It's not easy building a successful nonprofit from scratch. Try running one focused on America's invisible children — kids in foster care — and you get a glimpse inside Danielle Gletow's world.
Unlike autism or childhood diseases, middle-class Americans don't typically rally around the plight of the country's 400,0000 foster kids, she says. "There's almost a sense that the kids have done something to deserve this," says Gletow, founder of One Simple Wish, a Trenton, N.J., organization that grants wishes to foster children. "They didn't."
A few years ago, Gletow says she was like most well-to-do suburban folks: She worked hard, brought home a good corporate salary, and spent disposable income on "fancy" stuff like Manolo Blahnik or Jimmy Choo designer heels. "That was my sign of success," she says. While she didn't have the easiest childhood due to her parents' divorce, she had no exposure to the child welfare system. Most people don't, she says.
And then, in 2006, she became a foster parent. She and husband Joe were "super-busy" at work — and for a variety of reasons, decided to foster a child with the goal of adoption rather than become pregnant. They had just completed certification when "the phone call came in," she says. An 18-month-old boy, Jose, arrived at their door, wearing a giant winter coat and a onesie. "This adorable little boy just looked so confused," she says. "Within a day we were like, 'We love this baby.'" After three months, Jose returned to his family.
Then came Antonio. "He was two years old, and came from a very neglectful environment," she says. "We thought we were going to adopt him." That didn't happen. His biological mother completed a "very brief rehab," and regained custody, Gletow says. "One of the most devastating things I've had to deal with in my entire life was saying goodbye to him."
The experience shattered them both. They took a break. They decided to get pregnant the old-fashioned way, with no success. And then, one last call came in — this time, about a newborn girl. "And it was like this crazy feeling of, 'Oh my God, that's my baby,'" Gletow says, who recalls having to persuade her husband to trust the system one more time (he relented). Two weeks after they welcomed Mia, Gletow discovered she was finally pregnant. Daughter Liliana was born the following June; the sisters are now 9 and 8. "It was awesome," she says.
While Gletow knew she did not want to take in any more kids, she felt she wasn't done with the foster care system. From their relatively brief exposure, she and Joe had witnessed a system full of predictable flaws, many not fixable by one individual or one organization. There were overloaded caseworkers, foster parents motivated by monthly stipends to take kids, and an archaic system filled with sometimes nonsensical rules.
Gletow has a philosophy about this: "When you see a problem, just because you can't fix it doesn't mean you can't do something about it." While on maternity leave from her high-paying marketing job, "I did a lot of research on other organizations that were reaching out to foster youth, to see what the gaps were."
Her conclusion: There was no national organization asking kids what they wanted, whether that was a skateboard or music lessons or a birthday party. "We knew that from our experiences," she says, a lot of foster children "were going without a lot of some of the most joyful parts of a childhood, and we wanted to give that back."
The Gletows decided to invest $10,000 to build One Simple Wish in 2008. "The idea was we would have a registry of wishes, simple things that pretty much anybody could [grant], especially people in our situation in middle and upper-middle class America," she says. Still on leave, Gletow would go to Starbucks, "and I'd sit there with my car seat and my babies and my laptop, and I would plug away on a business plan and download every document I could think of about starting a nonprofit."
She also made the rounds, visiting foster-child agencies, some private, some governmental, to get them on board with the idea. Busy caseworkers, she knew, would be the ones relaying kids' wishes to the site. Not all were receptive. "I was just one person with no non-profit experience," she says. "Maybe rightfully so they were a little hesitant." Eventually, she signed up 12 New Jersey agencies as part of One Simple Wish's partner network.
Still, "it was pretty slow-going," she says. "It was mostly friends and family that were granting wishes."
But the site started to grow. Gletow found herself running home from work, kicking off her Manolo Blahniks, and doing as much as possible at night. After a year of juggling, she quit her marketing job. "We cut our household income in half," she says, and learned to live more modestly. Flats or sneakers soon became her shoes of choice.
And then, four years later, a big break came. In December 2012, NBC Nightly News aired a segment on One Simple Wish. "That night that it aired I think we did, like, $40,000 or $50,000 in wishes," Gletow says. "And then in the month that followed, $250,000-plus in wishes." It was, she says, a turning point.
Today, Gletow has a staff of five and an annual operating budget, excluding wishes, of $375,000. When a user decides to fund a foster child's wish, a small percent (about 5 percent to 8 percent) goes to the cost of overhead. A network of 800 foster agencies in 49 states helps deliver the gift items to the children. A number of companies — Volkswagen, Disney and TJX — are corporate partners, in some cases encouraging employees to grant wishes. To date, One Simple Wish has fulfilled the wishes of some 35,000 children.
Gletow is quick to point out that the wishes — from shoes to bikes to braces — are much more than just material goods. "The wishes represent so much more to these children," she says. "These wishes represent the idea that there is somebody out there that cares."
She firmly believes that foster children should be everyone's responsibility, and that supporting and loving these kids would stave off problems like poverty, drug use and incarceration. "I just wish that everybody who had children for a moment thought: What if your child thought no one loved them?"
For 2017, Gletow is hoping to get 1,000 people to sign up for One Simple Wish's benefactor program. Similar to public radio's sustaining membership program, users pledge a certain a monthly dollar amount, starting at $15, to fund wishes.
Gletow hopes the organization will someday be a household name, similar to Make a Wish, which grants the wishes of terminally ill children. "I want to see Super Bowl ads about One Simple Wish," she says. "And then I want see the website run out of wishes."