Fundraising During COVID-19—Episode 5: Charles E. Smith Life Communities

Read Time: 8 minutes


COVID-19 has challenged nonprofits like never before—and nonprofits have risen to the occasion in their own unique ways.

In this podcast series, we explore how nonprofits are adapting their fundraising strategies to a difficult moment. We sat down (virtually, of course) with leaders from across the sector to hear what they have been doing and what they have learned. Follow us as we discover strategies that have helped a diverse array of organizations survive and thrive during a challenging time. 

Our fifth episode features Campbell & Company Vice President and Director, East Region Christina Yoon, PhD speaking with Bruce Lederman, President and Chief Executive Officer for Charles E. Smith Life Communities.


Check out our previous episodes:

Listen to the podcast or read the transcript below:  

Christina "Tina" Yoon: Hi Bruce, it's wonderful to have you here with us today. Thank you for joining me to talk about the impact that COVID-19 has had on Charles E. Smith Life Communities. Really glad to be with you today.

Bruce Lederman: Christina, I was excited to get the call, and I look forward to our conversation.

Tina: Thank you. So before we begin, I think it would be helpful if you could give a brief overview of your organization.

Bruce: It's my honor. Charles E. Smith Life Communities is located in Rockville, Maryland. We're just outside the beltway in the Washington, DC region. And this is our 110th year of serving older adults on our 38-acre campus. We provide life experiences and provide quality of care to approximately 1,100 older adults living in one of six residences on our campus.

Our best-known service line is Hebrew Home of Greater Washington. It is actually the largest skilled nursing center in the State of Maryland and also is the location of our post-acute care center for those older adults who are discharged from the hospital but not quite ready to return home yet.

In addition to Hebrew Home, we also offer independent living on our campus in two 250-unit apartment buildings: Ring House and Revitz House. We also provide assisted living services at Landow House, with memory care in the adjoining Cohen-Rosen House.

Tina: Great, thank you so much. It would be great if you could share with us a little bit about how COVID-19 has impacted your residents in your community.

Bruce: I think like many other elder-care providers, although we all had our pandemic response plans, what we quickly learned is when you've seen one pandemic, you've seen one pandemic. For us and I think for the entire industry, the word that comes to mind that was most critical in our response was “resilience.”

We needed to anticipate, we needed to prepare, and then we needed to respond. Our team is composed of, overnight, about 950 team members. I should also mention as a nonprofit, we have a very engaged board of lay leaders as well. So, all of us working together, staying on the same page, displaying that resilience allowed us to rededicate ourselves to our mission.

Tina: That's great, I see that you've been very transparent about the COVID cases amongst your staff and your residents located on your website and that's been an important part of your being able to stay in communication with a lot of the families and your donors as well.

Bruce: No question. Obviously, we've had occurrences of COVID on campus, so the impact has really been tremendous on our residents and all of our customers, their families, and friends included.

The isolation that was required and that is still required due to social distancing and new infection control protocols has really been disorienting for our families, for our residents, and quite frankly, for our team members as well.

Tina: I bet. And I was wondering, how has the pandemic impacted your fundraising efforts as well during this time?

Bruce: It did create an opportunity for us to go to our donors who already knew us and to remind them of our importance to the community. And certainly, our transparency allowed our donors and the entire larger community to be aware of the impact of COVID on our campus. It created an opportunity for us to have some distinct mailings referencing COVID-19. Certainly our major gifts officer and myself contacted our major donors and remained in contact.

Also, creating opportunities through video conferencing to stay in contact or begin new conversations with those donors who are engaged, but not quite at the major donor level, but really needed an opportunity, or appreciated rather, an opportunity to hear from me, to hear from our Chief Medical Officer, to understand how we were responding, to help inform their idea of COVID's impact on older adults in the US.

Tina: So how have your donors responded to some of this outreach? Have you been seeing that they have been quite receptive? Have they been lamenting the fact that they aren't able to come to your facility and walk around and take a look and see the work in action? How has that transpired for you?

Bruce: You know, it's been interesting. We have had some specific responses from our donors with regards to COVID-19. We did create a team appreciation page for our customers, for our families, and the friends of our residents for them to help support the team directly.

There's no question it's challenging especially to be introduced to a new donor and not have the opportunity to meet with them in person, rather through a video conference, and not be able to tour them on our campus.

