Delivering dreams

Former Habitat executive takes over Make-A-Wish Foundation

By Ret Boney

Sitting behind his desk in the finance office of a Houston oil company more than two decades ago, David Williams knew he wasn’t meant to be an accountant.

“I didn’t really have a sense of what I wanted to do,” he says.  “I thought I wanted to be involved in some type of ministry.  I was looking for a way to live out my faith.”

Prayer, he says, led him to a life of delivering dreams, first at the Houston Food Bank, then at Habitat for Humanity International, and now as head of the Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, a charity that grants wishes for children with life-threatening illnesses.

“I feel blessed to have worked with three wonderful organizations that help people,” he says.  “They attract people who don’t just think about themselves.  And those are the people I’m attracted to.”

Williams’ first foray into the nonprofit sector was in the mid-1980s as executive director of the Houston Food Bank, where he believed his business skills could save the then-struggling group from closing its doors.

“The money wasn’t good,” he says.  “It wasn’t good from a career standpoint.  Yet it was the easiest decision I’ve ever made.”

By the time he left 11 years later, the group had grown to be one of the largest food banks in the U.S., he says, distributing over 1.5 million pounds of food every month.

In 1994, he joined Habitat for Humanity International in Americus, Ga., having been involved with the organization as a volunteer and chapter board member in Houston, and eventually became the umbrella organization’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

During his decade there, the number of country operations more than doubled to 100, U.S. affiliates grew from 1,200 to 1,700, 145,000 houses were built, he convinced the organization to up its capital campaign goal from $20 million to $200 million and helped secure more than $100 million in federal grants.

David A. Williams

Job: President and CEO, Make-A-Wish Foundation of America, Phoenix

Born: 1959, Hazleton, Pennsylvania

Family: Wife, Martha Williams, executive director, New Horizons Habitat for Humanity, Americus, Ga.; son, 18; daughter, 16

Education: B.S., business administration, Bloomsburg University; M.B.A., University of Houston

Currently reading: “You’re in Charge – Now What?” by Thomas Neff and James Citrin

Hobbies: Basketball; tennis; reading; teaching Sunday school

Favorite books:
 “My Losing Season,” and others by Pat Conroy; “Books that help me live out my faith.”

Inspiration: “Bert Bandini,” founder of Houston Food Bank

Williams also designed and implemented Habitat for Humanity University, a training-and-education resource for volunteers, staff, board members, and anyone else in housing, that he calls “an initiative to develop the leaders that will eliminate poverty housing.”The university, which is expected to serve tens of thousands of people this year, offers online and CD-based courses in fields like leadership, financial management and family support, conducts research and evaluation to support investment in affordable housing and provides best practices and case studies from within the organization and without.“Looking at how somebody else dealt with an issue can be very enlightening,” he says.

Last year, Williams was approached by Make-A-Wish, a group he says he knew little about at the time.

“The more I learned about the organization and met the people on the search committee and board,” he says, “the more my interest was piqued and the more I realized how great this organization is.”

Now, he hopes to make it even better, with a goal of serving the entire eligible population, about twice the 11,700 children served last year, through the group’s 74 chapters, which have a combined operating budget of about $160 million.

“Our vision is that every child diagnosed with a life-threatening illness have the opportunity to experience the power of a wish,” he says.

To do that, he will focus on resource development, broadening the group’s fundraising efforts from its traditional reliance on events and direct mail to include other sources like major gifts, which he says has been a weak point for the group.

And Williams will be personally involved in fundraising, which he believes will give donors the confidence to support the organization with significant gifts.

He also plans to improve the organization by protecting its brand and supporting its chapters while also holding them accountable to a high standard, which he says will benefit the entire organization.

“We have to roll up our sleeves, listen to each other and not be content doing what we’re doing,” he says.  “It’s not an easy thing, but it goes back to why are you here.  If you’re marking time, you need to go somewhere else.  We have to be about helping people.”

One of his first official duties was attending the “Celebration of Hope” charity event in Charlotte, N.C., organized in honor of Hope Stout, the 12-year old girl whose wish was that all 155 children on the waiting list have their wishes granted.

Hope’s wish was granted last year, days after she died, and this year’s event raised over $500,000, about half what is needed to fulfill the wishes of all the children on the local affiliate’s list as of late January.

“Her wish shows what the scripture says,” says Williams.  “That it is more blessed to give than receive.”

As he takes on this newest challenge, Williams plans to heed advice he received over 20 years ago from the founder of the Houston Food Bank, who said, when counseling Williams during a low point, “You were called to be faithful, not successful,” he recalls.

“It is important to be faithful to the organization that you serve and to the values you say you espouse,” Williams says.  “If you’re faithful in little things, you’ll be faithful in big things.  My takeaway is I want to make sure that I’m being faithful to our donors, the kids we serve, our employees and the chapters we serve.  I think we will succeed.”

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