AUDIO
January 13, 2017

Podcast: How the Make-a-Wish Foundation Makes Kids’ Dreams Come True

Make-A-Wish Foundation
David Williams, head of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, greets a wish recipient at a celebration at Disneyland.

At a time when donors increasingly want a simple and straightforward understanding of how their contributions are used, few nonprofits have a clearer or more compelling proposition than the Make-A-Wish Foundation. And while everybody applauds the charity’s mission of granting wishes to critically ill children, far fewer people understand how it works and what goes into turning kids’ dreams into reality, more than 14,000 times a year.

As CEO David Williams notes in this edition of the Business of Giving, the foundation’s work can be about much more than just "creating a great day for a kid." It can serve as an incentive, or a reward, for children undergoing unpleasant medical treatments, and even be a catalyst for healing; the nonprofit gets reports from the medical community that just the anticipation of a wish being fulfilled can boost a young patient’s physical and emotional health.

It can also foster philanthropic feelings; Mr. Williams reports that more and more kids are asking not for the classic trip to Disney World or day as a firefighter, but to do something to help other kids.

He also talks about the nonprofit’s forays into major-gift and online fundraising; its recent shift from serving only terminally ill children and their families to granting wishes for kids battling serious conditions; and what his own Make-A-Wish would be.

Listen to the full interview below, and/or scroll down to read a transcript provided by the Business of Giving.

Denver: At a time when donors want a simple and straightforward understanding of how their contributions are going to be used, few organizations have a clearer or more compelling proposition than Make-A-Wish Foundation. And while everybody applauds the concept, far fewer people understand how it works, and what goes into granting these 14,000+ wishes every year. And to help us appreciate that a bit better, it’s a pleasure to have with us this evening, the President and CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, David Williams. Good evening, David, and welcome to The Business of Giving!

David: Thank you, Denver. It’s great to be here.

Denver: There is so much you can learn and tell about an organization and how it operates by the way it got started. What is the founding story of the Make-A-Wish Foundation?

David: You know, it’s amazing that back in 1980, there was a young boy by the name of Chris Greicius who had leukemia, and Chris had a favorite TV show. Some of our older viewers may remember it. It was called CHiPs. It was about two California highway patrolmen, and Chris always believed that when he grew up, that’s what he was going to do.

Well, as his condition worsened, a couple of his mom’s friends got together and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great for Chris to be able to experience something like those California highway patrolmen?” So, one volunteer sewed the uniform; another one contacted the Arizona Department of Public Safety, and the long and short of it is that he had a day in uniform. He became the only Arizona honorary state trooper in their history… to this day. He rode in a helicopter, in the car, on a police motorcycle. Unfortunately, a few days later, he passed away. But what I think is amazing is that those six individuals who made that happen didn’t just go back to their lives and say, “Well, we did a good thing for a kid.” They said, “You know what? I bet there are other kids like Chris out there!” And that’s when they started Make-A-Wish.

Denver: That’s a wonderful story. There are different kinds of wishes that children make, like wishes to go somewhere. Run through them for us, if you would.

David: You bet. There are really four categories. And so as you mentioned, a wish to go, and so that could be Hawaii, a certain theme park in Florida or California… our good friends at Disney.

Denver: One hundred thousand wishes, right?

David: One hundred thousand wishes this year!  

That was actually the second wish that was granted, for a young boy by the name of Bopsy Salazar… to go to Disneyland.  And ever since then, Disney has just been an amazing partner. So, there are a lot of different places, and this is actually a wish that, with the advent of social media, more and more kids are wishing to experience that kind of wish.

Second category would be the wish to have something.  So, it might be a computer; it might be a new bedroom. Sometimes it has to do with their illness, and so, a spa… or something that… if they’re not able to move around easily… something at their own home. The next one is a wish to meet someone. So, every year, over 1,100 of our wishes involve a wish to meet a celebrity. And then the last one is a wish to be something or someone… so, to be a policeman, to be a fireman, to be a ballerina. 

And then I think the last one is not really a category, but we’re seeing it more and more–I think it really fits in with this show– is a wish to give. We’re seeing more and more kids wanting to do something for someone else through their wish, which I think is just absolutely…extraordinary! For a kid to actually be thinking about–

Denver: Like soup for the homeless, right? Tell us that story.

David: That is exactly right. We had a young woman by the name of Natalie who wanted to create a soup to be served to homeless people, and she did. And one of the lasting outcomes of that is that the Four Seasons Resorts– many of them now have Natalie Soups on their menu. The proceeds from the sale of that soup is used to help grant wishes with Make-A-Wish. 