But our story is our story. And the transparency on our website I think goes a long way in allowing us to explain who we are. Of course, it does take more work to understand the donor in that instance and how we can help them fulfill their dreams in supporting older adults.

Certainly, we have seen a great resurgence in our direct-mail campaign since the pandemic began. That has been very heartening to see, and we have been able to establish some new relationships with very consistent direct mail donors who now have a sense of urgency about connecting their commitment to us with the pandemic.

Tina: Wow. That's exciting to hear. Very happy to hear that news.

I know that you typically run the Guardian Campaign towards year end, which is an opportunity for you to raise your annual operating support and that involves a large cadre of volunteers who do outreach to your community members and to donors and remind them about the campaign and secure that year-end support, which I know is critical to your programming.

I was wondering, how are you planning on running that campaign this year? What are you expecting?

Bruce: We are fortunate in that this is the 61st year of our Guardian Campaign and approximately 15 years ago, we eliminated our major donor event to rely solely on the Guardian Campaign. So, unlike many other nonprofits, we didn't have to worry about moving to a virtual event for our major annual campaign event.

Conversations are held one by one. Now they are being held by Zoom meeting and not over a cup of coffee. I think that's been an interesting hurdle to overcome, but not one that is too high of a burden for us to be able to break through.

Again, going back to the operational side, we have a great story to tell, and the transparency on our website I think has really helped our lay leaders and the professionals who are engaged in the campaign to be able to share our story, our successes, our challenges.

I anticipate that we will do well this year with the campaign.

Tina: That's great. Very exciting to hear.

This pandemic is stretching on longer than any of us could have anticipated or would want. How do you keep morale up amongst your whole community? And keep people excited about the future and the work that you're doing? And keep everyone motivated to keep working hard day in and day out as hard as it is?

Bruce: Early on, we focused all of our strengths on identifying and communicating the highest priority was the safety and wellbeing of those we serve and our team. And that mantra is still very much in place and very much receiving continued laser-focus.

So over the length of the pandemic, and of course, unfortunately we don't know when circumstances will significantly change, it really has been the responsibility of our key leadership to constantly communicate that mantra. And we have deployed a lot of tools to support that.

So for example, beginning in April, we began biweekly town hall meetings between the executive directors of all of our residences and our families. At Hebrew Home, we are hosting those meetings weekly.

For our internal customers, our System Operations team—which is about 80 of our directors, vice presidents, and managers—I host, along with other senior managers, a biweekly town hall video meeting. On a bimonthly basis, our leaders, executive directors, and department heads are hosting town hall meetings with their entire teams where we are engaged in Q&A sessions and pulse polling during the video calls in order to stay in touch with our team.

In addition, one other third element we launched early on is an internal social media platform. That allows us through an app on everyone's smartphone to be able to post stories of success and communicate our message of our highest priority.

Tina: Wow, that's great to hear. Seems like this idea of transparency, communication, caring for your community, it's all flowing one into the other and helping to bolster up the community.

Maybe in closing, we could end with this: Is there anything that you newly implemented because of the pandemic that you think is actually just general good practice that you'd like to carry forward beyond the pandemic?

Bruce: I have to say the town hall meetings with our families and our customers are definitely a feature that is going to be maintained.

It's become a great avenue, not only for us to share with them, but for them to share with us through the chat box feature, to share with one another, to know that they're not isolated.

Additionally, our own internal communication platforms, the social media platform will definitely continue, but also our internal town hall meetings have really flattened out the communication pathways between those who are providing direct services to those we serve and senior managers. And what better way for culture to be expressed where every voice matters?

Tina: Well, what I like about that, too, is that no one has to fight the Washington, DC-area traffic to attend any of these meetings! Ha! So I'm all for that!

Bruce: I know, I agree!

Tina: Well, thanks so much, Bruce. It's just been wonderful speaking with you. It's exciting to hear about some of the changes that you've made, but also the success that you've had in keeping your residents safe. I wish you continued success through this difficult time.

Bruce: Well Christina, I really appreciate the opportunity to share with you and your audience. Thank you for your time today.

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Duncan Reilly

Duncan Reilly is a Marketing and Business Development Associate at Campbell & Company. He works to help consultants and nonprofit organizations start their partnerships off on the right foot.