Foundation initiative will go nationwide over the next four years.

Twenty-five years ago, Wendy's founder Dave Thomas embarked on a revolutionary mission. His goal: Make the adoption system in America work for all children in need of adoptive families.

“He founded this organization to focus on this specific group of children who are in the tenuous position of waiting for a family (and) aging out of the foster care system without the family that was promised to them,” says Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption.

The public foundation started with an awareness-building and educational mission to “normalize the concept of foster care adoption,” says Soronen, who has led the nonprofit since 2001.

But near the end of its first decade, the foundation's executive team and board realized awareness campaigns weren't enough to make the most crucial difference in the lives of more than 100,000 American children who at any given time are in foster care and waiting to be adopted.

Soronen led the development of a new program. The foundation interviewed hundreds of social workers and child welfare professionals as part of its research into the obstacles that occur when placing foster children with adoptive parents.

“What we heard time and again was, ‘We have neither the human resources nor the financial resources to help this population,'” Soronen says. Children who had experienced trauma or spent years in foster care were often labeled unadoptable by overstretched social services agencies.

The result of the research and repositioning was a 12-year plan and a new program: Wendy's Wonderful Kids. The program provides grants to public and private adoption agencies to hire recruiters dedicated to finding adoptive families for children in the nation's child services systems.

Wendy's Wonderful Kids started as a pilot program at seven sites, including agencies in Ohio. A $3 million public-private partnership with the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services took the program statewide over the last five years. In that time, 330 Ohio foster children have been adopted through the help of 50 Wendy's Wonderful Kids recruiters.

“Since we've had the program in Ohio, we've saved the state $64 million,” Soronen says. “We're saving children's lives and we're saving critical resources at the state and county level. It's that one-two punch that makes sense for states.”

Wendy's raised initial funding through promotions and donations from customers. But a game-changing investment from Blue Meridian Partners, a performance-based philanthropic initiative of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, is taking Wendy's Wonderful Kids further.

The New York fund awarded a $35 million grant in December to expand Wendy's Wonderful Kids nationwide.

The Dave Thomas Foundation “has a compelling vision—and accompanying business strategy—to make ‘unadoptable' unacceptable,” says Nancy Roob, president and CEO of Blue Meridian Partners and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation.

“Wendy's Wonderful Kids is an example of the kind of opportunity our country has to move the needle on pressing social problems. We believe the initial success Wendy's Wonderful Kids accomplished in Ohio is a prototype of what could be achieved elsewhere in states across the nation.”

Ultimately, the foundation hands off management of the Wendy's Wonderful Kids program to states or private adoption agencies, providing ongoing training for recruiters and case workers.

“At some point, the cost-savings will supersede the cost of the program,” Soronen says. And, more importantly, the benefits for children and their adoptive families are valuable beyond measure.

Kitty McConnell French is a freelance writer.