Denver: That’s great.  Make-A-Wish used to only grant wishes to children who were terminally ill, but that has recently changed. Tell us about that change and what prompted it. 

David: It really came from the fact that every parent’s first wish when you get that kind of a diagnosis is for your child to survive their illness. And even if you were to receive that kind of diagnosis, the attitude, I think of every parent, of every family member is, “Look, I don’t care what the doctor says… We’re going to beat this.” And so for Make-A-Wish to be tied in with a terminal diagnosis, it almost seemed like an admission of defeat.  So the decision was made to change it to grant wishes for kids with a life-threatening medical condition.

Now, here’s the thing. These are still seriously ill kids. There are kids that don’t survive their illness.  But actually, more and more…with advances in medicine… kids are surviving their illness.  And the cool thing is that the medical community is using these wishes in a strategic manner. The conversation goes something like this: “Look, if you’re going to have six months of chemotherapy… or you’re going to have two surgeries… or you’re going to have eight months of radiation… If you do everything we tell you to do, you’re going to be strong enough to be able to go on your wish. So, do everything that we tell you to do.” And we’re seeing studies now where not only does it improve the emotional health of a child, but in some cases, it’s actually improving the physical health of the child. This is coming from the medical community, so it’s pretty extraordinary.

Denver: That’s a great reframing. You have been very intentional to include the entire family in a wish, and not just Mom and Dad, but the brothers and sisters as well. And actually, David, there’s going to be a trade-off to doing this because you can’t grant as many wishes when you have to accommodate entire families. Tell us your thinking around this.

David: Yes. It’s been that way from the very beginning, and I think it’s a wonderful core value because the entire family is going through that experience.  Because when a child receives that diagnosis, everybody’s world changes. And so, first of all, I don’t care how much money you have; I don’t care how great your insurance is: there’s going to be a financial strain. But when you think about siblings and now, all of a sudden, all of the attention is on that child with the illness… what happens to brothers and sisters that are now kind of pushed off to…

Denver: Marginalized.

David: Yes! That’s why we want this to be a celebration. We want this to be something that strengthens the family, that brings the family together. Because, again, I don’t care how strong your marriage is; I don’t care how strong your family is: when something like this happens, everybody’s world turns upside down.

Denver: As wonderful as the Wish experience undoubtedly is, I would imagine the anticipation leading up to it can be just as magical. Is there anything you do to guide families to help them optimize this as they ramp up for the big day?

David: We do! First of all, most of the work that’s done by Make-A-Wish is done by volunteers. So we have close to 30,000 volunteers, and they’re the ones who have a special title of “wish granter.” These are the volunteers that work with the family. Right from that diagnosis to when they meet the family — we call it the arc of the journey — there’s a whole journey that takes place, and frankly, it starts with the first meeting. And with all of us, anticipation is sometimes just as great as the experience itself. 

Denver: Sometimes better!

David: Sometimes better! We find that our volunteers, because they’re gathering all kinds of information about the child: what their favorite food is, what their favorite colors are, all those kinds of things… they will build in little experiences leading up to the wish. It makes it much bigger than just that day, or a couple of days, or the week of the actual wish.  

Denver: What is the cost of an average wish?

David: The average cost in total is about $10,000. Now, you take that and split it in half, in that about $5,000 is cash, and  $5,000 is in-kind. So it’s getting frequent flyer miles from customers who donate them. 

Denver: Which are tougher to get, I bet, these days because the airlines are giving you so many options. 

David: They are. You’re right. But, you know what? If you’ve got a couple thousand miles on an airline that you know you’re not going to travel again, and there’s an expiration coming up–actually, the expiration goes away when the donation comes to Make-A-Wish, which is really nice. We still receive a couple hundred million miles a year. Now, our need is 2 billion miles a year, so we’re not scratching the surface. So, if there’s anybody listening, and they want to donate some frequent flyer miles, it’s really easy to do.

Denver: 14,000 wishes a year, or thereabouts. You’ve been here 10, 11, 12 years;  that’s a lot of wishes you’ve seen. Any of those among your favorites?

David: Well, when I was interviewing, there was an interesting wish that was taking place. There was a young girl by the name of Hope Stout in North Carolina whose first wish was to become famous. She was a precocious redhead who asked a lot of questions. The volunteers at that time had told her, “Look, your wish could happen right away,” because the school that she attended actually raised the money for her, and she didn’t have to wait for her wish. Well, she keeps on asking questions, and she finds out that there are 155 kids waiting for their wish to be granted in North Carolina… waiting on a funding. And so she said, “Well, look. My wish is to raise the money for those 155 kids.” At which point, everybody was like, “No, no, no. You can’t do that. First of all, this is about you.” And she said, “Look, you told me I could wish for anything, and that’s my wish.” The amazing thing  is that the community of Charlotte really came together. They raised over $1 million for those wishes to get granted. She passed away unfortunately right after that.

