Frank Shankwitz founded Make-A-Wish in 1980. With a mission to grant the wishes of children with life-threatening medical conditions to enrich the human experience with hope, strength and joy, the organization now helps to serve children in nearly 50 countries on five continents through its 36 affiliates. Hugh Ballou, co-publisher of Nonprofit Performance Magazine, sat down with Frank to discuss the origin and continuing success of Make-A-Wish.
Hugh Ballou: Frank, give us some background about yourself. You were a police officer?
Frank Shankwitz: I was with the Arizona Department of Public Safety. I started as a highway patrol car officer and, when they started the motorcycle program, I rode motorcycles for 11 years. Then I worked as a detective in narcotics, sex crimes, political corruption, and eventually homicide, where I spent the majority of my career. I recently retired with 42 years of service.
Hugh: How did the vision for the Make-A-Wish Foundation come about?
Frank: While I was riding motorcycles as a police officer, the television show CHiPs became very popular, especially with young children. I was on a ten-man squad, working the whole state of Arizona. A two-man team would be in one town for two weeks and then move to another town, wherever they needed us for big events, especially in tourist areas. Children thought we looked like the guys on CHiPs, and we initially trained with the California Highway Patrol. During slow times we went to local grade schools and talked to the children about bicycle safety, which they couldn’t care less about, but they had fun on the motorcycles. It was a great PR tool.
In 1978, I was involved in a high-speed chase with a drunk driver, and another drunk driver ran a stop sign. I hit him broadside at 80 mph and was pronounced dead at the scene. An off-duty emergency room nurse performed CPR and heart massage for four minutes and brought me back to life. It took six months to recover from that accident, but I kept wondering why I was spared. Was there a mission for me in life?
In 1980, I received a phone call from a fellow officer, Ron Cox, who had met a little boy named Chris. Chris was seven years old, and he had leukemia with only a couple weeks to live. His heroes were Paunch and John from CHiPs. Chris told his family and Ron, “When I grow up, I want to be a motorcycle officer just like Paunch and John on CHiPs.” The family asked if there was anything that we could do that would cheer this little boy up. Ron knew that I had worked with children and told me that they had set up a special date for Chris with his doctors, his mother, and our commanders, flying Chris from his hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, to our state police headquarters in Phoenix. Ron wanted me to be there with my motorcycle, since I’d worked with children before and I looked like the CHiPs guys. I had no idea what to expect. This little boy had been on IVs. I thought paramedics were going to have to help him.
Instead, a little boy in red sneakers popped out the helicopter door and introduced himself. He gave me a high five, and asked to get on my motorcycle. He was fascinated with it. He had watched CHiPs so much that he knew every button and switch on that motorcycle: this is the siren, this is the red lights, this is the warning lights.
I kept watching Chris, thinking that he knows he has only a couple weeks to live, and he is running around like a typical seven-year-old. Then I started wondering what else we could do for him. That day, he became the first and only honorary highway patrol officer in the history of the Arizona Highway Patrol, complete with his own badge and certificate making him a full police officer. His doctor pronounced his vitals as good, so he went home that night instead of back to the hospital. But we knew the highway patrolman needed a uniform, so two ladies at the local uniform shop spent all night making a custom uniform for Chris.
The next day, I led a procession of motorcycles and highway patrol cars to his home. The neighbors were wondering what was going on. Chris came running out, and we presented him with his uniform. Chris was ecstatic. He ran in, changed right away, and came strutting out with his uniform and the Smoky Bear hat that we gave him. He was proud as can be. He said, “I want to be a motorcycle officer. How can I do that?” I said that it was a shame he didn’t have a motorcycle, because we’d test him with traffic cones in the driveway. Chris ran into the house and rode out on a little battery-operated motorcycle that his mother had gotten for him in place of a wheelchair. Soon enough, he had on aviator sunglasses like the motorcycle officers wear, and he went through the test and passed. He was fascinated by the wings on my uniform, and asked when he could get his. I told him that I would order them right away and they would probably take a day or two.
Chris got to stay home again that day. The doctor came to the house and didn’t understand it but, again, his vitals were good. I ordered the motorcycle wings, and I picked them up the next day. But by then, Chris was in the hospital in a coma, and probably not going to survive the day. I went to the hospital and, as I pinned the motorcycle wings on his uniform which was hanging by his bed, Chris came out of the coma. He looked at me, looked at his uniform, and asked with a big smile on his face, “Am I an official motorcycle officer now?” I told him he was. I handed him his uniform, and he touched the wings, giggling a little bit, and showed them to his mother. A couple of hours later, he passed away. I like to think those wings helped carry him to heaven.
