Michele Hall-Duncan: “Ask your job to invest in you”

Every day, enCourage kids are making hospitals a better place to get better for kids and families. What we try to do is help everyone in the hospital who is on the frontline — the Child Life Specialists, the doctors, the nurses — with the things that they need that insurance doesn’t cover, to help those hospitalized children and […]

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Every day, enCourage kids are making hospitals a better place to get better for kids and families. What we try to do is help everyone in the hospital who is on the frontline — the Child Life Specialists, the doctors, the nurses — with the things that they need that insurance doesn’t cover, to help those hospitalized children and their psychosocial well-being. We have been doing this for 35 years and we are a true leader and an impactful partner with hospitals across the country. We’ve invested over 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals, and we’re excited to do even more. It’s our passion for improving the lives of these kids and their family members that continue to drive us, especially now.


As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michele Hall-Duncan, President & CEO of enCourage Kids Foundation.

Michele began her career at enCourage Kids as a volunteer and joined the program staff full-time in 1996. Having been hospitalized for a serious illness as a child, Michele felt a deep connection to the mission and quickly rose within the organization to oversee all programming. For more than two decades she has cultivated relationships with Child Life staff and all levels of hospital administration, and developed an integral understanding of trends in creative therapies and the ability to identify and meet the needs of our hospital partners. Combined, these attributes have helped Michele position enCourage Kids to be on the forefront of state-of-the-art programming in pediatric healthcare.

Michele is a Trustee of Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation; serves on the Advisory Board of one of the nation’s leading anti-bullying organizations, STOMP Out BullyingTM; and is a board member of the New York City chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals where she also serves on the Professional Advancement Committee. A native of Flint, Michigan, Michele is a proud graduate of Michigan State University with a B.A. in Advertising, and has been an active associate member of the Essex Hudson Chapter of Jack and Jill of America, Inc. for 10 years.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

When I was a kid growing up in Flint, Michigan, I wanted to be a lawyer. I had my heart set on attending New York University and then moving on to a top law school. My family, however, wasn’t supportive of the idea. I was living with my aunt at the time, and NYU was simply financially out of my reach. As a freshman at Michigan State University, I initially majored in political science and then changed my major to advertising when studying Hobbes and Locke became unbearable. I did finally make it to New York, after falling in love with a boy from Jersey City and moving to the east coast after we were married. My first jobs at a direct marketing agency and a public relations firm were exciting, however, I wasn’t passionate about the work. My son was a little over a year old when I decided to start volunteering at a children’s charity. I loved being a volunteer and feeling like such an integral part of fulfilling the mission of helping sick kids. I was volunteering for the foundation for about four years when the division of the company I was working for was sold to a competitor. My choices were to move to the company’s headquarters in Dallas or take the severance package and move on. I didn’t want to uproot my husband and young son, and I really loved the energy of New York City, so I decided to stay. During that downtime, I began to volunteer at the enCourage Kids Foundation’s office more frequently, while I plotted my next career move. When one of the full-time staff went on maternity leave, I was asked to step in for her temporarily; that was 23 years ago. That is called serendipity.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Very early on in my career, I went to visit a little boy who had AIDS. He was six years old and lived in Brooklyn. I had never been to Brooklyn and when I exited the train station, I was a little taken aback by the condition of the neighborhood. Once I’d located the building where this kid lived, I walked up to the second floor and the mom let me in to the apartment. They lived in an old building that I am sure has either been torn down or gentrified by now. The kitchen ceiling had a leak in it and a bucket was in the middle of the floor catching the water. I sat down on the couch and started talking to the mom and trying to make her feel comfortable with this stranger in her home. The little boy was adorable even with the scars from recent lesions on his face. I’d brought him a little gift from the office as an ice breaker. He walked over to me and stood beside me while I talked, then kinda leaned on me and without thinking I just picked him up and sat him in my lap while I kept chatting with mom. He wanted to take a trip to Disney World and we were going to try and make that happen for him. When it was time for me to leave, I hugged the mom and then hugged the little boy tightly swinging him back and forth in my arms playfully. The mother followed me downstairs and I noticed she was a little teary-eyed. I was used to this, exhausted parents of sick kids are always grateful when you do nice things for them, but this time was different. “I can’t believe that you picked him up and let him sit in your lap. Most people are afraid to touch him,” she said. I was speechless. I wasn’t naive nor easily shaken, but the thought that anyone would shun a little kid because he had an illness enraged me. I haven’t thought about that sweet child in a long time, probably because I wanna believe that he is alive and well. But I knew in that moment that I had made the right choice to follow the unplanned path to the work that I do today.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I don’t remember making any mistakes. They thought I was a rock star and wouldn’t let me leave.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Every day, enCourage kids are making hospitals a better place to get better for kids and families. What we try to do is help everyone in the hospital who is on the frontline — the Child Life Specialists, the doctors, the nurses — with the things that they need that insurance doesn’t cover, to help those hospitalized children and their psychosocial well-being. We have been doing this for 35 years and we are a true leader and an impactful partner with hospitals across the country. We’ve invested over 50 million dollars to help medically challenged kids, their families, and hospitals, and we’re excited to do even more. It’s our passion for improving the lives of these kids and their family members that continue to drive us, especially now.

Recently, we created a really meaningful campaign in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic that we feel is going to make a real social impact. It’s called the VIRTUAL HANDSHAKE CHALLENGE and it was born to help us keep our promise to deliver joy, hope, resilience, and healing. As hospitals have had to close their playrooms, impose visitor limitations, and shift resources toward fighting this pandemic, pediatric patients have become more secluded and more scared than ever before. But feelings of isolation have reached beyond the hospital walls. Outside, as social distancing has become the new social norm, we realized today, every one of us is feeling that same overwhelming impact. The simple act of shaking hands, a tradition that shows respect and breeds familiarity, is now taboo, and could potentially endanger your life.

