In the face of large, discouraging statistics and a global need, finding a solution that really works can either be a daunting task, or in the case of Hank Fortener, an exciting invitation.
Seeing hope in humanity and a need to create accessibility to the beauty of adoption, he founded both World Adoption Day and AdoptTogether, the world’s largest crowdfunding platform for adoption. I had the opportunity to speak with Hank on his family’s history of adoption, what resources really matter, and how a smiley face can uplift the world’s conversation on family. Let’s just say he has a lot of good to say on all of it, but I highly recommend you find out for yourself.
Can you share a bit behind why you are so personally passionate about adoption and creating a solution to make it easier for families?
I had an eye-opening experience when one of my good friends, Rob Bell, helped me realize that adoption was not my calling. It wasn’t my singular thing I was going to do in the world. He helped me realize that this is actually my family’s business (and I use the word business very lightly, because all it does is cost us money). AdoptTogether wasn’t me waking up one morning and wanting to make a difference - it’s 100% hard wired into who I am because of how I was raised and the family I come from.
In 1929, my grandfather was adopted by Lee and Louise Fortener from a Catholic orphanage in Dayton, Ohio. My dad and mom proceeded to adopt eight kids from six different countries, and we fostered 36. Then, my dad’s brother proceeded to adopt five children, and my mom’s sister adopted a little girl.
Adoption became our family movement.
So for me, doing something in adoption was always going to happen. It was just a matter of how I was going to put my unique thumbprint on it. And mine was that I wanted to figure out a way to scale it.
When we would have big family gatherings, at any given moment half of the kids in the room were adopted - and that was really special and complex. I felt so much that people needed to hear that growing your family this way is not only beautiful, but very, very possible. My dad used to say, “To whom much is given, much is required.” And I was given this, not just passion and experience, but this family mission. I’m moving it forward with AdoptTogether, and I think my brothers, sisters, and cousins will all move it forward in their own way. I’m a very small part of a really big thing that started almost a hundred years ago with two people I never met.
On the AdoptTogether site, you note that 73.5 million people are considering adoption at any time - 4x the number of adoptable children in the world. However, cost is the #1 reason they are not able to do it. You found such a simple, yet incredibly impactful solution to this problem by creating an online crowdfunding platform. What inspired this idea?
When we launched, crowdfunding had not become a thing yet. Kickstarter hadn’t launched yet. GoFundMe had not launched yet. CrowdRise had not launched yet. The people that inspired me most were Kiva. I saw how micro-donations could help people in developing countries invest in themselves. When we first filed to the IRS, they second guessed our numbers, because we thought that within five years we would raise a million dollars. They said, “No way - micro-donations will not add up enough to make an impact”. But I was thoroughly convinced it would. A large part of my life has been spent as a pastor. Through that, I had seen the power of small sacrifices create something really big when gathered together.
I believed in the power of community, and I believed in the power of us.
On our five year anniversary, we had expected to raise a million dollars. We raised a half million dollars in our first year.
Our five year anniversary was on my birthday this past January, and we were at 11.5 million. Our expectations were 10 times short. I believe that the majority things that hold us back as humans is thinking too small. I think it’s an incredible act of faith when people like Mark Zuckerberg, or the founders of Instagram and Snapchat, start imagining something that the whole world can touch and feel. That’s an incredible spiritual experience. I didn’t have an idea to start a big company, but I knew that I could solve these humanitarian issues utilizing that that same level of thinking.
You shared that you had no funding or sponsors when you started AdoptTogether, yet the platform spread to people far and wide without the use of either. Even when trying to tackle large scale issues, what kind of resources play the most major role?
Relationships. It’s 100% relationships. Even as you say that, I feel a ping in my gut, because that is true - there were no donors and no sponsors. Our biggest donation came through my 30th birthday party, when we raised $7,000 just for our start-up funding. But I think about my good friend Dom who helped us design the site. Then I think about my friend, Kurzee, who built the site code by code, line by line. I think about my friend David, who helped me flesh out the concept. I think about my dad. Even our master web developer never took a dollar from us for the last four years. And we’re talking blocking IP addresses at 2:30am, when we have a hacker in Russia and in China trying to get in to get family data. So yeah, we didn’t have any donors or sponsors, but they gave us half a million dollars worth of work.
The two currencies are passion and relationships. When you have a passion, you won’t care that you don’t have resources. And when you have relationships, resources will follow.
Is there anyone who has provided you with support to make this dream happen that you were surprised by?
That’s a great question. Is it cheating to say I was surprised by all of it? I had no idea how many people were willing to help. Even recently, I met a guy at a barbecue who owns a company called Lucky Beer. I got his phone number, and later told him, “We have a charity event coming up, I need a year of beer donated for somebody to win, are you down?” And he said, “You can count on us.” I didn’t know that everyone around you, whether they are expressing it or not, is leaning forward and looking for ways to help the world. Whether that’s by giving beer, or hotels, or money, or time, or energy. It’s crazy, I’ve got a hundred of those stories, but the concept is the same. When you see crazy things happening in the world, people look for any way that they can serve that feels like it matters. They’re just looking for someone to ask.
