Hal Donaldson didn’t plan to start one of the largest charitable organizations in the country.
Into his early 20s, he says his goals were wealth and accolades. His childhood was marked by poverty and punctuated with tragedy, and he wanted to rewrite his and his family’s story.
Donaldson was working as a book ghostwriter when an assignment took him to India to interview Mother Teresa. Face to face with the nun who had vowed to serve the poor, Donaldson says she challenged him on what he was doing to help the suffering. He was forced to concede the answer was nothing, but the question haunted him.
That’s when a shift in mindset began.
“I had forgotten what my father had taught me as a kid that the key to happiness and fulfillment is in helping other people,” he says. “I made a commitment to God and myself that my priorities had to change.”
Reshaping those priorities took years, Donaldson says. He was in his mid-30s and living in California when the pull to help others led him to load a pickup truck with groceries to pass out to migrant farm workers.
“We tell ourselves we can’t really make a difference in the world, and we talk ourselves out of responding,” he says. “For me, that $300 worth of groceries was my way of saying, OK, I’m going to do something.”
The next year, he and a group of family and friends started Convoy of Hope. Trucks and trailers filled with groceries to give away would be the basis of those outreaches early on. Donaldson says a distribution in Los Angeles that drew 4,000 people was a turning point.
“We don’t really know what we’re doing, but we’re doing something good,” he recalls thinking. “This has got potential.”
Since those first distributions in 1994, Convoy of Hope has served 200 million people worldwide. It feeds 465,000 children daily and last year responded to 64 disasters with food and services. Programs that empower women and girls to start businesses and learn skills impacted 35,000 people around the globe last year. On Forbes’ latest list of largest American nonprofits, it ranked No. 48, and its 2021 revenue exceeds $438 million.
As the nonprofit founder and CEO, Donaldson says the need is great, but he’s motivated by the lessons of kindness and generosity that started in childhood.
“At Convoy, we’re going to give you food, but we’re also going to look you into the eye and give you dignity and value, and we’re going to do what we can to give you hope,” he says. “The food is just the point of the arrow.”
Donaldson’s dad was the pastor of a small church. He remembers him as someone quick to help others. Growing up, his dad gave away the family car, couch and cat – that went to an elderly woman in need of a companion.
Tragedy struck the family in 1969 when Donaldson’s parents were hit head-on by a drunk driver. His father was killed instantly, and his mother seriously injured.
Donaldson was 12 and the oldest of four kids. A family took the kids in for what turned into a year.
“You’re angry at God,” Donaldson recalls from that time. “Angry at the drunk driver who hit my parents. You’re angry at the fact he walked out of jail 48 hours later; meanwhile our family was sentenced to a life of welfare and poverty.”
When his mother recovered, she began working multiple jobs to make ends meet. The family was on government assistance, Donaldson says. The experience was shaping his life in ways it would take decades to fully understand.
“I felt the shame of poverty and the pain of poverty,” he says. “But I also experienced the power of kindness. A lot of people showed kindness to us and helped us get through it.”
He went on to earn his bachelor’s degree in journalism from San Jose State University. In the wake of the Watergate scandal and the release of “All the President’s Men,” a film documenting journalists’ efforts to expose wrongdoing, Donaldson says he wanted to make a difference in the world, “at the same time hoping one day I’d win a Pulitzer.”
He worked at news publications covering politics and sports before starting his career as a ghostwriter.
Soon after interviewing Mother Teresa, Donaldson says he was praying and felt like God told him to do something unusual: spend a night in the streets of eight American cities. He did just that, strapping on a bulletproof vest to ride with police on overnight shifts in New York City, Atlanta, Chicago and others. He later wrote a book on the experience, “Midnight in the City.”
That was instrumental, he says. He saw hungry children, impoverished families and churches and civic groups that wanted to help. Donaldson says that experience helped form Convoy of Hope, “building a bridge between those that have and don’t have.”
In 1996, Donaldson and his family moved to Springfield. The number of feeding events Convoy was offering doubled and the headquarters of the nonprofit was established. Two years later, he says the nonprofit responded to its first disaster, Hurricane Mitch.
“We had about a half-million dollars of food,” he recalls, responding: “Let’s empty the warehouse. Let’s go for it and let’s help them.”
Disaster services have become a staple service of Convoy of Hope today. Last year, the nonprofit moved into a new $14 million, 250,000-square-foot warehouse to increase capacity. It’s also focusing on training, Donaldson says, with a $37 million headquarters and training center set to open adjacent to the distribution center next year.
The nonprofit’s goal is to train volunteers globally to respond to disasters more quickly.
Along with its disaster relief, its distribution events have grown in scale and service, too. Moving beyond groceries alone, the events now provide job services, medical care and social services resources. Its child feeding programs are also on a growth path, with the nonprofit aiming to serve 1 million children daily by 2030.
This growth is fueled by donors and partners, Donaldson says. He says those relationships are built on trust.
“You have to do what you say you’re going to do,” he says. “You have to operate at the highest level of integrity.”
For 18 consecutive years, nonprofit evaluator Charity Navigator has given Convoy of Hope its highest rating for transparency and financial accountability.
“We’ve never tried to draw attention to ourselves. It’s really been a focus on how do we help more people?” Donaldson says. “It just so happens to help more people you have to have more resources and more name recognition. As long as the focus is on the mission, you’re OK.”
Mind on legacy
Now 65, Donaldson doesn’t have a retirement age in mind but says he’s shifted his focus within the nonprofit to developing the next generation of leaders.
Donaldson’s career has certainly been marked by successes. He has written more than 30 books and received recognitions including the National Distinguished Service Award in Social Welfare and a 2017 induction into the Missouri Public Affairs Hall of Fame.
But he’s quick to note his biggest victories are Lindsay, Erin-Rae, Lauren and Haly, his children with his wife of 38 years, Doree. He thinks about his influence as a parent a lot, which is no surprise considering the impact his own father made.
“I think you could ask any one of (my children), ‘Does he live out what he says?’ And they’d say yes,” Donaldson says. “Compassion is in their heart as much as mine.”
Donaldson says he wouldn’t have predicted the journey his life has taken. But he believes in destiny.
“God had a plan and we’re trying not to mess it up,” he says.” He wants to help survivors of disasters. He wants to help the hurting more than we do. He’s just looking for people who will try.”
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