An Interview With Make-A-Wish President & CEO David Williams

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David A. Williams
President & Chief Executive Officer

As president and chief executive officer, David Williams leads the national staff and 62 chapters of the Make-A-Wish Foundation® in its simple, heartfelt mission: granting the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy. Since 1980, the world's largest wish-granting organization has granted the wishes of more than 225,000 children in the United States.

Williams joined the Foundation in January 2005. Under his leadership, the national office annual revenue has more than doubled since 2004 to $70 million, distributions to chapters have quadrupled to $43 million, and overall revenue including chapters has increased by over $100 million to $240 million.

Before joining the Make-A-Wish Foundation, Williams spent 11 years at Habitat for Humanity International, rising to executive vice president and chief operating officer. Williams began his work in nonprofit leadership by serving as executive director of The Houston Food Bank for 11 years.

Ann Paisley Chandler: What development and fundraising strategies did you employ after getting to Make-A-Wish that helped you double your annual revenue?

David Williams: We created a VP of Corporate Alliances and Marketing position and a VP of Development position. Prior to my arrival, we simply had a VP that covered all fundraising and communications activities. Three years ago, we split out the brand and marketing activities from corporate alliances so we now have three VPs leading fundraising/marketing efforts reporting to me where we had one in 2005.

In short, philanthropy, corporate alliances and marketing are all very distinct and important activities that require a specific skill set and focus. In order to grow, I felt we needed senior executives who could concentrate on a narrower landscape. The previous VP simply had too much on her plate.

This change enabled us to concentrate on starting a major gift initiative, expand our online fundraising and pilot other fundraising ideas; some of which worked and some of which did not. But, that is the nature of trying new ideas. Not everything is going to work out as planned but it's hard to grow if new ideas can't be created because leaders are too busy just getting through their inbox.

APC: Since arriving almost nine years ago, how has your view of Make-A-Wish evolved?

DW: I am much more aware of the amazing impact of a wish. Like many others, I thought primarily of the wish child and the wish experience itself. But the fact is that many, many others are impacted by a wish -- moms, dads, brothers, sisters, other family members, friends, and sometimes even entire communities.

A wish-come-true, in concert with medicine, can also have a tremendous impact on a child's health. It's something we've known anecdotally for a long time, but a 2011 study showed that 89 percent of medical professionals believe a wish can have an impact on a child's health. This was an eye-opening revelation. A wish is more than just a nice thing; it's an important and necessary part of a child's treatment. A wish provides a child the chance to envision and think about the future.

The impact of a wish begins the moment that wish is contemplated and continues as it is planned, dreamed, experienced, and remembered for many years afterwards. The arc of a journey of a wish experience is much wider and longer than I ever imagined. That comes as a result of literally hundreds of conversations over the years with wish families who speak of their wish experience in unbelievably emotional and poignant ways regardless of whether that wish occurred 20 years ago or last week. I am always amazed by the power of a wish.

APC: Now that Make-A-Wish has increased its revenue so dramatically, how will this affect its mission going forward?

DW: Every year in the United States, 27,000 kids are diagnosed with a life threatening medical condition. Last year, we granted the wishes of 14,000 kids. So, in short, we have a lot of work to do.

Our mission is simple and our vision even more so -- every eligible child should be able to receive a wish experience. So, since our mission, vision, and values are not going to change, it means we need to grow and do what we do best. The older I get, the more I appreciate the value of being able to focus. We don't have 19 different programs. We have one. We grant wishes. It's a lot more complicated than that, but I believe we benefit greatly from having a simple, easily understood and widely accepted mission and vision.

APC: What have been the biggest challenges you have faced?

DW: In all my positions, the biggest challenge has always been leadership. We need to recruit, retain, develop, challenge, and recognize our people -- staff and volunteer leadership. It all comes down to leadership; great leadership can overcome a lot of challenges -- internal and external. We can have the most wonderful mission, inspiring vision, a lot of money, and amazing facilities, but if we lack great leadership, we are in trouble.

So, having the right leadership is what I have always worried the most about and probably will until I'm no longer leading organizations.

APC: How have lessons learned from these challenges shaped your strategy at Make-A-Wish?

DW: Having great leaders within Make-A-Wish makes my job so much easier and less of a burden. Great leaders are always thinking of ways for the organization to improve. My job then becomes more of being a good listener and facilitator of good ideas. And, the fact is that no one bats 100% and timing is as important as the idea itself. So, it takes wisdom to figure when and how best to move forward with good ideas.

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This post was originally published on PhilanthropyNYU.