This month at Yellow, we are discussing a series called Come Together. Our focus is centered around leaning into each other, in all our differences and diversity, to discover the visions that can come to fruition when we work as one.
Not only is bringing people together to help fund adoptions an incredible example of this, but you have gone beyond that to globally spread the importance and celebration of adoption by creating World Adoption Day. What kind of unity were you hoping to create through this day?
The goal was to create a day where the whole world paid attention to adoption, just for one day. I wanted people to feel connected to each other and to others in the adoption community. When you ask people to come together, you’re extending an invitation. And really, your power ends at the invitation - it’s people who create the experience.You can invest and do your part, but the rest of your posture is to just keep giving and inviting. Your people will find you.
I think that’s what happened with World Adoption Day. All I did was open the door, buy a domain, pitch the idea, and 54 countries participated in the first year. Somehow, in some universe, in whatever God was doing in the world, people were ready for it - it worked. There are tens of thousands of people around the world who celebrate World Adoption Day and millions of people who are aware of it.
Adoption has not been a net positive conversation culturally for a long time. When my grandfather was adopted in 1929, his parents never told him. He found out because he met his biological mother on his way to school one day. Families who are struggling with infertility often choose adoption, and it’s not a birth mother’s first choice. She may be dealing with health, family, or financial issues. Adoption, oftentimes, is when two heartbroken people find each other. And that to me is inherently tragic, but inherently beautiful.
The reason I chose the smiley face (to represent World Adoption Day) was really, really specific. The smiley face was invented some 50 years ago by a graphic designer in Massachusetts named Harvey Ball. He designed it because he wanted to raise morale. I wanted to put the smiley face on people’s hands to elevate the morale of not only the adoption conversation, but of the family conversation; of the human conversation.
I wanted people to reimagine family, to reimagine adoption, to re-believe in us as a people.
Have you seen any particularly amazing instances of people coming together through World Adoption Day?
One of the coolest, coolest things that has ever happened has to do with a family in Orange County who adopted a sibling group from the Philippines. Back in 2014, our first year, they celebrated World Adoption Day. Then, they got matched with their children about six months later. When they traveled to and arrived at the orphanage in the Philippines about six months after that, someone handed them a photo book of the kids. They opened it, and there was a picture of that entire orphanage with smiley faces drawn on their hands. They had, without knowing it, celebrated World Adoption Day at the same time on the same day one year earlier. That year, they got to celebrate World Adoption Day together as a family. How awesome is that.
Aside from AdoptTogether, you have spoken around the world, have a podcast, and are working on a book - plus, you are a husband and a dad. One of the many impactful things I’ve heard you say is that as a parent, you want to be sure the way your daughters describe you is never as “busy”. How do you prioritize your time to those you love when you are also doing so much?
I do it through speed. I never, ever hurry my girls. When I’m with my daughters, I talk slowly. 90% percent of the time, and it can’t be always because of practicality, I walk slow and I don’t have my phone on me. For a little kid, being hurried is the worst experience, because they are already inherently anxious. I learned from some of my neuroscience research that even when you speak slowly, you actually calm a person’s chemicals in their body. But when you speak fast, you generate cortisol for them - and it’s more intense for kids.
I never want them to feel like I’m getting them out of the way to go do that other thing. My kids know about work; that I leave, come home, and travel. But there’s no way that they are going to think that I was trying to rush our time together, even if it’s only for 30 minutes before they go to bed. I try to even keep my physical movements slow, so it feels like we’re stopping the universe.
What is an essential practice you have?
I have this really weird thing I do. Right before I walk in my house - so that I’m not anxious, so that I don’t move fast, and so that I’m not on my phone - I imagine that I died. I do this every day. I imagine that I was given a gift by God to go back and live this one night, one more time. And that thought centers me so hard. So when my phone is going off, or is Instagram happening, or is there a show on TV - none of that matters. I just get these next 45 minutes or two hours with my family. Even on the weekends, I could work around the house or be so busy, but I meditate on the fact that I’m 85 years old and dying. And right before I die, God says you get to live Saturday, October 14th one more time. And you get your girls when they’re little, when they don’t know that the world can be scary and bad. So every day with my girls, I’m going to make it an adventure. Because you don’t know, right? I don’t know if I get October 15th. All I know is if I get October 14th, that’s going to be the most bad-ass Saturday that we’ve ever had.
Many women in our community are driven to make an impact for good by using their individual skills. If there was one thing you could say to encourage them in the midst of a hurdle in doing so, what would it be?
Take the pressure off of it. Just do the good you can see in front of you. You make an impact just by breathing. If you have a drive to do something, do it - but don’t do it because you don’t feel like you’re doing enough. Pay attention to what is organically true about the impact you are uniquely designed to make in the world, and hold that really open handedly. You’re a human being and that’s a powerful thing to be. Just look around for the invitations. Either the universe will be inviting you, or other people will. World Adoption Day is coming up on November 9th! Join in celebrating by drawing a smiley face on your hand and sharing a photo using #WorldAdoptionDay.