Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about nonprofit organizations and their impact

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Darell Hammond, the founder and CEO of KaBOOM!, one of America’s fastest-growing nonprofits, is leaving the organization next year.

Hammond, who is 44, is moving overseas to follow his wife, Kate Becker, who is rejoining the Peace Corps, where she was a volunteer more than 20 years ago. They aren’t able to be specific, yet, about their plans because the appointment needs to clear diplomatic channels.

“It’s bittersweet because I don’t think my job is done here,” Darell told me by phone, when he delivered the unexpected news. “But I am super-excited to be joining my wife on a new endeavor and adventure.”

KaBOOM!’s mission is to give “all kids the childhood they deserve, filled with balanced and active play, so they can thrive.” Since its launch in 1996, the organization has built about 3,000 playgrounds in poor neighborhoods, supported another 13,000 through grants or with technical assistance and brought in about $303 million, most from corporations. Typically, they underwrite the costs and invite their employees to volunteer to build playgrounds, alongside neighborhood residents. It’s a win for the companies, the neighborhoods and the kids.

I’ve known Darell for about 10 years. We met through FORTUNE and spent three years together on the board of Net Impact. While KaBOOM! was a success from the get-go, Darell has, to his credit, been willing to revamp the organization’s approach a couple of times, first by building an open-source model to give away its knowledge about playgrounds and, more recently, by going beyond playgrounds to try to drive deeper social and behavioral changes around play. His focus is doing as much good as he can.

The seventh of eight children, Darell and his siblings grew up at Mooseheart, a group home for about 250 kids run by the Moose fraternal organization for kids whose families can’t care for them. “I didn’t have a bad upbringing,” he has said. “I had what I considered to be a normal, happy upbringing. But I do what I do, no doubt, because of it.” A college dropout, Darell worked for CityYear before starting KaBOOM! in Washington, DC.

Affable and outgoing, Darell is a world-class networker and fundraiser. He’s got great relationships with Fortune 500 CEOs, Silicon Valley donors and the political class. First Ladies Hilary Clinton, Barbara Bush and Michelle Obama have all built KaBOOM! playgrounds. Harvard Business School has published no fewer than seven case studies about KaBOOM!

I asked him whether he was worried about whether KaBOOM! could sustain those relationships after he leaves. He replied: “What’s been delightful for me in the last 72 hours, as I’ve been making calls, particularly focused on funding partners, is that for many of them, I’m not the lead person.”

His departure was set in motion when Darell and Kate, who also works at KaBOOM!, went to South Africa on vacation last summer. She spoke to about 100 Peace Corps volunteers, and remembered how much she loved the organization as a volunteer in Cote D’Ivoire. She sent in a resume and before long was offered a job.

“I was hoping for Fiji,” Darell joked. They aren’t going to Fiji.

Wherever they land, it will be a new experience for Darell. “I will be a minority and a foreigner for the first time, and I’m looking forward to that,” he said. “It’s nerve-wracking and exciting.”

He expects to remain at KaBOOM! for about six months, while the board seeks a new CEO. One candidate is likely to be James Siegal, KaBOOM!’s president.

Darell told me that he hopes that his “legacy will not be that I founded KaBOOM! but that I was able to leave and the organization did better without me.”

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