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Ronald McDonald House CEO Janell Mason on Expanding Reach Amidst Inflation

4 min read

Janell Mason left the managed care business in 2003 after a 20-year career. She later joined the Ronald McDonald House board, leading a $9 million effort to build the new 32-room house in Little Rock, which opened in 2016. That success prompted the nonprofit to ask Mason to become its executive director in 2015. She was promoted to CEO in 2021. Its annual budget has increased from $1.1 million in 2015 to $2.5 million in 2023.

What attracted you to Ronald McDonald House Charities of Arkansas?

I was drawn to our mission and the well-respected reputation of the global charity. Providing families with the ability to stay together for free, giving them a comprehensive community of support and services, and removing the financial burdens of being away from home for an extended period when their critically ill child is hospitalized helps them in immeasurable ways. Ensuring that they have less worry during their child’s health crisis is extremely important to me.

How is inflation affecting operations?

Like every business we are affected by rising costs, especially in regard to our operations. We raise 100% of our operating costs, and inflation has definitely been a factor there. Generous donors and a strong fundraising strategy are key to ensure that inflation does not negatively impact families. While we continue to have passionate and loyal supporters, we have seen relaxing in the urgency of donations, and some special funding that was available in recent years has no longer been available. This year we have been challenged, navigating the changes in the mindset around giving amidst continued uncertainty and inflation. Whether gifts are large or small, they all help to provide what families need when they need it most.

How did the pandemic affect fundraising?

During the onset of COVID we implemented new and ultimately highly successful strategies for fundraising. Donors and community members rallied around Ronald McDonald House families, making sure they were fed and had everything they needed to remain at their child’s hospital bedside. I cannot fathom the fears our parents faced during the pandemic, isolated and uncertain, while their child was hospitalized and COVID was such a threat. While so much about the pandemic was difficult, we truly experienced extreme generosity and kindness during this crisis.

What advice would you give other nonprofit leaders?

Build a team and board as dedicated to your mission as you are and support their success. Create a strategic plan with the flexibility to pivot when challenges appear. Find a trusted, innovative mentor. Build partnerships with your donors before you need them. Above all, fulfill your mission with compassion, respect and support of those you serve. My motto has always been “make today count,” and our team strives to do just that. Being present for families when they need us most, it blesses us all.

Can you share an inspiring story or two?

Only two? Having provided a home away from home to over 48,000 families since 1981 there are so many Ronald McDonald House family stories. One mom in particular touched my heart when she told me what she had endured during COVID. “Only those who have had a baby in the [neonatal intensive care unit] understand how difficult it is. One day I was 34 weeks pregnant and the next day I was hospitalized. Three days later my son was born with complications. I was isolated with him for more than six weeks due to COVID restrictions. The doctors and nurses were concerned about me, I cried all the time. With monitors going off at all hours I got no sleep. I now know I had severe postpartum anxiety and depression. I wore the same clothes, hadn’t washed my hair in two weeks, and wasn’t eating. Then I found out about the Ronald McDonald Family Room at [the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences] on the NICU floor — it was just down the hall. They fed me dinner and breakfast. I could do laundry for free and take a shower. I could get away to take care of myself for a few minutes — it sounds like a simple thing, but it was so much more. It was a gift of dignity. It was a massive, positive thing to have someone help just because they wanted to — someone actually cared, and I wasn’t alone. God bless this organization and those who support it.”

Another special memory was getting to meet baby Maverick. His adoptive parents flew to Little Rock thinking they would be able to take him home right away, but Maverick’s premature birth required 48 days in the NICU at Arkansas Children’s. Before they headed to the airport as a new family, Tao and Yufeng [the parents] brought him to the Ronald McDonald House so we could finally meet him (we love seeing our families get to take their child home).

After Maverick and his family settled into their lives together, we received the sweetest message that accompanied a donation from them: “We’re so grateful for the Ronald McDonald house, the support and help given to us when our family was going through difficult times. We never expected him to be in the hospital so long. We will tell this story to Maverick when he is older — that many people helped our family during his first 48 days in the world. Thank you!”

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