But that was a wish that was going on at the time that I was interviewing for this position. My background– I was with the Food Bank; I was with Habitat for Humanity. I didn’t know that much about Make-A-Wish, but when I listened to that story, I thought, “Boy, there’s a lot more to this!” Because my impression was, “OK. A kid wants to go to Disney World. I’ve been to Disney World. OK. That’s a good thing.” And what I began to realize…

Denver: You began to realize: “What a job!”

David: That’s exactly right. So, that’s always been a meaningful wish for me.

Denver: Let’s talk about your organization, if we can. You have some 60+ chapters here in the United States, and I know you operate in over 40 countries around the world. The Make-A-Wish Foundation is a federation. Tell us what it means to be a federation, and some of the advantages and challenges inherent in that kind of structure. 

David: The simple way to describe it would be: in a for-profit term: a franchisor and a franchisee. In the United States, we have 62 independently incorporated 501(c)(3) organizations, which means they have their own board of directors, their own CEO, their own staff, their own budget.  And then we have what we call performance standards and a licensing agreement that keeps us all together.

Now, I think the great thing about that is: you have great local leadership and local ownership of this mission because money is being raised locally; the kids are local kids; the volunteers are local volunteers, and people have great pride in their particular chapter. I see that all the time. It’s that entrepreneurship and it’s the wanting to:  “Let’s help kids in our neighborhood, our city, our state!”  I think that passion drives our success. That’s the benefit. 

I think the flipside is when you have that kind of autonomy, to the general public, the people don’t know that we have 62 chapters or 620 chapters, and frankly, they could care less. They either like our mission or they don’t. They’re either going to contribute to our mission because they love what we do or not. 

Denver: You’re right. You are a single, unified organization in everybody’s mind.

David: That’s right. Therefore, there are certain things that have to be non-negotiables, that cannot be up to that local leadership.  Therein lies the challenge —  What are the non-negotiables and what are the negotiables?  We constantly try to, first of all, involve our chapters in decision-making, and we really work at trying to figure out: How do you get consistency on one hand… and yet that passion for local ownership on the other?

Denver: Yes. I’m really familiar with this issue, and I know the tension that can be inherent in it. How do you get, David,  independent units to think a little less parochially and think about the bigger picture?

David: It was the initial thing that I documented when I came on board back in 2005, and it was a really a document I titled “The Power of One,” that we needed to start thinking of ourselves as one organization, that we needed to think about the overall benefit, that if the entire organization benefits, then ultimately, we will.  At the time, we had a very weak national organization. We were actually in debt to our chapters, which is not a good thing. We should be supporting our chapters, not relying on them for support

We were able to make some changes, and the good news is that we have a much stronger national organization now. We surely have some different dynamics from time to time. But I think the chapters can see that if you have a strong national organization, then we’re going to be able to do more for them. And if we’re able to do more for them in the right way, then they should become stronger units as well. 

Denver: What are some of the things that the national organization does to support the local chapters?

David: Well, first of all, we raise a fair amount of money. So back in 2004, our distributions from money that we raised nationally to distribute to chapters  was just a little over $8 million. Last year, it was about $64 million. So even if you don’t like me or the idea of a national office, you’re getting a whole lot more money that we’re raising nationally, and that kind of makes up for some of it.

But really, there’s so much by way of training and best practices, certainly, the awareness. We do a lot to try to just create the overall awareness and keep the brand strong. When we’re able to get on shows like this, on 60 Minutes, ESPN, that raises the boats of all chapters.  I can’t tell you how many people  will say, “Hey, I got involved because I saw the segment on ESPN that you were doing. I thought that would really be cool, and so I became a volunteer. I became a donor. I got my company involved as a sponsor.” Sometimes, it’s hard to track, but it’s important.

Denver: There are few tougher things, I think, in the nonprofit sector than trying to distribute funds to local chapters because everybody feels they’re getting the short end of the stick. How do you go about this, some might say, “unenviable task?”

David: Our big criticism internally is that it’s complicated, and it is, because we have very different formulas, depending on the money. So for example, we run a national direct mail program, and there’s a distribution formula with that. We have a digital program; there’s a different distribution formula with that. We have corporate sponsorships, believe it or not; there’s a different formula with that. We have planned giving, and there’s a different formula with that. And so, it is not simple, but it’s something that, again, we have tried to work through with our chapters. You’re absolutely right, though. Nobody’s happy, but I do think it works. 

