Make-A-Wish Foundation runs behind on granting wishes

Top three wishes for fiscal 2012:

Trip to Disney World, 33 percent

Shopping spree, 11 percent

Go on a Disney cruise, 8 percent

To donate to Make-A-Wish Georgia

Georgia regional office: 1775 The Exchange S.E., Suite 200, Atlanta, GA 30339


Phone: 1-888-517-9474 (To volunteer, call 1-888-517-9474, Ext. 14. To host an event, call 1-888-517-9474, Ext. 16.)

Olivia Harvey has had her eye on a Disney vacation to Hawaii for more than 14 months.

The bright, animated 9-year-old Newnan girl, who was born with multiple heart defects, will get her wish, but it’s been a long wait.

“I just hope my wish comes true,” said Olivia, the day before she found out she and her family would be going to Disney’s Aulani resort and spa.

Olivia waited more than a year to have her request granted through the Georgia and Alabama chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. The charity grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses. With a slow economy, corporate and individual donations dropped, but requests have risen 22 percent in Alabama and Georgia since 2007. The bigger increase has been in Georgia.

CEO John J. Brennan said the nonprofit, which has its chapter headquarters in Atlanta, is still working through a “long waiting list” of requests. The chapter is one of 62 in the nation.

The typical wait time is about six months, although much depends on the recipient’s health and treatment schedule. Now, however, some youths are waiting as long as two years to have their wishes granted.

Olivia was referred to Make-A-Wish in June 2011 and has since had open-heart surgery to replace her pulmonary valve and to remove a muscle bundle in her left ventricle.

Her mother, Melissa Harvey, worried that by the time Olivia had her wish granted that she might not feel well enough to go. “As it turned out, everything worked out OK,” said Harvey, who doesn’t blame Make-A-Wish. “You don’t know how things will turn out.”

Delays in granting wishes were caused by a slowdown in donations as well as an increase in the cost of wishes.

Many of the wishes included travel, and as the cost of airfares has risen, so have the costs of granting a child’s wish. Roughly a third of all chapter requests involve a Disney-related visit. It’s about half for the national office, which is based in Phoenix.

In Georgia, corporate donations dropped 18 percent from 2010 to 2011. Final fiscal 2012 numbers are not available, but officials say fundraising goals are on target and may exceed previous years. At the same time, individual donations in the state fell 7.2 percent.

‘We’re running on all cylinders,” Brennan said. He expects the nonprofit will “move out of the storm” in fiscal 2012, “but we have to make up for lost time.”

The chapter granted hundreds of wishes in the most recent fiscal year but had to tap into its reserves to do so, he said. “Now we have very little reserves left,” he said. “Based on national policy, we should have about three months’ liquidity, and that’s about how much we have.”

Based on the most recent Form 990, ending Aug. 31, 2011, Make-A-Wish’s Georgia and Alabama chapter operated on a $1.076 million loss, compared to net revenue of $515,854 for the previous period. Expenses included the estimated cost of promised wishes that hadn’t yet been fulfilled.

The annual budget for fiscal 2011 was $4.43 million.

What Make-A-Wish is experiencing is not that unusual.

While giving was up about 4 percent nationally in 2011, “we do know that there are a lot of nonprofits at the local level that are still feeling the pinch and really haven’t rebounded from what was going on during the Great Recession,” said Geoffrey E. Brown, executive director of the Giving Institute and Giving USA Foundation.

He said some geographical areas have rebounded faster than others as well as nonprofit sectors. For instance, the greatest increases in giving occurred in the areas of arts, culture and humanities, international affairs and the environment, he said. The areas that still showed declines in giving were religion, health care-related causes and foundations.

Karen Beavor, president and CEO of the Georgia Center for Nonprofits, said nonprofits often lag behind for-profit businesses, although she’s not familiar with the Make-A-Wish situation.

“They’re usually the last to recover,” she said. Additionally, during the recession, some nonprofits were forced to lay off staff.

“Individual giving is one of the slowest types of giving,” she said. “You might have a donor that gives to three or four causes, and now they have to tighten their focus.”

Brennan said the Georgia/Alabama chapter plans to focus more on marketing and fundraising.

In October, it will hold the annual “Celebration of Wishes Gala,” its biggest fundraiser of the year. The nonprofit also is working to increase the number of fundraisers hosted by outside partners. In July, the chapter launched the “Wishes Can’t Wait” campaign to raise funds to address the extended waiting list of wishes.

And that’s good news for youths facing long waits.

Tina Wilson said her son, Jordan, who lives in Kennesaw, waited more than a year to have his wish for a Hawaiian cruise granted.

She said the family worried that Jordan, 16, who had acute lymphatic leukemia, might not feel like going on the trip. “It was one of the things that kept looming over my head,” she said.

But it all worked out well. “He had no chemo to take, no meds,” she said. “He actually looked at me and said, ‘My dimples hurt, I’ve smiled so much.’”