Our staff started to think about what we as an organization and as individuals could do to stay connected in a fun and inspiring way. The answer was, the VIRTUAL HANDSHAKE. We are encouraging our friends and family and complete strangers to share videos of their version of a virtual handshake on their social media platforms to support enCourage Kids. Every dollar raised with every virtual handshake, fist bump, and high five helps pediatric patients feel connected and stay positive during these uncertain times. We’d love for this idea to spread across the world!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

They are probably too numerous to mention, so I would highlight the effect that we have had on pediatric healthcare generally and Child Life departments specifically. We have positioned ourselves to be a go-to resource for programs that are not always funded by hospitals. We are known for keenly listening to hospitals and helping them to transform their environments, bring crucial therapies to their patients, and provide much-needed technology.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Our greatest challenge is to provide resources to pediatric patients and their families. Everyone is welcome to join us in meeting that challenge. Participating in our VIRTUAL HANDSHAKE CHALLENGE is a great step in that direction.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Over the course of my career, leadership has had an ever-changing definition for me. Leaders are charged with having a vision, convincing others their vision is actionable and inspiring others to follow them. A good leader is able to hold fast to their vision while simultaneously considering the needs of everyone in the organization.

One of the most exciting elements of my time as a leader has been getting to know and mentor the oft-maligned millennials that have come to work or volunteer at my organization. I often find myself fraternizing with contemporaries who bemoan their younger employees as though they were scaled, winged goblins who only knew how to text on the job and ask for title changes. I won’t say learning to work with millennials has been without frustration, but I will say that in order to do it well, you’ve got to lead with empathy. Most importantly, you have to look with a dose of humility at the vast chasm between what early adulthood was like for my generation and what it was like for theirs.

Millennials have a very deep and justifiable fear of averageness. It is perhaps a fear my generation struggles to identify with because we grew up so differently. I grew up in a then-thriving midwestern town and attended a public school system that offered working-class kids a world-class education. I attended a state university for a reasonable price, and was able to purchase a home for a reasonable price. I’m the CEO of a national organization with a B.A. Very few of the millennials I employ can say that. Many of them saw their parents abused by the marketplace during the recession. Their families endured exorbitant taxes or tuition to make them viable candidates for expensive degrees. As soon as they graduate, they are thrust into a never-ending social capital competition that dwarfs anything my generation can comprehend. You’ve got to package your life as exceptional on Instagram or the app literally doesn’t bother to show your posts to your friends. Want a date? You’ve got to package yourself as exceptional to possibly be chosen from an unlimited list of menu items on Tinder. Combine all of these factors together and you get a generation that has been marinating in the narrative that the greatest sin in life is to be average. Average people are not entitled to outlive their student debt, or buy a home, find love or cultivate a healthy self-image.

In the context of all of the deeply stressful psychological assaults this generation experiences, I have to retool the conversation I have about why I can’t wave a magic wand and give them a manager or director’s position after fourteen months on the job. I have to consider the very real social and economic pressures on my young employees, to see a tangible return on all of the ways our society has forced them to overextend themselves. I’ve learned that when I sit with them in their perspectives, I am almost always able to help create a trajectory that is healthy and realistic for both the employee and organization — but it has taken a lot of listening, suspension of judgment, and humility.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Know your worth. My son recently told me about a friend who negotiated a higher salary with his first employer because he knew that where his salary started would be crucial to future personal revenue. I was impressed by that. That young man knew his worth and asked to be compensated appropriately.
  2. Value your time. I have had a tendency to allow my time to be co-opted by others and when you truly think of time as currency, you just don’t allow that to happen.
  3. Take chances. I wish I’d had the confidence to assert myself more in the early years of my career. I knew that I had the capacity to do more and I should have voiced that.
  4. Ask your job to invest in you. Conferences, workshops, networking events. Your employer’s greatest hope is year over year improvement in your performance. Make them a collaborator in that development and you’ll be surprised how invested they are.
  5. Manage impostor syndrome. Michelle Obama addresses this subject in her book Becoming. Life rarely gives us perfect days. On the days where everything you do goes right — own it.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

People can be so rude. I would love to inspire a movement of politeness. It’s free, and it’s simple. Resurrect the words please and thank you. Hold the elevator door for someone. Escalate random acts of kindness. I was at a Starbucks drive-thru recently and when I got to the window, the barista told me that the person ahead of me had paid for my order. She asked if I wanted to do the same for the person behind me. After glancing discreetly in my rearview mirror to make sure that I wasn’t buying coffee for seven people, I agreed. I now randomly pay for people’s coffee when I can. It’s the best feeling. It could become a social media movement! We can use the hashtag #loveyourneighbor.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” My mother was the first person to tell me that. She was probably trying to get me to finish my homework. I have a tendency to run through scenarios in my head. I believe that mental preparation is vital to success. Practice what you will say in a board meeting or conference call. Keep your bio updated. Have your business cards at the ready at all times. Being prepared means that you are a chess player in life — not a checkers player. Stay ready.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

There are a few people with whom I would love to speak! However, I would probably choose Jay-Z. I know that he has always been a stealthy philanthropist, however now I feel there are more eyes on his efforts to support young people through his foundation’s scholarship program. I admire how he is using his platform to address social justice issues. He wasn’t born privileged — at all. I would be interested in his core philosophy around giving back and how he sees himself as a role model for the generation following him.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Twitter: michelehtweets

Instagram: michelelovespics

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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