Denver: People have to appreciate fairness sometimes is not simple. It is complicated. And you have to really weigh a lot of things to be fair.  That is really your calling card… your integrity, and the fact that you’re going to be honest brokers about the whole thing. You mentioned just a moment ago– corporate partners. I know you don’t get anything from the government, probably very little from foundations except family foundations. It’s the individual contributions, and it is those corporate partners. Boy, there’s a lot of competition out there for corporate sponsors. When you’re making a pitch to a potential sponsor, what are the things you highlight about the assets and attributes of the Make-A-Wish Foundation?

David: Sure. The very first one is the brand. We participate in a lot of market studies, and we’re constantly evaluating our brands, and it’s a very, very strong brand. And I think for any corporation out there, that’s the very first thing that they’re looking at: who they’re aligning with; does this elevate their brand? First of all, we make the case that it does.

Secondly, is that I think most of the time, corporations are looking for ways to engage their employees, their customers. This is the benefit of having strong local chapters, and yet still having a national brand.  Because we can engage, and we can activate at a local level. And so, if a company wants to engage their employees in a Wish, we can do that. If they want to do something that is customer-related, we can do that. 

During this past holiday season, we had a wonderful partnership with Macy’s that we’ve had every year for the past 11 years. And the Believe Campaign allows you to write a letter to Santa Claus, and a dollar contribution comes to Make-A-Wish. Well, somebody’s got to get those letters that are written and dropped off at all those Macy’s stores all around the country. And so, it’s a huge local engagement. And so we’re engaging with employees at Macy’s and with their customers, and that’s being done at a local level, and yet this is a national campaign. 

Denver: And it’s probably more valuable today than it was 11 years ago because not too many people are going to brick-and-mortar stores the way they once were; so this is really a great promotion for them.

David: That’s right. And so I think the combination of the local activation and the national branding is something that we bring. But at the end of it, it’s very tangible; it’s immediate. We know better than most how important research is. But frankly, if you’re contributing to research, you’re helping kids 10, 20 years from now. If you want to be able to impact a family today in your community where your company does business, this is a very simple way to be able to do that. 

Denver: Give us another example of a corporate partner and the promotion they’re running. 

David: Again, during this past holiday season, we had a wonderful partnership with Subaru: the Share the Love campaign, where we were one of four national charities. If you go in and buy or lease a Subaru during the holiday season, a $250 contribution will go to the charity of your choice. We had a great promotion with GameStop where you could– when you check out– have a contribution added to your bill. So, those are some of the great campaigns that we had during the past holiday season.

Denver: A few minutes ago, you touched on your previous jobs. One at the Houston Food Bank, and the other as Chief Operating Officer of Habitat for Humanity. What did you take away from those jobs that helped you better assume the role of CEO at the Make-A-Wish Foundation?

David: It really goes back to your earlier question about a federation because in both of those instances, they were both federated models. 1,200 affiliates in the United States when I was with the Food Bank… we were one of the 200 food banks that were part of, at the time– it was called Second Harvest; then it was called Feeding America. And so I felt like I had the benefit of living on both sides of the fence of a federated model because there were plenty of days when I was at the Houston Food Bank sitting there thinking, “What are the people at the national headquarters thinking?” And then, of course, with Habitat, being on the other side.

And so, when I assumed the role at Make-A-Wish, that was a big challenge for us. The relationship between the national office and chapters… besides the financial piece, it was a bit strained. And so, I think I probably brought that to the table, of having lived in both worlds. 

Denver: As the CEO of an organization of this size and magnitude, I bet you have a lot of things that come across your desk. Anything you find particularly interesting or fascinating at the moment?

David: Yes. We’re kind of kicking around some ideas. You and I were talking earlier about all the negative stuff going on in the world today, or what’s reported. One of the things we’ve been kicking around is the idea of either a docu series about wishes, a movie about wishes. These are conversations, but the fundamental point is that there is so much negative stuff out there.

And to me, the story is not this extravagant wish that takes place. The story is about:  You have a family whose world is turned upside down, and how they are able to stay together, how a community is able to embrace them, how a community is able to make something magical happen in the life of that kid, what the impact afterward is. We grant a wish every 21 minutes. In every single wish that happens, when you peel that thing back, the stories of kindness and resilience and strength and joy; it’s amazing! And it’s so easy sometimes, when you look at the news, to forget that people are doing some really great things with their time and their money; and they care!

