Donald M. (“Bubba”) Cathy is the senior vice president of Chick-fil-A, a quick-service restaurant franchise specializing in chicken dishes, as well as the president of Dwarf House, the full-service restaurant division of Chick-fil-A. Founded by Cathy’s father Truett, Chick-fil-A enjoys widespread admiration for its institutional commitment to moral and religious values—including everything from scholarship opportunities for employees to conscientiously closing down all stores on Sundays.
With his wife Cindy, Cathy heads up a number of marriage initiatives for Chick-fil-A’s philanthropic arm, the WinShape Foundation, which Truett Cathy and his wife Jeannette established in 1984. Since 2001, the foundation has helped troubled couples strengthen their marriages through counseling and enrichment retreats. At a scenic retreat facility near Rome, Georgia, WinShape Marriage works with couples to strengthen their marital bonds by reconnecting them with their religious faith. WinShape Marriage also collaborates with other marriage organizations to host multi-day, intensive marriage counseling sessions. Its retreat center, WinShape Retreat, also hosts business and church conferences, as well as youth summer camps.
Firm in the belief that healthy marriages are essential to the health of society, Cathy hopes to widen his work on marriage to a national scale. To that end, he has launched a campaign called Marriage CoMission, which facilitates collaboration among key advocates of marriage. He plans to institute a new program, the Marriage and Family Legacy Fund, which will pool funds for a national marriage media campaign and provide start-up grants for local initiatives to promote stable, lasting marriages.
In addition to his efforts at WinShape Marriage, Cathy oversees WinShape Homes, a long-term care program for foster children, and WinShape Wilderness, an outdoors adventure program intended to encourage personal and team development. He also serves as vice president of the WinShape Center, a scholarship program affiliated with Berry College in Rome, Georgia.
PHILANTHROPY: May we begin with how you view the state of marriage in America? And to the extent it has declined, what factors have been most responsible?
MR. CATHY: Today, more than ever, America is missing the strong families that grow out of healthy, lasting marriages. We have a rising generation of young people—kids of divorce especially—who want good, lifelong marriages, but who aren’t sure that it’s really even possible. Over the last 40 years, we have witnessed a significant decline in the marriage rate, a huge increase in rates of cohabitation and divorce, and a dramatic spike in out-of-wedlock births. Fewer and fewer kids are growing up under the same roof as their mom and dad.
PHILANTHROPY: You have been married to your wife, Cindy, for 30 years. Your parents, Truett and Jeannette, have been married for 59 years. What have you learned about some of the obstacles that threaten marriage, and how couples can overcome them?
MR. CATHY: One of the biggest obstacles facing many American marriages is simply a lack of commitment. Commitment involves patience. It involves courage. It involves perseverance. That’s the kind of commitment we need to help us through the tough times in life—and particularly in marriage. Philippians 4:13 states, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Sometimes we can get so frustrated in marriage that we have to peel back to our core of faith to realize the common foundation of our commitment to God and the promise we made at the altar, “till death do us part.”
Another obstacle is the pace of modern life. Our family has to really work at intentionally slowing and simplifying our lifestyle. Eliminating television is a good place to start. Twenty-eight years ago, we tried to see if we could live a TV-free life. By and large, we’ve succeeded. Reading, tennis, having friends over: it’s all been a great substitute for television.
Every couple should have another couple with whom they can share things. I also suggest that couples receive marriage coaching on a regular basis. It’s just like going for a yearly physical: couples also need a periodical marital check-up. “Couples Only” retreats are a great way to do that.
PHILANTHROPY: How important is addressing domestic violence in promoting a culture of healthy marriages? How big a problem is domestic violence today? And what are the best remedies?
MR. CATHY: Healthy marriages can only exist when the home is a safe environment. We therefore absolutely have to address the issue of domestic violence if our society is going to promote healthy marriages. Domestic violence is a big problem—one incident of physical violence in the home is one too many.
During crisis situations, there are people to call: police as well as organizations ready to intervene. But at that point, it’s too late. The real remedy for domestic violence is teaching people how to handle their emotions, how to keep their anger from turning violent. Managing emotions appropriately leads to peace and safety in the home, which is the precondition of good marriages. As the Bible says, “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires” (James 1:19).
PHILANTHROPY: We understand that you are planning to start a nationwide initiative to promote healthy marriages. Will the program be part of WinShape Marriage? What will it consist of? How will it work? And what will its objective be?
MR. CATHY: For the last five years, we have been convening marriage champions from five key sectors of influence in the culture, in order to facilitate collaboration and to integrate their efforts into shared strategies. These meetings have come to be known as the Marriage CoMission.
Imagine this: Corporate America paying increasing attention to the relational wellness of its employees. More churches with dynamic marriage and family ministries. A national media campaign to present a winsome and engaging vision of marriage to the nation. Cities with catalytic marriage initiatives that increase the local reality of all of the above. Marriage organizations with leaders focused on resourcing this strategy. That’s our vision. We believe that, working together, we can bring about a renaissance of marriage and family life in America.
