William Dunn was busy getting ready for one of his nonprofit’s biggest events of the year when he received an unexpected phone call. He was so caught up in the logistics of the Dunn Foundation Annual Free Turkey Giveaway, providing Thanksgiving turkeys to families in need, that it wasn’t until later that he fully registered what the caller had told him.
Dunn, a business entrepreneur, nonprofit leader, educator and alumnus of University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), was selected to receive the prestigious President's Lifetime Achievement Award for his volunteer service. At a Jan. 20 award presentation event at Zion Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Dunn received a medal and certificate signed by President Biden honoring the work of the Dunn Foundation.
“I can admit that I knew nothing about the lifetime achievement award before that. I don’t know anyone who has ever received one,” Dunn said. “The full reality hit when I later received an email message explaining the history of the award.”
There is a sweet irony in the fact that news of the award—which recognizes outstanding community volunteers and the impact of their work—came while Dunn was smack in the middle of a signature event that advances the foundation’s mission to provide free programs and services for families and communities in need.
“Our mission is to help families become better for themselves by providing them with something they need,” Dunn said.
The annual turkey giveaway, now in its 12th year, is a big focus of the foundation’s fundraising each year. More than 700 families in Virginia, Maryland and D.C. benefit from the annual effort, which joins the foundation’s other major activities, including a back-to-school program that distributes 1,100 free backpacks with school supplies and the Free HBCU College Experience Tour, which takes talented students to college campuses as a way to encourage their pursuit of higher education.
Those activities come on top of the nonprofit’s year-round homeless initiative, which is capped annually with Warming Hearts for the Homeless, a partnership with D.C.-based So Others Might Eat (SOME) to provide support for homeless families. During the Christmas Day event, foundation volunteers hand out backpacks containing hats, gloves, scarves, toiletries and snacks to unhoused families and individuals. Dunn said up to 300 people benefited from the 2023 activity.
A military veteran who served in Iraq, Dunn said “homeless” and “veterans” are two words that should never appear together. The Dunn Foundation is a big supporter of homeless initiatives. The Dunn Foundation Warming Hearts for Homeless initiative is the brainchild of the of Dunns’ next-to-youngest daughter Tahj, who launched the effort when she was a college sophomore—a reflection of how extensively Dunn’s family is engaged in the foundation’s work.
Dunn’s wife, Valarie; their four daughters, Taylor, Tay, Tahj and Tamir; and their son Taevon sit on the foundation’s board. In addition to its base in Washington, D.C., the foundation also has an operation in Los Angeles, where Tay lives. Every June, that office partners with U.S. Vets-Inglewood and a homeless veterans shelter on Flag Day to provide 400 homeless veterans with lunch, drinks, music, giveaways and other resources.
“Our children are active board members, they have assignments, they provide volunteer support,” Dunn explained. “It was important to us that we exposed our children to this work when they were young. I come from humble beginnings, and we teach our children that just because you have more does not mean you are special.
“They know about the transition I made in life,” he added.
Dunn’s commitment to the community is a response to his troubled youth. As a child, he split his time between his father in New York City and his mother, a civil rights activist in Virginia. In his teens, his slip into gang activity was reversed when he found sports. He emerged as a Golden Gloves boxing champion and an all-around athlete who excelled in basketball, football and track.
A basketball scholarship opened doors for him at Virginia’s Longwood University, where he set seven individual and basketball team records and served as captain of the basketball team in his senior year while studying toward a Bachelor of Science in Therapeutic Recreation.
After graduating, Dunn joined the military and played on the All-Army Basketball team, hoping it might lead to a professional sports career. But deployments to Iraq in 2002 and 2003 put that aspiration on the back burner. Even more, his experience in Iraq made him view the world differently.
“I said that if I made it, I would give back to my community,” Dunn recalled. “I wanted to change the world through giving.”
Dunn returned to civilian life and was running a basketball camp and working at community centers in lower-income neighborhoods of D.C. when the military notified him that he had a limited period of time in which to use his GI Bill education benefits.
“At the time, I had no interest in going back to school. I had wanted to play professional sports and I didn’t see higher ed in my life past the bachelor’s degree I already had,” he said. Then one day while riding on the DC subway system, he saw an advertisement for UMGC.
“It said ‘No GRE, No GMAT,” and I suddenly saw this as the opportunity to use the GI Bill benefit. I applied to a graduate certificate program,” Dunn explained. “It wasn’t my goal to get a master’s degree. I was just going to get a 12-credit certificate.”
Dunn turned up late for the first day of an in-person leadership course designed for MBA students. “Everyone in the course wanted to be a CEO or human resources manager,” Dunn recalled. “I just wanted to do the bare minimum, and I continued to be late to class.”
Then one day, his professor asked him to stay after class. “She said, ‘Have you thought about getting your master’s degree? You know, you’re pretty smart,’” Dunn recalled. “As a troubled youth, I never had an educator in my entire school life tell me that I was smart. It was a turnaround moment. That’s when I decided I wasn’t making it in professional sports, so I would get my master’s.”
He transitioned from the certificate program into the degree program and, in 2006, graduated with a Master of Science in Organizational Management with a concentration in nonprofit management. In 2009, he launched Iamdunn Cleaning Services, a commercial cleaning company.
“Sports made me competitive and once I graduated from UMGC, I transferred those leadership skills to the community space,” Dunn said. He also decided that he wouldn’t stop with just a master’s degree. In 2019, Dunn and his wife, Valarie, received their doctorate degrees together from Capella University. Dunn said he and his wife wanted to show their five children that learning never ends.
“Degrees don’t have to be for everyone, but learning is,” he said. “I wanted to chase learning.”
In addition to managing the family foundation and running his company, Dunn teaches English and math—interwoven with a big dose of leadership training—as an adjunct professor with the Montgomery College Workforce Development & Continued Education Department. He was one of the individuals profiled in the Washington Post’s book and documentary film, Being a Black Man: At the Corner of Progress and Peril.”
Dunn said he is honored by the presidential award and excited that the Dunn Foundation’s impact is being noticed.
“Sometimes we need to show our peers that we can do good in the community,” he said. “If we all just did a little, we can help a lot.”