I don’t know whether they’re going to happen or not, but I do think that our mission is more than just about the family that we’re helping. And you had made this point earlier, that it is as much a blessing to the volunteer and to the donor as it is to the family. 

Denver: No question about it. Well, speaking about these wishes, there are about 27,000 children diagnosed with a life-threatening illness every year, and you’re granting wishes to a little bit more than half of them, 14,000, 15,000 wishes,…which I think if you stop and think about it for a moment, is truly phenomenal. But I know you want to do more, and I know you want to be able to grant a wish to every child, but that would essentially mean doubling your budget. How are you thinking about that, David? Are you going to double down on your current fundraising, try to get more from that?  Or, are you thinking about some fresh ideas that might provide completely new streams of revenue?

David: Yes and yes. It’s absolutely true. It would take us doubling our revenue. But we’re a $300 million organization right now. For us to be a $600 million organization, that’s not…Habitat for Humanity, the organization I came from—they are a $1 billion organization. American Red Cross, American Heart Organization, American Cancer Society, St. Jude’s, these are $1B  enterprises, and I would argue that the Make-A-Wish brand is every bit as powerful; our mission is every bit as important as those organizations, so this is not a pipe dream. But we are going to do both.

So certainly, if you look at our streams right now, the one area that we’re not as strong in that we should be is Major Gifts philanthropy. The number of people that have given us 7-figure gifts, you could probably count on one hand. And so, when you look at a lot of these other major institutions, they’ve been doing it a lot longer, but they are consistently receiving 7-figure gifts. I think that’s something that doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s something that we’re working on.

On the complete flipside of it, you look at what’s going on in terms of the GoFundMe kind of phase– and the number of people that are wanting to get involved with funding projects? We’re actually piloting that right now with a particular wish. We put a wish on there, and somebody contributes $10 or $25, and then they become part of that community. That’s something that we’re looking at as well.  That’s a little bit new. We’re always going to do special events, but you have to do the right ones because they take a lot of time; they take a lot of effort. Then, corporations are always going to be a mainstay for us.

Denver: Let me ask you this: If you were to make a wish to go somewhere or meet someone, or whatever else, what wish would it be, David?

David: I’ve always gone back and forth on this. I still play tennis;  Roger Federer is somebody who I just think the world of. He’s actually granted wishes for our kids, and he conducts himself off the court the way he does on the court. I think he’s just the perfect sportsman.

Denver: He’s a classy guy.

David: He really, really is!  So,  that would be a wish, and that would be fun.

Denver: Finally, David, if there’s one thing about this work that you wish more people understood, so that they could more fully appreciate what you do, what would that be?

David: I think the main thing would be that when most people hear the name “Make-A-Wish,” they think, “That’s a really nice thing!” And I think that what we are trying to demonstrate is that: Yes, it’s a nice thing, but it’s actually a necessary thing, too. And nobody understands that more than a family that is going through what families go through when they get that kind of diagnosis.

I have not ever gone through it but,  Boy, I’ve met an awful lot of families who will say, “That Wish experience? It saved our marriage! It kept our family together!”  Even if, in the worst case scenario, when they lose their child, a parent talking and saying: It’s the best memory that they have because they never saw their child so happy, and it’s a memory that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

And then to have the medical community talking about how they’re strategically wanting to use these wishes so that it gives the child the best chance to be able to survive their illness. And then to be able to see kids, as a result of their wish, then say, “You know what? I think because of this Wish experience, I’m going to major in something different going forward.” Or, “I’m going to do something different with my life! ” Or:  “I’m going to be a lot more involved in helping others because all these people who didn’t know me got together and created a great experience for me!” My wish is that people really would see that there’s a whole lot more to this organization than just creating a great day for a kid.

Denver: Very well said. People need to appreciate that feeding the spirit is a basic need as well. Well, David Williams, President and CEO of the Make-A-Wish Foundation, thanks so much for being with us this evening. Now, to learn more about Make-A-Wish, or to send a few dollars to help make some child’s wish come true, what do people need to do?

David: It’s pretty simple. Wish.org is our website. There are plenty of places where folks can go to either make a contribution or to get involved with our local chapter. Again, we rely on volunteers. If somebody is out there, and they would love to volunteer with Make-A-Wish, at wish.org, you can locate where the local chapter is and volunteer. If anybody wants to donate frequent flyer miles, they can do it on that site as well. 

Denver: Great, David. It was a real pleasure to have you on the show.

David: Thank you, Denver. It was, too, for me.