20 for the Next 20 2015

March, 2015
Photo: Sean M. Hower, MauiTime.com

Photo: Sean M. Hower, MauiTime.com

Executive Director, Imua Family Services


Age 50

Dean wong strides through the Kahului construction site of Imua Family Services’ new 10,500-square-foot home. With specially designed assessment and therapy rooms, meeting space, staff offices and a pre-school with room for up to 24 youngsters, the building seems like Wong’s vision realized in wood and drywall.

Demand for Imua’s assessment, counseling and therapy services for special needs children has gone up each month since Wong took over as executive director four years ago. The 68-year-old Maui nonprofit was serving 3,000 children a year and outgrowing its space. Instead of making do with aging, leased offices, Wong spearheaded a bold plan to construct a major new facility on land shared with Easter Seals Hawaii.

Wong says he sees many nonprofit directors stuck in a mode of perpetual scarcity and dependence. Not him.

“A nonprofit is really only distinguished by its tax status. It doesn’t mean the organization has to live in constant limbo and fear for its survival,” he says. “I think when you apply real business practices to the nonprofit world, you’re providing the same kind of sustainability that you do to a business. You want it to thrive and grow, so it can continue to meet the needs of the community.”

Part of Wong’s formula for fiscal stability: Build a “three-legged stool” balanced among government grants, private community donors and corporate sponsors. In pursuit of that vision, Wong has become a legendary fundraiser on Maui, and nowhere may his talents be better on display than at Imua’s annual “Fantasia Ball.”

“He does it all,” says Naomi Tamura, who worked with Wong in his previous roles at the Maui Arts and Cultural Center and the Maui AIDS Foundation. “He plans the event, he’s the auctioneer, he’s the emcee – he even sang.”

Wong studied performing arts at UCLA and planned on becoming an actor until an extended service trip in Africa awakened a passion for helping others. He says the “stage presence” he learned as a young man remains one of the biggest secrets of his success – helping him rally his team to support his vision, turn a roomful of potential donors into believers in Imua’s mission, and help a family reeling from a child’s autism diagnosis to understand their options.

“There’s a difference between the ability to be heard and the ability to be understood,” he says. “I think being a skilled communicator is the most important aspect of leadership.”


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