Make-A-Wish originated in Phoenix, Arizona in 1980, where a seven-year-old boy, Christopher James Greicius, was hospitalized with leukemia. The Arizona Department of Public Safety, hospital workers and members of the community teamed up and were able to grant his 'wish': to become a police officer for one day. Ample media coverage led to the founding of a permanent charity organization, using Christopher James Greicius' case as a model. On 3 May 1980, just four days after his wish was granted, Christopher Greicius died.
Originally based in the United States of America, a chapter in Canada, called Make-A-Wish Foundation of Canada, was created in 1983 by Nigel Brown and Robb Lucy. The first Canadian wish was granted in 1983. It was a wish for a girl named Debbie who wanted to visit her parents in Germany. She got to visit them in August 1983. She died in October 1983. In addition a non-profit umbrella organization called Make-a-Wish Foundation International, licensed by Make-a-Wish in 1993, fosters the growth of affiliated Make-A-Wish organizations worldwide. More than 30 countries were affiliated in 2005. It has been the philanthropy of NPC sorority Chi Omega since 2000.
In 2006, the foundation formed a partnership with television network ESPN to grant ten of its clients' wishes related to sports and athletes. The segments were televised on SportsCenter in a series called "My Wish".
On 9 April 2007 Make-A-Wish was also seen on WWE's RAW when Mick Foley granted the wish of Michael Peña, who became General Manager for the night. Linda McMahon and Vince McMahon, the owners of WWE, are on the National Advisory Council of the Foundation. The foundation has also created the "Tyler the Great Warrior" Yu-Gi-Oh! card due to the wish of 14-year old Tyler Gressle. In 2008, the foundation arranged for a girl named Kasey to meet Ryan Sheckler, star of the television show Life of Ryan in a second season episode. Sheckler talked about how meeting Kasey changed his view of life, because even though she had cancer, she was happy and tried to live a normal teenage life.
WWE Superstars Jeff Hardy, Shawn Michaels, and John Cena and many other superstars participate in granting many wishes to ill children. John Cena has received an award for granting his 100th wish, a record.
In 2006, Mariah Carey was named the organization's first "Wish Icon" for her work with the Foundation. The organization's website says, "Carey is a committed volunteer for the Make-A-Wish foundation. She has personally granted dozens of wishes for children across the country. Many children have taken Carey’s place at music awards shows, thanks to her generosity. Carey also donates to help grant performing arts/music wishes and she has donated in six figures to fund more than 20 wishes." In 2007, the award was renamed the "Mariah Carey Wish Icon Award," in honor of the singer.
The Make-A-Wish Foundation ceased granting hunting trips in 1999 amid criticisms from animal rights groups. The Foundation explained that the decision was based on the danger of having a child in a weakened state handling firearms. In response, two other similar organizations were formed: Hunt of a Lifetime, which arranged hunting trips for terminally ill children,  and Catch-a-Dream, which was conceived by Mississippi outdoorsman Bruce Brady, and formed by his loved ones following Brady's death from cancer, to grant outdoor experiences to ill children.