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2015 TOP CEO Nonprofit Agency: Wayne Carson, CEO, ACH

Wayne Carson

Previous jobs: Stock boy (Thrifty Drugs), bellhop (A&W), surveyor (Wyoming Highway Department), draftsman (Bechtel Power Corp.), roustabout (Wyoming gas fields), civil engineer (PSI Corp.), risk management consultant (Praesidium), house parent, caseworker and program director (ACH).

First job: Delivering the Terra Linda news in San Rafael, Calif., at age 9.

Best business advice: Keep searching until you find a job you love. It’s out there.

Best business book: Good to Great by Jim Collins

Favorite book, movie, play, etc.: Favorite book right now is Swear to Howdy by Van Draanan. Favorite movie has always been Casablanca. My favorite play is Shear Madness only because I’ve taken every one of my kids to see it in the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Best decision: To marry Vickie Neitzel and to have three children together.

Advice for people getting started in the nonprofit industry: Be prepared for very difficult days at work, people thinking you are crazy for trying to save the world, and the most rewarding career you can ever imagine.

Suggested headline: Wayne Carson: ACH chief leads nonprofit into new century of service

Wayne Carson spent three years working as a civil engineer before finding his true life’s calling guarding children and helping mend broken families.

Wanting to do “something more directly with people,” he earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Texas at Arlington and came to ACH Child and Family Services as a house parent to teenage boys.

That was 25 years ago. In 2000 Carson became CEO of the Fort Worth-based nonprofit, which is dedicated to helping children and families in crisis. Founded in 1915, ACH is marking its 100th anniversary; that first year it served 30 women and 11 children. By 2014, Carson, along with his current staff of 250 employees, had guided the organization’s growth to aiding nearly 30,000 people with education and outreach services. Some 3,400 more people received assessment, counseling and referral services, and almost 3,000 children were served through residential group and therapeutic care services, foster care and adoption. The organization operates in seven counties with a budget of $40 million.

“My vision is to continue doing what we have done for our first 100 years, protecting children and preserving families,” Carson said. “The work we do is essential. Without a safe and stable home, it’s difficult for children to accomplish anything. We know the community is counting on us to get it right and we will continue to work hard to do what we can to help every child in our community grow up in a safe and loving family.”

Committed to helping youth and families overcome such struggles as divorce, financial instability, addiction and homelessness, ACH today focuses on preventing child abuse and neglect and family separation. Tarrant County leads the state in confirmed cases of child abuse, with 6,097 victims in 2014. Up to 2,000 youth are homeless or without a safe living environment at any given time.

ACH works to combat family and youth problems through 15 prevention, intervention and treatment programs. It provides the only emergency shelter for homeless and runaway youth in Tarrant County and a supervised independent-living program for those ages 18 to 22 who are aging out of foster care and for homeless young adults.

“The worst part of my job is that children in our own community are hurt every day and the need for what we do continues to increase,” Carson said.

“The best part of my job,” he added, “is having a front row seat for this amazing symphony of activity that is ACH Child and Family Services. It’s very humbling to witness immense caring and expert talents intermingle with deep pain and hopelessness. What results is many, many children and families finding healing from circumstances that could otherwise have been overwhelming. It’s incredible to watch.”

Frank Anderson, former board chairman and its current secretary, said Carson doesn’t take himself too seriously despite dealing with such serious situations.

“Wayne is the face of ACH, and his spirit of hope and gentleness permeates throughout the ACH family – staff, counselors, volunteers and board members. You can also see ACH clients catch Wayne’s infectious tenderness as they interact with him at various ACH events as well as ACH alumni gatherings,” Anderson said. “Simply put, he is fun to be around and someone people want to be on the same team with. Wayne collaborates with his peer leaders to make our community a hopeful place to be a child – the ultimate goal.”

Lynn Newman agrees with Anderson. Another past ACH chairman, she was a director of the Bridge, an emergency youth shelter that merged with ACH in 2006.

“He is a true gentleman in every sense of the word. Most importantly, he loves ACH and the mission and vision of the organization. He spends countless hours with past and current clients as a mentor in an effort to make them feel hopeful for the future. He is a role model for all who know him and a natural born leader,” said Newman.

In 2008, ACH landed in an enviable position among nonprofits. The organization had a strategic plan that called for expanding its two campuses to better meet the increasing needs of children and families seeking help, but it had not started looking for options and had not publicly announced that it was planning to expand. A surprise donation by local developer Michael Mallick and his wife, Valerie, of a 19.5-acre core campus with eight buildings in southeast Fort Worth has allowed ACH to develop new services, extend its outreach and operate more efficiently.

The new, expanded campus also helped position ACH to lead the first urban implementation of a statewide effort to redesign foster care in Texas.

In 2011, Carson became a linchpin in the overhaul of the state foster care system by the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. Under his leadership, ACH spent three years evaluating best practices from across the nation and developing new technologies and innovations to improve the delivery of foster care to children in North Texas. During that time, Carson attended hearings in Austin and met with foster care providers throughout ACH’s wide service area, all while overseeing several construction projects along with the usual day-to-day operations.

“Wayne never missed a beat,” said C.W. “Dub” Stocker III, board chairman. “Wayne has used his humility, integrity, exceptional vision, exemplary work ethic and natural leadership abilities to effectuate great change while seamlessly leading ACH through this unique expansion and ever guarding the financial security of ACH. In spite of this demand on his time, his loving heart for all children is simply part of his persona and he never for a second allowed anyone at ACH to take their focus from ACH’s mission of protecting children and preserving families.

“In my mind, Wayne Carson is what every nonprofit CEO should strive to be,” Stocker said.

In 2013, the Department of Family and Protective Services selected ACH to implement and oversee a three-year, $35 million Foster Care Redesign project in Erath, Hood, Johnson, Palo Pinto, Parker, Somervell and Tarrant counties. As part of the contract, ACH formed a national advisory panel to share best practices with the North Texas foster care community.

“When ACH was offered the opportunity to bring much-needed improvements to the North Texas foster care system, we saw it as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to leverage our skills and 100 years of community partnerships to completely redesign a poorly organized state system,” Carson said. “As our CFO Sarah Proctor said, ‘It’s a chance to put up or shut up’ and our board of directors was willing to take the risk because the payoff is so promising.”

ACH established a new division, Our Community Our Kids, in 2013 to ensure the delivery and quality of regional foster care through a network of 40 providers, including Child Protective Services staff members, child placement agencies, health care providers, educators, child advocacy centers and government agencies. Our Community Our Kids oversees all emergency placement of children removed from their homes because of abuse or neglect.

Carson said the shift from the previous state-run system, where providers worked alone in silos, to a community-based model in which providers work together is having an impact on foster care across the state as well as in North Texas.

“We truly believe that a community-based approach to foster care can help children much better than a state-run system. Local partnerships equate to better care for children,” he said.

The initial outcomes of the initiative are showing positive results, according to Carson. To date, more than 1,300 children are in the program.

“We also see that an incredible amount of work remains because change of this magnitude takes time, but the future is exciting,” he said.

Carson received a doctorate in organizational change management in 2002 from UT Arlington, where he was named a distinguished alumni in 2009.

But what about his greatest accomplishment?

“I hope my legacy is ‘He didn’t screw it up,’” Carson said. “ACH has a long history of serving children that far precedes me. I hope that during my turn at ACH, I’m able to continue this legacy that was built by many, many outstanding people. Not screwing that up would be a proud accomplishment.”

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