We are adding to this national program the Marriage and Family Legacy Fund (MFLF). This entity will seek to align the donor world with the strategic priorities of the marriage movement. The MFLF is governed by a trustee board and is operated by a board of directors drawn from the marriage movement. The mission is simple: strong marriage, strong family, and a strong nation. We want to help the marriage movement by pooling essential funds for a national media campaign and start-up grants for city marriage initiatives. Additionally, we want to provide the philanthropy world with information on how to steward giving to maximally impact healthy marriages and families in America.
PHILANTHROPY: What do you feel is the severest deficiency in marriages today that philanthropy can address? And why is it so important for it to do so?
MR. CATHY: We need to win back our culture’s vision for marriage and family. Changing public sentiment and attitudes towards marriage and family is essential. Our philanthropy needs to stir up the desire for lifelong healthy marriage and catalyze the efforts to help people strengthen their marriage and their family. Private dollars and the influential relational networks that go with those dollars are essential for the marriage movement to succeed.
Right now, my sense is that the marriage movement needs to take three essential steps. First, we need to plant and equip local city marriage initiatives, sustained by local vision and funding, with churches, schools, business, and media. Second, we need to develop and execute a sustained national media campaign, in conjunction with the local city marriage initiatives. Third, we need to provide premarital education, to help get marriages off to a great start.
PHILANTHROPY: What can’t philanthropy do for troubled couples?
MR. CATHY: Philanthropy can seed the marriage movement, but it cannot do the actual work of churches, schools, businesses, and—of course—couples. We can salt the oats, but we can’t make them drink.
PHILANTHROPY: How can donors become involved in marriage as an issue without stigmatizing their friends and family members who are divorced or who have had children out of wedlock?
MR. CATHY: Supporting healthy marriages does not entail judging those who have gone through divorce or those who have out-of-wedlock children. Marriage is hard, life is challenging, and people have to make their own difficult decisions. Many single parents do an excellent job of raising wonderful children.
That said, we know that healthy marriages are good for people, good for children, and good for our country. There is no real competing interest between loving an individual who’s in a bad situation while at the same time fighting to make sure no one else ends up in the same place.
PHILANTHROPY: On the corporate side, Chick-fil-A is consistently recognized for integrating family and Christian values into its business plan. Turning this on its head, how does your family’s religious-based charitable activities benefit from your business experience?
MR. CATHY: What we’ve learned from our business experience at Chick-fil-A is the concept of stewardship. Being a good steward means investing your time and resources where they can have the greatest return. Our business experience has taught us how to carefully evaluate who would be a good fit for our company as an operator representing Chick-fil-A. We use this same kind of discernment when we evaluate people and places to support with our charitable activities. We invest in people or organizations that are solid and value-based, that have a clear mission, and that are committed to good stewardship. And we believe focusing on healthy marriages is a wise investment because of the benefits to individuals, families, and the nation.
Our corporate purpose states that we are to “glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us and to have a positive influence on all who come in contact with us.” We believe the practices and disciplines that make our business healthy will help our charitable activities succeed, too.
PHILANTHROPY: WinShape Homes has 12 foster houses: eight in Georgia, one in Alabama, and three in Tennessee. How do you decide on where to provide homes?
MR. CATHY: Basically, we decide where to open a new home wherever we get a very good real estate opportunity. Some properties—like Ramon Gann Home, Wylie House, and Harrell House—were constructed after the land was given to Truett with the stipulation that he build a home for children. Otherwise Truett would decide where the homes should be based on how beautiful the property was, if the homes could be remodeled to house 12 children, and if he could get to them in two hours or less.
PHILANTHROPY: WinShape International is the newest program formed by WinShape. What opportunities does international nonprofit work afford over domestic programs?
MR. CATHY: When our operators and staff participate in international projects through WinShape, their world suddenly becomes much larger, and they have a bigger heart for understanding people from other parts of the world. They go on projects and see physical needs in developing countries, then return home much more sensitive to the needs in their own backyards.
Not only are our operators and staff going overseas to help with physical needs, they are sharing with other business people the business model of leadership we use with our 45,000 team members across the United States. This is a very simple model based on serving others, but we have found that it communicates effectively in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Latin America.
There is a lot of value in people in other countries in the developed and developing world seeing American business people come to teach basic business principles. They’re not there to tell them that we do it better in America, but to share tips on things that have worked for them in their own small businesses. These types of projects present a more wholesome view of business in the United States.
PHILANTHROPY: What can other foundations, nonprofits, and even churches learn from the WinShape Foundation?
MR. CATHY: We are always learning and growing ourselves. We are learning to get as much joy from the success of others as we do our own. While we are focused on being good stewards, we love to be in the background helping others succeed.
Biblical truths do work and can be applied in business, personal, and charitable endeavors. Strategic investing in relational wellness within marriage and family is crucial to the continuity of a healthy and enduring nation.