everything has been canceled until December. We completely miss out on those proceeds. Our budget is € 550,000, the majority of which we rceive through sponsorship in kind. The remainder concerns financial resources, of which € 150,000 has already been lost due to the cancellation of all those events, such as the Homeride, the Homerun, and rallies. Also, we now miss out on the guest contributions for the vacations, and on the income through our Twinkel Week (‘Sparkle Week’) sponsors who, with € 595, supplement the amount we are short of for a week of vacation for one family. Normally, it’s really easy to approach those entrepreneurs during events such as our own Business Breakfast Club . But those events are no longer there either. Contacting entrepreneurs has become much more of a hurdle now. Moreover, companies are struggling themselves for the time being. Fundraising will continue to be difficult in the coming years.’
I still rely on our warm contacts, but our funding will take a big hit.
‘It has always been important for us to ensure we have a wide network and use warm contacts. We will need that now more than ever. The network of my team members is also important for this. That’s why under normal circumstances the Homeride really helps, because every team not only raises money but also brings in their own network.’
Those are not happy messages. What now?
‘We got through the banking crisis well. Although companies had less money, they did have time and people to spare and they were willing to provide those resources to us. As a result, our costs were greatly reduced. We hope to go that same road again. But I am not sure if that will be possible this time if many people will be laid off. I still rely on our warm contacts, but our funding will take a big hit. We can draw on our reserves for this year and will survive, but I am worried about the coming years. It will all depend on how companies will recover.’
So you need new forms of fundraising.
‘We will continue to look for Twinkel (‘Sparkle’) sponsors who can supplement the actual cost of a week’s vacation with € 595. They are so important to us. And yes, we also look for new forms of fundraising. We discussed various ideas and worked out some of these in detail. But these appeared not to be feasible yet. It would be great if we can make it easier for families to spend a weekend or a week with us. We need all the help we can get with that. Besides money and sponsoring in-kind, good ideas are very welcome. We rely on our network for this. Bear in mind that we have many partners and 110 volunteers waiting to help again. It comes down to our own entrepreneurship even more now.’
Twinkel (Sparkle) Week at Kindervallei
Families with a child that needs intensive care can book a carefree Twinkel Week in the Kindervallei. The Twinkel Week is packed with activities for the entire family that they may participate in as desired: from creative workshops to wellness afternoons or baking pies. Families have their own apartment and have free access to the activities in the Kindervallei or the region. For example, the entire family can visit the GaiaZoo for free. Also, Kindervallei offers various weekend and public holiday packages. The Kindervallei tailors the activities to the different interests within the family so that everyone can have a fun and carefree time.