We had lost a fellow officer as far as we were concerned. Another officer and I went to the little town of Kewanee, Illinois, and gave him a full police funeral. We were joined by Illinois State Police, county and city police, and Chris was buried in uniform. His gravestone reads, “Chris, Arizona Trooper.”
But flying home, I started thinking: this little boy had a wish and we made it happen. Why can’t we do that for other children? The idea for the Make-A-Wish Foundation was born at 36,000 feet.
Hugh: This wouldn’t have happened if you had not done something. You got it done, influenced a huge number of people, and started this foundation, which is really a movement to honor those children who are terminally ill and have a wish.
When I had a camera store in St. Petersburg, Florida, some of my friends who were part of Make-A-Wish said there was a child dying who wanted to be a photographer. We made that happen. There was no question about whether we wanted to do it. We just wanted to know when.
Make-A-Wish has generated revenue in order to do good things. We tend to think of profits only as money, but there are other ways people benefit from this. What went on from there? You established this initiative while you had a full-time job with the police, right?
Frank: Yes. I had an idea, but it took a lot of people to make it work. The most difficult thing in the beginning was finding people who believed in the same idea. Several of the officers and people who met Chris thought it would never work. The Arizona Corporation Commission requires a five-member board with a president, a vice president, and three other board members for a foundation, and it took about two months to find four other people.
As you said, I was a full-time police officer, usually a vocation of 60 hours per week. This was before the days of the Internet. I spent a lot of off-duty time in the library researching how to start a nonprofit, but we finally figured it out. A friend who is an attorney, and another friend who is a CPA, helped me put it together. It only took six months to receive our 501(c)(3).
From the beginning, I wanted to base the foundation on accountability, integrity, and transparency. I wanted to make sure that every dollar that was donated went directly to the mission, so none of the board members received any type of salary, including myself, the first president and CEO. The media picked up on that: here is a foundation where they are not thinking about how to make a profit, but everything is going directly to the mission.
Hugh: In a nonprofit, you don’t distribute the profit to the shareholders because you don’t have any. It’s really a tax-exempt charity. Nonprofits generate profit for the cause.
Many people give up because they can’t easily find people who agree with their idea. Tenacity is needed to make it work. Everybody has an idea. Only three out of 100 people will do anything about the idea. Then 90% of those 3% fail because they are not persistent enough to actually follow through and not let other people rob them of their dream. You had people tell you it wouldn’t work, but you knew it would. What conviction inside of you drove you to complete this?
Frank: Our mutual friend, Greg Reid, taught me a word a few years ago: stickability. While I was putting the foundation together in Phoenix, I learned how many children in the children’s hospital there had leukemia. In the 1980s, leukemia was a death sentence for children. I realized that there were other children out there who needed to have their wish granted. Unfortunately, starting the foundation was all about terminality, and the children did not survive. Fortunately, today about 70% of children survive leukemia and the majority of cancers that are life-threatening illnesses.
Our national board members came up with a great idea about 20 years ago to change our mission from terminal to life-threatening because, through the graces of God and modern medicine, more and more children were surviving. It was a great decision for the current management of the Make-A-Wish Foundation because that way they could impact a lot more children, granting a lot more wishes.
Hugh: Another good leadership principle is developing a consensus with your team, your board. The Make-A-Wish Foundation will supersede you for who knows how long; it will go on indefinitely because it is an idea that you have transformed into an institution which has sustainability. Are there chapters of Make-A-Wish around the world?
Frank: Yes, there are now 62 national chapters and 36 international chapters on five continents. During our first year, we told our board members that someday we were going to be national and international. They all laughed at me, but I think I had the last laugh on that one.
Hugh: I commend you for that. Leaders are people of influence, and you influenced that to happen by your power, your presence, and your stickability, continuing to make a difference in the world.
Bob Proctor says that he doesn’t have the word retire in his vocabulary. A few years ago, he was asked when he was going to slow down. He said, “I am 77, and I have to speed up. I have more to do.” You and I are in another phase. I am in my third career. I had my career as a merchant and as a conductor for 40 years. The last ten years I have been working as a leadership strategist, helping people launch their ideas and build strong teams and strong organizations as they build their skillset.
