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(Video) Sheltering Arms Explains How They Remain Resilient During Current Crisis


Sheltering Arms Institute, like many nonprofits during the current economic and pandemic crisis, has had to shift to successfully survive. Faced with making difficult staffing decisions amid massive declines in inpatient and outpatient volumes, all while positioning the organization to take patients from acute care partners’ hospitals — it’s been a challenging balancing act. But the nonprofit is seeing signs of a rebound, and even plans to open up its new multi-million dollar facility in only a few weeks, achieving an important local and regional win for spinal cord, traumatic brain injury, and stroke care.

How has this unusual nonprofit organization remained resilient? Listen in as Harry Warner, Fahrenheit Advisors Managing Director – Nonprofit Division, leans in to learn more in this Fahrenheit Advisors Nonprofit Series video featuring Mac McElroy, President of Sheltering Arms Foundation, and Kelly Merricks, VP of Advancement.

(Transcript provided below.)


Fahrenheit Advisors has a long history of helping nonprofits through client and board engagements and through employee volunteer activities. Now with our current arsenal of consultants, Fahrenheit employees, and newly recruited recently retired nonprofit executives, we are uniquely poised to leverage Fahrenheit’s proven business model for the nonprofit sector. Contact us today to learn more.


About Harry Warner

Harry Warner brings 35 year’s professional experience in leadership, business development, and managerial effectiveness in both the corporate business and nonprofit sectors. Expert knowledge in nonprofit management, fundraising, human resources, strategic planning, marketing, and financial administration. Harry has a demonstrated ability to develop strong community relationships and to build effective teams to successfully implement strategic and business plans, achieve fund raising goals resulting in over $50 million raised to date, and to fulfill organizational missions. He remains actively involved in the nonprofit and fundraising community at both the local, state and national level. Contact Harry.


Harry Warner:
I’m Harry Warner with Fahrenheit Advisors. And with me today, I have Mac McElroy, the CEO of Sheltering Arms Foundation, and Kelly Merricks, who’s the VP of Advancement. And this is part of Fahrenheit’s Nonprofit Spotlight Series. I’ve asked Mac and Kelly to be part of this as they are getting ready to open up their new facility in West Creek with a virtual, ribbon cutting on Thursday, and what they have experienced the last several months with the pandemic and the economic shutdown and what they’ve done to be able to survive and to succeed. So, Mac, I ask you first, how have you all reacted since mid March?

Mac McElroy: (00:51)
Well, Harry, first of all, let me just say thank you to you and thank you to your colleagues at Fahrenheit for including us in your non-for-profit spotlight. We’re really honored to be part of it. And we’re also grateful for the support that your team have provided — particularly in the interim finance function to us over the last few months. So it’s a good relationship and we appreciate the partnership. We have as an organization, the good fortune of a long history. In February, just prior to the pandemic descending upon us all, we celebrated 131st anniversary. So while this is the first time any of us have lived through a pandemic, our organization actually served the community during the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic. And so we are lifted by our history and we are really fortunate as an organization to have that.

Mac McElroy: (01:57)
That said, however, let me just say that our current operation, our two hospitals, nine out-patient clinics and health and wellness programs, when the pandemic hit, we suffered a massive shutdown. Our outpatient operation saw a volume decline of about 85%. Our two inpatient hospitals saw a census decline. They were both running at, nearly full census of about 40%. And obviously the economic impact of those types of declines are significant. And then of course our health and wellness operations were completely suspended and continue to be suspended until we move into the next phase of the recovery. So clearly a really dire situation for us, which led to some very difficult decisions about staffing. We did have to put some people on leaves of absence. We had to reduce hours and really all of us, except for nursing staff, but all of us across the board kind of shared in the sacrifice and took pay cuts and are continuing to work at reduced pay. So it was a very, very difficult time.

Mac McElroy: (03:27)
Like it has been for so many nonprofits– all the while we were also very, very carefully managing our liquidity, which I’m sure many nonprofits have had to do. And again, we were faced with this dire economic circumstance while at the same time being asked to be prepared for the COVID surge. So we were positioning ourselves to take patients from our acute care partners’ hospitals, while at the same time, trying to make sure we had enough enough PPE to care for those patients to train the people, to train our staff, et cetera. So very, very challenging times. I wanna say our teams responded in just remarkable ways. And one of the things that we were able to do very quickly was to start serving our patients through the use of telemedicine. And, as folks that are in healthcare are aware, the regulators have approved our ability to do that and be reimbursed for that.

