Dan Adams has been CEO of Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch and Girlstown, U.S.A., one of the country’s largest privately funded child and family service providers, since 2005. Give & Take talked with him about his career, his role in fund development, why and what people give, and what gives him the most satisfaction in his work.
G&T: How did you decide on a career in the nonprofit sector?
Adams: My parents were missionaries in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and I spent much of my childhood in a British boarding school in Zambia. When we came back to the U.S., my parents taught school at the Navajo Methodist Mission in Farmington, N.M., and later at the Methodist Children’s Home in Waco, Texas. That’s where I got my start in this field, working off and on as I was attending college.
I received a teaching degree but felt drawn to work more closely with children and families. So I pursued a master’s in social work at the University of Texas and a career in direct social work practice, ultimately winding up in administration of services to children and families.
I came to Cal Farley’s in 1996 as administrator of a residential program at Girlstown, U.S.A. and later assumed oversight of all youth programs, including Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch near Amarillo. Boys Ranch and Girlstown, U.S.A. together comprise the largest residential program in this part of the country. I became President and COO in 2004, and CeO in 2005.
G&T: What is your role in the fundraising process?
Adams: All too often people see fundraising as separate from everything else going on. I used to make the mistake of saying that programs drive everything, but in reality it is the mission that drives everything. Every part of an organization plays a role in fulfilling the mission—including the fund development efforts. As CeO, I’m responsible for bringing it all together. Cal Farley’s is fully funded through our foundation and our fundraising. In 2008 when the Great Recession hit, our foundation enabled us to weather it.
A sizable reserve fund or endowment is off-putting for some people because they look at our foundation and think we don’t need their support. Some watchdog organizations take a dim view of nonprofits that have more in the bank than they need to sustain themselves for more than about three years. But we take a long-term view. We want to pay the bills now and three years from now, and we want to be serving children 50 years from now.
It’s basic Americana: We are taught to save our money and put enough away to raise our kids and send them to college. This is the same thing we do in our programs, but hundreds of times over. It’s like a family, just with a difference in scale. We take responsibility for some children who come to us as young as 5 years old, graduate them from high school and send them to college. We have a duty to them to have the funds available to provide for them through thick and thin.
G&T: Do you spend a lot of time with donors?
Adams: I do. We have a system that identifies certain donors for personal acknowledgment by me. Usually it’s those who have given extraordinary amounts, or who have given for the first time, or for any number of special reasons. I sign a stack of letters every week that let donors know how important it is to us to have received their gift and how much we appreciate it. I signed a letter the other day to a donor who has been giving since 1949. I think a person who has been giving for 63 years deserves something special.
We have some other unusual donors. One young man sends 10 percent of the prize money from showing his grand champion turkeys every year. He is 11 years old! He sent a check this year for over $300. My hope is that he is still supporting Cal Farley’s when he’s an old man.
Two girls who graduated from high school this year sent me an announcement and more than $1,000 from their graduation money.
If anybody thinks philanthropy is dying, they need to know it’s alive and well among our young people.
G&T: How important are bequests and other planned gifts?
Adams: We have been fortunate over time to have attracted the attention of a number of people who choose to give in this way. The messages we send today may not always generate a large annual contribution but could very well prompt someone to put us in their will and other long-range estate plans.
We know it takes time to cultivate those relationships, and we invest time and other resources in those efforts. We don’t focus just on the donors who are giving big money on an annual basis; in fact, our average gift is relatively small. We have learned over the years, however, that many of our largest bequests come from donors who have given small amounts frequently over many years, so we treat them with as much care as current donors of larger amounts.
G&T: What part of your job gives you the most satisfaction?
Adams: Working with children has always been important to me. I have learned over time that if you set the bar low for children, they’ll meet your expectations, but if you hold it high, they’ll always exceed them.
G&T: What is the best advice you’ve received in your career?
Adams: I didn’t appreciate it until I became CeO—the value of having an integrated system. everything under my watch—employees, information technology, management of programs and services, finances and investing, how we market ourselves and our public relations—is equally important. You can’t plan strategically without considering every one of those because they all work together.
Also, when I took this job, my predecessor advised me to place more emphasis on all sources of funding. I spend a lot of time fostering relationships with corporations and foundations as well as individuals. I think that successful CeOs of the future will inevitably be more actively involved in fundraising—particularly in times of economic challenges.
G&T: What book have you read that you’d recommend?
Adams: One that I quote often is Jim Collins’ book, “Good to Great,” from 2001. He also wrote a monograph, “Good to Great and the Social Sectors.” He asks the question: What unique contribution do you make with such excellence that if it went away tomorrow, it would leave a hole that would be difficult to fill? I think it is important that we all ask ourselves that question on a personal level and as an organization.
Another is “Linchpin” by Seth Godin. It challenges you as an employee: How do you become indispensable to your organization? How do you counter complacency and mediocrity? employees who have the most to offer in terms of innovation and ideas are the ones who are going to survive.
The last one is “Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us” by Daniel Pink. He tries to distinguish between intrinsic motivations, which is what you do because you think it’s right, and extrinsic, which is what you do because you are forced to. I try to be driven by intrinsic motivations—quality, best practices. It’s what matters to me.