I commend you for your journey and not only for your wisdom but also your commitment to that passion. Make-A-Wish has generated money to continue doing its work, but the profit is people have benefited in many ways. You are in a new phase of your career. I heard a rumor that there is a book and a movie coming out.
Frank: I’m so fortunate. This is my fourth career. My first career was in the Air Force. My second was at Motorola. My third was as a police officer for 42 years. When you retire, what do you do? There are not a lot of jobs for an ex-homicide detective. Greg Reid started me on a whole new career path with speaking five years ago. That led to Hollywood calling to say that they wanted to do a movie on my life, the movie Wish Man. The screenplay has been finalized and approved. Filming starts in April 2017. I am pretty excited about all of that. I am flattered and humbled that they want to do this, but they have kept me involved the whole way. And I have had a lot of fun doing that.
My book Wishman is out. It is my personal journey from five years old to what helped me create the Make-A-Wish Foundation.
Hugh: What would you define as the most important leadership decision that you showed in this initiative?
Frank: I realized in later years that I was more of a dictator than a leader with our board members. We had so many far-flung ideas, but I demanded that we continue the mission we had established at the beginning. It must have been right because our original charter and by-laws are still in effect 36 years later. One of the biggest decisions we made is that nobody was being paid; we are all novices in this. It was a grassroots effort. We decided we had to start hiring professionals in the nonprofit world. As Greg Reid says, you hire the experts, and none of us are the experts. I was very good in my police career. Another person was very good in their career. But we were not experts in nonprofits. We first started to pay a salary when we hired those experts. I think that was a super decision because the leaders have taken Make-A-Wish Foundation to one of the top children’s charities in the world.
Hugh: You may say you were a dictator. I would say you were committed to the vision and the principles behind that, and you were not yielding on those principles. That is a strong leadership position, to be grounded in principles that are so important. Because you did that, that vision is still in place today. That is astounding. Were there times along the way when you wanted to give up?
Frank: Yes, of course. I can’t tell you how many times. I was working full-time as a police officer, and because of the money we needed initially – fortunately police officers can get a lot of off-duty work in security and as bodyguards – I took all of the jobs that I could, to put my personal money into the foundation. I was working 70-80 hours a week, and I would say, “I can’t do this anymore.” One of our board members would say, “Frank, we have just identified another child. We need to give this wish to them.” That would give me the energy to keep it going.
Hugh: You payed attention. You demonstrated that you were alert. You surrounded yourself with competent people, maybe even people who are better than you, so this thing went where you wanted it to go.
Frank: Definitely. We hired the experts, people who knew the nonprofit industry, people who had the training and the background, and they also had multiple contacts. That is something we look for in establishing not only our following presidents and CEOs, but also our board members: that Rolodex they could contact.
Hugh: That is a key point: surround yourself with competent people who have the contacts. Be very clear on what your ask is. You have generated the profit for this nonprofit, the profit that runs this motorcycle which is the engine that provides for these children. This has been a very inspiring story.
Do you have a parting thought for people who have an idea, who have downloaded a vision from somewhere, who have been given a calling to do something? Is there a tip or a challenge or an ending wish that you would give these people who have an idea?
Frank: Never give up on it. Stick with what you want. Keep researching. Don’t give up. I don’t know how many people have a dream, but just don’t follow through. Follow through takes time. There is no such thing as failure.
There are 1.2 million nonprofits in the United States, and I encourage anybody who wants to get involved in a nonprofit to research www.charitynavigator.org/. They are the watchdog for all nonprofits. They will tell you where the money is actually going, to the mission or some CEO’s pocket.
Anybody can be a hero. Being a hero means you can somehow give back to the community. It doesn’t have to be in dollars. It can be in time or any kind of donations or just in support. Everyone can be a hero.
Frank Shankwitz was a co-founder of the Make-A-Wish Foundation in 1980, with a wish now being granted somewhere in the world on average every 38 minutes. Frank continues to work with Make-A-Wish as a Wish Ambassador and key-note speaker at fund-raising event for chapters throughout the United States. Frank is the recipient of multiple awards, has been featured in many publications, and is the co-author of two books. http://wish.org
This article is reprinted from Issue #8 of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today so that you won’t miss other actionable articles that will help you run your nonprofit organization with less pain and more gain!
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