Editor’s Note: This is part of our Good on the Ground series, profiling entrepreneurial women who are addressing social issues in innovative and inspiring ways.

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.”

Making a Difference with Foster Kids

Listen to our podcast episode for more of our interview with Danielle Gletow.

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.

Closing One Door, But Opening Another

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.

Ramping Up

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.”

Read Full Transcript

Danielle Gletow – Founder – One Simple Wish – Trenton, New Jersey

SOT: Good afternoon.
-Hi, how are you? Welcome to One Simple Wish. Can I get, uh, your name?
-My name is Robin.
-Thank you.
-Hi Robin. Hi, sweet potato!

DANIELLE: Foster care is almost never talked about and when it is it’s negative.

SOT: Come here, sweetheart. I can take her for you. Oh no, it’s okay, baby girl.

DANIELLE: We’re saying, “You know what? You’re right. There’s a lot that’s broken. There’s a lot we need to fix so join us in doing something positive and we will show you the way to do even more.”

CARD: Danielle Gletow – Founder – One Simple Wish – Trenton, N.J., USA

SOT: This is a thank you note from Child help to our team from their team for Halloween.

DANIELLE: One Simple Wish empowers everybody to brighten the lives of children in foster care in simple and meaningful ways.

SOT: “You give our kids something to look forward to. Thank you.”

DANIELLE: We have a registry of wishes that these children are asking for. And it really isn’t stuff. The wishes represent so much more to these children. These wishes represent the idea that there is somebody out there that cares.

CARD: Danielle grew up in New Jersey, the middle child of three sisters.

DANIELLE: I had a lot of issues, um, growing up myself. My parents got divorced when I was 13 years old and we actually lived with my father. I struggled a lot with depression, anxiety, was briefly hospitalized when I was in my early teens. The more I learn about the children that are going through foster care it reminds me a lot of my own childhood and it reminds me that I’m actually really lucky because despite all that moving around I did know my parents loved me.

CARD: Danielle was a gifted student, but she wasn’t interested in school.
She dropped out of college after the first year.
Around that time, she started dating Joe Gletow.

DANIELLE: He’s the most stable, grounded, content, confident. I think having Joe in my life just really helped me be a better person.

CARD: Danielle started a career in corporate PR.
She and Joe married in 2005.

DANIELLE: Very soon after we got married we started talking about having a family. I mentioned to him, you know, pretty early on that I wanted to adopt and I didn’t want to be pregnant. And so I told him, you know, “Why don’t we look into becoming foster parents?” with the goal of adopting.

CARD: Danielle and Joe applied to become foster parents.
In 2006, they had just completed certification when they got a call to take José.

CARD: After 3 months, José was returned to his family. Then came Antonio.

DANIELLE: He was two years old and he came from a very neglectful environment and we thought we were gonna be able to adopt him. Um, it was actually one of the most devastating things I’ve had to deal with in my entire life was saying goodbye to him.

CARD: Danielle and Joe were crushed.
They decided to have a baby themselves.
But a few months later, they were asked to take Mia, a newborn who was available for adoption. The couple couldn’t refuse.
And then Danielle discovered she was pregnant with Liliana.

DANIELLE: We said, “We’re gonna close our home for now. We wanna focus on raising Mia and, and raising Liliana.” But I knew there were 400,000 foster children in the U.S. and this was what I was supposed to do, I was supposed to help kids in foster care.

CARD: Danielle and Joe invested $10,000 to build a website that is the heart of One Simple Wish. The site launched in 2008. Danielle left her marketing job to work full time building the organization.

DANIELLE: The way it works is an agency representing a child in foster care, they log into their account and they create a wish on behalf of that child. Once that comes into our system every wish is manually checked. Once it’s live on the site then anybody can see it. They just simply click on a button that says, “Grant this wish,” they donate the amount of money towards that wish, and then our wish granters purchase that item and online and they send that item directly to the case worker to deliver to the child.

CARD: For 4 years, One Simple Wish grew slowly.

SOT: Now for our making a difference report. Tonight’s story is about…

CARD: But in December 2012, a reporter read about the organization and profiled it on the NBC Nightly News.

DANIELLE: That was really the turning point for us. That night that it aired I think we did like 40 or $50,000 in wishes. And then in the month that followed $250,000-plus dollars and wishes. And we were just like, “Oh my God. What are we gonna do?” So we quickly ramped up. It was, we had a very quick trajectory.

CARD: One Simple Wish has fulfilled more than 16,000 wishes. Children ask for everything from movie tickets to braces to skateboards.

DANIELLE: We do wanna grow. We’ve, we’ve been around $1,000,000 for a couple years and we’re, we’re ready for the next step.

CARD: One Simple Wish has three employees and a team of part-timers and consultants.

SOT: Oh these are great, and long sleeves perfect.

CARD: They work with 800 child welfare agencies in 49 states.

DANIELLE: I want us to be a household name. I want One Simple Wish to be, you know, up there with Make-A-Wish Foundation and, I wanna see Super Bowl ads about One Simple Wish some day. And then I wanna see the website run out of wishes.