Mac McElroy: (04:34)
So we are now beginning to see our volumes return, in large part because of telemedicine and in part because of the greater degree of comfort that our patients have in returning to the clinics. We have also seen a nice return of our census in our inpatient operations. So things are improving, but it’s kind of day by day, month by month. While all of that was happening, the other major component of the world in which we’re operating, is the launch of the Sheltering Arms Institute — our joint venture with VCU Health — about a $100 million dollar project out at West Creek at 288 and West Broad. And fortunately construction is considered to be an essential service. And I want to give a shout out to our contractor, Hourigan Construction and our design firm, HDR. That work was ongoing, and I’m really proud of the fact that we will be receiving our first patients on June the 13th. So less than two weeks away. So very exciting, very positive for the region, two organizations coming together, not only to serve the local community, but really the mid-Atlantic region. And we will have advanced spinal cord care, traumatic brain injury, stroke care for which we are very well known.

Mac McElroy: (06:18)
So it’s, it’s exciting for Kelly and me and our teams to be able to communicate something so positive at a time where there has been a dearth of positive news. So I’m going to stop there and pause and let you ask a question and Kelly respond.

Harry Warner: (06:37)
Well, before Kelly I get to you, let me just kind of follow up on a couple of things, Mac, cause it’s very interesting. You all may be a little different, again, where you all have been historically, and you all’s mission. I suspect you all have other sources of revenue, of course, but of course you do, other than just fundraising. I do want to get into that aspect, but let me ask you something else too. It seems to me that, for particularly smaller nonprofits, for them to, not only succeed, but perhaps survive, they’re going to have to partner with other mission-oriented, like-minded nonprofits right now. You mentioned VCU, of course, with the new facility, have you all partnered with other nonprofit organizations at all?

Mac McElroy: (07:33)
Yes. So VCU is our partner. We have a 55/45 Sheltering Arms – VCU interest in the joint venture, in which will operate the new hospital. But beyond those, beyond that joint venture partnership, we have — and I’m glad you asked the question — really important community partners who compliment our continuum of care and/or advocate for people with disabilities. And those include organizations like the Free Foundation, like Sportable, like Positive Vibe, like the Doorways, like Ramps and Project Home. So those are really important organizations to us. They help our patients, and we provide an annual grant to them, which we will continue.

Harry Warner: (08:35)
That sounds great. Shifting over to the fundraising side, Kelly. I’d be interested, and I’m sure anybody who is seeing this would be interested not only in the annual giving and operating. I know you all are still in the midst of your capital campaign as well for the new facility. I can only imagine there’s been a negative impact since the shutdown and particularly when the stock market absolutely tanked back in March, where there were so many questions about what was going to happen, tell us a little bit about what you all have experienced and what you all have done to counteract that.

Kelly Merricks: (09:21)
Sure. Well, we have definitely seen some impact, but luckily not to the degree that I think everybody was fearing initially. You know, timing, there’s no good time for the stock market to tank, but early in the calendar year, it’s not our biggest time of fundraising anyway. Most gifts for most organizations, the bulk of them come in the last quarter of a calendar year. So the timing from that, luckily has not hit us as hard as it potentially could. We have altered the way we have done some of our mailings and appeals from a timing perspective and from a communication perspective. But I think what we really did initially to adapt and we continue to do, and we’ll look at in the future, is, so much of what we do is a relationship business. It’s relationships internally with our own team members, with our program staff, with our boards, and then most importantly with our donor constituents.

