New job dramatic career change for Mission head
Donnie Dee had a business degree and a resume that included a long career with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and a few years with the NFL.
But he had no experience in working with the homeless when he was interviewed for the job as president of the San Diego Rescue Mission last May.
Board members quickly decided he was the perfect person for the job.
“As soon as we finished that interview, the board got together and talked about it, and it was an unanimous decision,” said board Chairman Bob Jones.
“Donnie stood out as the best CEO candidate,” Vice Chair Judy Enns said, adding that Dee has a track record of success as an inspirational leader.
Dee, who started work July 17, told the board members that not only had he never worked with the homeless, but at 52 he had never been interviewed for a job.
After graduating from the University of Tulsa in 1988, Dee played professional football and then was offered a job with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, where he worked 27 years.
“I’ll be spending the rest of my life learning, because you never know it all,” Dee said. “John Wooden said, ‘When you’re done learning, you’re through.’ I’ve got a pretty high learning curve right now.”
The good news, he said, that the Rescue Mission already has committed people running a variety of programs to help people overcome homelessness.
“My job is going to be to make sure we have organizational alignment, we’re centered around our mission, that there’s good working relationships between the board and the staff,” he said. “And that I go and raise capital from the community so we can impact people’s lives here.”
Enns said Dee was quick to take the reins at the mission, and Jones said the new president’s past lack of experience in the field was considered as much a plus as a negative.
“The positive is, he comes in with an open mind,” Jones said. “He might come in with some fresh ideas and even challenge some of the ways things were done in the past.”
Jones said Dee was one of 45 candidates who were reviewed, and one of five interviewed.
Dee said he was excited when he saw the job description early this year because he liked the idea of building programs and raising capital, which he had been doing in his latest position at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
With no experience with the homeless and related programs, however, Dee didn’t submit his resume for two weeks.
“I sat on it and I prayed on it,” he said.
Then one day while driving to work and having a conversation in his head with God, Dee said he heard a voice say, “This is not about you.”
“It wasn’t an audible voice, but it couldn’t have been more clear.” he said. “I just sensed this strong conviction.”
Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., Dee said he did not come from a very religious family.
Sports, however, was in his blood. His father, Don Dee, won a gold medal in basketball in the 1968 Olympics and later played professionally for the Indianapolis Pacers.
Dee, who is 6 feet, 5 inches, earned a full-ride scholarship to play football for the University of Tulsa. Two weeks into the semester he broke his thumb on a linebacker’s helmet. Sidelined, he began thinking of his priorities.
“I realized football can’t be the most important thing in my life,” he said. “So I started asking some questions, and there were other football players involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and they told me about Jesus. They were sharing something with me that filled a huge hole I had in my life.”
He graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1988 with a degree in business management and was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, where he played one year as a tight end, before being cut and picked up by the Seattle Seahawks.
He started three games but was out for the season with a knee injury. The Green Bay Packers signed him, but he was cut in training camp.
He still had ties with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and he quickly got a call with a job offer to be organization’s state director in Colorado.
He stayed in the job for seven years, helping grow a staff of two to 13 and increasing the budget from $80,000 to $750,000.
A business leader in San Diego took notice and recruited Dee to move west and reboot the dormant Southern California office of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in 1997.
“My wife and I came out here kicking and screaming,” he said, recalling that as a Midwest kid, his image of California was car chases, earthquakes, traffic, sharks and drive-by shootings.
“When I got here, I thought, ‘Good grief, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” he said about the organization, which at the time was in only two schools in San Diego County.
It now is in 150 local schools, and Dee, his wife and their two children grew to love San Diego so much that when he was offered a job as chief operating officer of the fellowship in 2009, he moved to Kansas for only one year before moving back to Vista.
Dee continued in the lead position for another four years, flying across the country three times a month. During his time as COO, he oversaw a staff of 1,400 and help stabilize the organization.
“We were struggling financially, and a lot of that was just the way we were structured and our philosophies in the way we did things,” he said. “We tried to get everyone on the same page to move forward.”
He voluntarily stepped down in 2014 to take over the Tom Landry Associates fundraising program.
“I’m a field guy at heart, and a lot staff guy at heart,” he said. “I’m a builder and not a manager, and the job had really become a lot about managing the pieces after five years.”
The number of people who became Tom Landry Associates by donating at least $10,000 increased by 100 over two years.
“A lot of it was just communicating better and hosting events to cultivate these donors,” he said. “It’s about casting a vision and showing the results so donors have the opportunity to be involved.”
As the program grew and began to be smoothly run, however, Dee said he began to feel restless. The job description to lead the Rescue Mission caught his eye when it was forwarded by a friend.
While Dee said he is still learning about the mission programs, Jones said he is impressed in what he’s seen so far.
“I was thinking the other day that he’s probably been here two months with all the things he’s done, then I realized he’s only been here three weeks,” he said earlier this month.
Dee said his short time at the mission has changed his perspective on the homeless and the challenges ahead in helping them.
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