Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas established the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption in 1992 to raise awareness of foster children waiting on adoptive families.

Now the foundation is fully realizing its mission with a goal to expand its Wendy’s Wonderful Kids adoption program across the nation by 2028. Since beginning in 2004, the program has helped place more than 6,100 foster children with their adoptive families.

“It feels right that it’s our 25th anniversary and it’s the launch of this 12-year scaling plan,” said Rita Soronen, president and CEO of the Dave Thomas Foundation for Adoption since 2001. 

Relying on its rigorous research into the child-services system, the foundation provides grants to public and private adoption agencies to hire recruiters and implement the child-focused methods of the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program.

“Wendy’s Wonderful Kids is an example of the kind of opportunity our country has to move the needle on pressing social problems, like the 100,000-plus children in foster care waiting to be adopted each year,” said Nancy Roob, president and CEO of Blue Meridian Partners and the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, which has given $35 million to scale the program.

Soronen discussed the initiative with Columbus CEO for the magazine’s May issue.

Q: What was your goal in developing the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, and how did you set about developing the program?

A: Wendy’s Wonderful Kids formed the second pillar of our mission (the first being awareness), which was ... putting in place evidence-based programs that apparently were lacking. In this country, there are 110,000 children waiting to be adopted. That’s a lot of children who are at risk of turning 18, leaving foster care without a family. They are much more susceptible to negative outcomes as adults. The one-off grant-making we were doing on a national scale, the great public awareness — we still at the end of the day couldn’t measure whether we were doing what we promised in our mission. We interviewed hundreds of social workers, agencies, child-welfare leaders and said, "Help us understand." What we heard time and again was, "We have neither the human resources nor the financial resources to help this population." For the most part, social workers were resorting to public displays: websites, Wednesday’s Child programs, catalogs. For a 15-year-old who’s been in care for 10 years in foster homes, this isn’t the kind of child those programs are going to work for. We have to do a different way of finding families for these children.

Q: What approach does Wendy’s Wonderful Kids take to finding homes for foster children?

A: At the core is knowing that child. The case file is the centrifugal force of knowing who that child is, but nobody’s doing that deep-dive research. Under the Wendy’s Wonderful Kids program, the Dave Thomas Foundation says to grant recipients, "With this grant, please hire a full-time adoption professional that will utilize this model, set some goals and get these children adopted." When you give a caseworker time to really work a case, you will find an adoptive family for these children. Pivotal to our 12-year-plan for Wendy’s Wonderful Kids, we also realized we had to do a rigorous evaluation of this program. If we don’t know at an evidence level that it works, then we’re doing no better than business as usual.

Q: Did the program begin serving Ohio’s foster children?

A: Columbus was one of our original seven pilot sites. The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services came back quickly to us and said, "Let’s do a public-private partnership." For the past four to five years now, we have scaled Wendy’s Wonderful Kids across Ohio. We’ve seen more than 330 adoptions finalized across the state. We know that it’s about $3 million a year to keep this program scaled in Ohio. Since we’ve had the program in Ohio, we’ve saved the state $64 million. 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. It was scaled in Ohio, and it worked. That moved us to finding more partners. Our goal is to bring Wendy’s Wonderful Kids to scale, and guarantee the right of a family for these children. It’s at the core of our mission.