Kelly Merricks: (10:22)
So touching bases with them, how we’re communicating with them is different than what it looked like in March, early March, and in February. And we were taking people on tours of the new hospital, hardhat tours, really getting them excited and involved, and that stopped. Our last one was March 6th. And suddenly that excitement that we were able to build with people being in the site, that ended. So we switched our communication strategy. Initially just touching base with people, phone calls, as much as we could, to see how they were doing. It wasn’t an ask. It wasn’t anything, but a check in to say, ‘How are you doing? What’s happening with you?’ I read something recently that said, we all need to be careful with our emails, how we’re communicating. We all tend to use the phrase. I hope this email finds you healthy. I hope you’re doing well. And it said, you know, we really should start asking, not assuming, but asking, ‘How are you?’ And I think that’s so important to what we need to do. So we switched, as I said, to making those phone calls initially, just checking in with people. We’ve moved more to the virtual platforms, we’ve done, some Zoom calls and FaceTime to just have that communication and really trying to listen to our donors. To not assume that they have been hit hard by the stock market, because everybody’s in a different situation, and it’s easy for us to say it’s a bad time, but we need to let donors be the ones who express that. Because most often donors want to find some way to help. Their timing may be different the way they make a gift may be different, but it’s important to let them make those decisions, not for us to make the assumption for them.

Kelly Merricks: (12:11)
We have done, you know, and I’ll just say along those lines, that communication piece, the shifts that we’ve made have certainly been with our donors, but it’s also been about our internal communication with our team members. So starting with our own development staff, our Foundation staff, and how we communicate with them and making sure we’re staying in touch with them. And I think this is important for a small nonprofit or a large nonprofit. You go from being together eight to 10 hours a day, five days a week, to suddenly not seeing each other for three months. So making sure that we maintain that communication, be it, we do staff meetings via Zoom. Now we do them three times a week where we’re all together, but then ongoing phone calls and one-on-one, check-ins with our staff too that have taken on a different tone. You know, it’s certainly what are you working on and what support do you need? But the first 10 minutes of calls these days with our team members are more about, ‘How are you doing?’ And that carries over, not just with our team members, but to our board members and our donors as well. Taking that time for whatever it is, 10, 15 minutes, because we’re all in the same storm, but we all have different scenarios going on. So for somebody, it may be that they’re at home by themselves, and the only interaction they’re having is that once a week trip to the grocery store. So they just want to talk. Somebody else might have an elderly family member that they’re caring for, or young children who [may need to say] ‘We may be interrupted on this by my 12-year-old coming down to check in.’ Having that kind of compassion and empathy with all the conversations we’re having. And I really think in the end, with both our team members and our donors, if we’re doing that, we’re strengthening those relationships, which is what our business needs to be about. And I think that for smaller nonprofits who often rely on mail solictiations or email solicitations, taking this opportunity to have those (they’re not face-to-face), voice-to-voice conversations, are going to be so important in the long run of building those relationships.

Harry Warner: (14:32)
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t have said it better myself, Kelly, you’re spot on, it’s all down to relationships and sometimes you just have to forgo the solicitation to be able to steward those relationships. I’m going to have to kind of speed it up a little bit here. One last question to either of you all, what do you all see you all doing in the next three to six months, I guess to be able to continue on the fundraising side or on the operating side? I was very encouraged, Mac, when you said you all are going to have patients there just in two weeks at the new facility. Beyond that, how do you all see operating until the end of the year, perhaps?

Kelly Merricks: (15:26)
I think from a development advancement perspective, well, certainly we’re looking the next six months, we’re also being realistic that we need to have plans for the next 30 to 90 days, because we don’t know where we will be in the fall [if] there’s the potential for a second surge. I think we need to take what we’re learning from this and continue to implement it in the fall. We are looking at, we are doing much more online presence in terms of electronic communication. Again, videos. We use MailChimp for sending out newsletter-type things, communicating as much as we can in that manner. We will not be able to take potential donors into the new hospital anytime soon. And I think even coming out of the pandemic, donors are going to be wary of going into a medical setting,

Kelly Merricks: (16:26)
So continuing the communication style that we’ve had to shift to, I think that’s what we’re really looking at. And we’re developing a plan of what that communication is. So we have a timeline of when we anticipate sending out various communications.

Harry Warner: (16:42)
Well, I want to thank you all for participating in this nonprofit spotlight. You all have been great. I think that we can take away many great points across the board, uh, for nonprofits in our community and be able to consider and to be able to succeed.