Linda Childears is the President and CEO of the Daniels Fund in Denver.  The Daniels Fund provided Seed Funding for Positive Coaching Alliance-Colorado and recently awarded PCA a $2 million grant to expand nationwide.

Jim Thompson: I know you worked extensively in the private sector before moving into philanthropy. Talk about the steps that brought you to leading the Daniels Fund.

Linda Childears: I am a recovering banker! I started a firm helping new banks start up in the mid-1980s. This was a time of a lot of regulatory issues and many banks were closing so starting a new banking institution required a high level of detail!
Then this crazy guy named Bill Daniels called me saying he wanted to start a bank for kids. Could I help him get a charter in what was a highly regulated industry during a vulnerable time for the industry? I asked him a bunch of questions and finally he got impatient and said, “Can you help me or not?”

I said yes, but you need to understand that it’s not very likely that this bank (which became Young Americans Bank) will make a profit. Bill was insulted: “You think I’m trying to make money off kids?”

He believed the U.S. had the best financial system in the world and felt strongly that kids needed to become financially literate. Then after I had worked with him on this for a while he said, “Why don’t you come over and run this bank?”

This was the most fun I ever had in my life as well as one of the most challenging things I had ever done. That is how I got to know Bill and after 18 years he asked me if I would be a trustee of both his estate and his foundation. So that’s how I got to where I am today.

JT: I’ve often found that the experiences I look back on as the most fun were also incredibly challenging and the source of lifelong friendships with the people I worked with on them.

LC: That was certainly the case with Bill and me.

JT: What was Bill like to work with?

LC: Bill was a tremendous visionary. He could see around corners and tell what was going to happen next, what people were going to need before they knew it. He was a great salesman and believed that customer service is of the highest importance, for a business or a foundation.

JT: I have the sense that Bill Daniels was a bit of a dickens when he was younger. He wrote about getting in trouble as a youth and, it seems to me, even in photos of him later in life there was a mischievous smile.

LC: I think you are right. His parents sending him to the New Mexico Military Institute was likely related to disciplinary issues. There he met Babe Godfrey, the coach who had such an impact on his life because Babe Godfrey believed in Bill.

JT: That’s interesting. Mary Fry at the University of Kansas who does research on what it takes to build a positive team culture says that what causes players on a team to have an “upward spiral” is when they know the coach believes in them. Seems like Bill was lucky to find a coach in Babe early in his life who really believed in him.

LC: I experienced that with Bill myself. He believed in me before I believed in myself. When someone believes in you it makes all the difference.

Bill said that sports really shaped who he became and the skills he learned in sports helped him succeed in business and life.

JT: I loved the story about Bill getting a “second chance” and how that affected him.

LC: At the New Mexico Military Institute, he put a dummy in his bed so he could sneak out at night. He was caught and almost expelled. The commanding officer told him he was going to give him a second chance and Bill felt very strongly about giving people second chances the rest of his life. However, second chances weren’t without conditions and there rarely was a third chance.

JT: I knew Bill was a new Mexico Golden Gloves boxing champion. I didn’t realize he was such a good basketball player and starred on a couple of championship teams in spite of only being 5 foot 6-3/4 inches tall.

LC: Bill didn’t know he was that short! The statute of him outside our office is taller than Bill was and we think Bill would have liked that!

JT: Amateur sports is front and center for the Daniels Fund. I’m not aware of any other major foundation that has sports as an explicit funding category. Are you?

LC: I’m actually not. Bill told us what the funding categories for his foundation were and then he said, “And they will never change!”

JT: At the PCA-Colorado Awards breakfast you talked a bit about the challenge of keeping to a donor’s wishes after the donor has passed. Can you say more about that?

LC: Our board has people on it who knew and loved Bill very much. They have an understanding of who he was and are committed to keeping to his wishes. Some things are pretty clear. I know he would have been excited about PCA but in areas like the homeless, disadvantaged and aging we need to think hard about how he would have wanted us to proceed. Our scholarship program is about getting graduation rates up and that is something he was excited about.

JT: Bill said, “When you put your life in perspective, you realize how little time there is to make something truly significant out of it.” Do you ever feel that urgency in your work with the Daniels Fund?

LC: Absolutely! We want to find the best of the best and support those efforts rather than trying to be all things to all people. Our primary focus is our four states (Colorado, Wyoming, Utah and New Mexico) but there are nearly 20,000 nonprofits in Colorado alone!

We hear good ideas every day. The question is, is the good idea coming from a person who can make it happen? In banking you always bet on the person you are giving the loan to. In philanthropy it is the same. It’s always about leadership.

JT: The Daniels Fund just approved a $2 million grant to help PCA expand nationwide. Thank you for your support!

LC: Our experience with PCA here in Colorado has been so good we would love to see it replicated. The organization has strong managers to do it responsibly and it is too good to be in just a few states. The lessons Bill Daniels learned from sports need to be available to youth in every state!