For more than 20 years, the Make-A-Wish Foundation has occupied a prominent place in the nonprofit1 sector, partnering with celebrities and pop-culture icons from Spider-Man to SportsCenter to further its mission of granting wishes to children with life-threatening medical conditions.
Despite its high profile as one of the most recognizable charities in North America, Make-A-Wish constantly is challenged to develop and deploy a consistent, national approach to its fund-raising and volunteer recruitment efforts, the creation of which are inextricably linked to learning.
Over the past year, an initiative focused on meeting the challenge was launched, starting with the hiring of Scott Church, learning manager. As leader of the Make-A-Wish University, Church is in charge of learning for all 69 national Make-A-Wish chapters and works with a three-member team to develop learning content for upward of 25,000 volunteers and paid employees.
“We’re still growing,” Church said. “We’re not nearly as big as our name.”
What it lacks in numbers, the university team more than makes up for in heart. The team members also have a great deal of support from national headquarters, where a more relaxed approach to budgeting and resource allocation are just two indicators of the new initiative’s importance in regard to standardizing the learning process.
“After 25 years in existence, Make-A-Wish is exploding, going from a mid- to large-scale operation,” Church said. “As a result, administration is putting more and more into training, so they can standardize their process among the 69 chapters. The focus right now isn’t (learning budget) control.”
Additional financial resources are helping Church and his team develop ways of training such as e-learning that will be invaluable when it comes to delivering learning to all the national chapters.
“Before, the employees and volunteers had to come to us for annual conferences or orientations. That’s where most of the learning took place,” Church said. “Since each wish granted by the foundation is unique, specialized training in a specific area was up to the national office.
“Prior to me coming onboard, they didn’t have anyone with a background in learning and education, so I think they were driven more by their mission — granting wishes — than by process. Whenever training was needed, it would filter up to the national headquarters, and they would try and deliver it the best they could.”
Church also said many other sources of support have emerged to drive the learning initiative. Many donors have helped contribute to the growing learning and standardizing processes at Make-A-Wish, including Thomson NETg, which provided the nonprofit with a grant that allowed it to purchase a learning management system (LMS).
Under Church’s direction, the LMS is making an impact on both standardizing learning and the growth of e-learning capabilities for delivering it. By standardizing the learning, Make-A-Wish hopes to standardize more of the wish-granting process and make it more efficient. The upshot will be the ability to grant more wishes than ever before.
“To standardize and make all the different processes consistent from chapter to chapter, you’ll find that even if the nature of the business is different, some of what we’re doing is very much like what McDonald’s does with all of its franchisees,” Church said. “That’s exactly what this young, small foundation is doing. We’ve consolidated 84 chapters into a more manageable 69. At the same time, we’ve grown in funding, and we’re granting more wishes, so it’s all for the better.”
One of the things Make-A-Wish is now able to do with its LMS is allow both parity and differentiation among learning subjects and delivery methods. Chapters can prioritize and customize the subject to be more appropriate for their constituents and choose the most effective learning method.
Julianne Valenzuela, one of the members of the Make-A-Wish University team, is the main content designer. She stressed the importance of breaking up or “chunking” the content volunteers and employees have to learn to maximize retention.
Valenzuela also said this philosophy starts at the national university level and then trickles down to individual chapters.
“A lot of our initial meetings are devoted to education on how to chunk information and make it smaller and on understanding the difference between which subjects need a full course or just a rapid, e-learning offering,” she said. “The analogy I use is, if I wanted to teach my 16-year-old to change a tire, I’m not going to put him through the entire auto mechanics class — I’d just teach a course on changing a flat tire, and the first class would be on how to use a jack.
“That’s a big portion of what Scott’s doing, letting people know when rapid e-learning would be best for mini-topics and to go with a fuller program for a larger or longer project.”
At Make-A-Wish University, “full” projects include a core competency school and certification programs. The combination promotes both standardization and employee retention.
The approach also is applied to volunteer recruitment, education and retention efforts. Because it is a nonprofit, talented fund-raisers are as important as any aspect to the success of Make-A-Wish, and retaining these individuals has been a challenge.
Church said one way to deal with this issue is the university’s partnership with the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP).
“AFP has their own certification, but they’re aligning with us, so we can start having our workshops accredited,” Church said. “For fund-raisers, who are my biggest concern since they have the highest turnover, this would offer an added benefit in coming to Make-A-Wish. We can say, ‘Come work for us, and while you’re here, we can help you get your (fund-raising) certification because of our alliance with the crediting board.’ I think that will really help reduce the turnover.”
This alignment is pertinent to another one of the foundation’s goals. Event fund-raising has been the core of Make-A-Wish’s campaigns and helped it raise a high national profile. To sustain long-term income to further the foundation’s agenda, a change was needed.
A major objective for Make-A-Wish is to go from heavily relying on event fund-raising to becoming more proficient at fostering long-term donor relationships that generate a more consistent flow of funds though donations. Church said the accredited training from AFP is integral to achieving this goal.
“We’ve had a huge training initiative that has been successful in helping all the chapters move away from being event-driven in their fund-raising to being donor-driven and to cultivating long-term donors, so they eventually give more and more,” he said.
A learning team of only four members leaves no room for miscommunication, especially within an organization responsible for training so many individuals, most of whom are volunteers. Valenzuela said the key to success in this regard is constant communication.
“If our meetings person is gone, sure, I get calls that I have no idea how to answer,” she said. “We’re stretched thin when it comes to overlap in that area. Without making everyone a specialist, it’s hard to explain to everybody that there are 10 steps to that one little change. We’re always right there on the balance of ‘Are we executing quality, or are we maxed out?’
“Certainly, it would be a luxury if there were more of us. It’s made us work hard, but we’re getting a system in place to work smart as opposed to just hard. With Scott onboard and with our president placing a larger emphasis on the university, all of a sudden, it’s become paramount that we all need to communicate on a regular basis.”
Even though members of the university team might feel overwhelmed at times, motivation comes from granting children’s wishes, Valenzuela said.
Before the national headquarters put in place the structure and support to standardize and streamline education and communication practices, each chapter was essentially its own island —some chapters were able to carry out certain wishes, while other chapters were not.
And while it might seem easy to fulfill the wishes of children, Church said it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes work to make those wishes come true.
“It’s not as simple as people think,” he said. “There’s a lot of training involved in granting someone who deserves it their own special wish.”
– Ben Warden, firstname.lastname@example.org