In a recent interview with Richard E. Stearns, President and CEO of World Vision U.S., we discussed faith, nonprofit leadership and the future of nonprofit management. Richard E. Stearns joined the U.S. offices of World Vision, the international Christian humanitarian organization, in 1998 as President and CEO. He previously spent 23 years in the corporate sector in senior level positions with Lenox, the fine china company, Gillette and Parker Brothers Games.
An excerpt of the interview is published below, while the full transcript can be found here.
Rahim Kanani: Since joining World Vision as President over a decade ago, and having arrived with decades of leadership experience in the for-profit sector, how would you characterize the global trend of relief and development organizations adopting more and more business models?
Richard Stearns: I think the trend is inevitable. We live in a much more transparent world with larger and larger cash flows going through NGOs across international borders. The days of answering a donor's question with a sweet story about one child who was helped are gone. We need data that demonstrates that ALL the sweet children in a community have benefitted -- and in tangible, sustainable and measurable ways. Governments and private donors are demanding to know what returns their investments have achieved. For the NGOs themselves, it is critical to know how well programs are working and also to know where and when they are not, so that substantive steps can be taken to address ineffective programs.
Rahim Kanani: With this growing trend in the social sector to measure each and every aspect of program effectiveness? Is there anything we cannot measure?
Richard Stearns: Just as there is a danger in not measuring impact -- thereby "flying blind" -- there is an equal danger in thinking that everything can be measured. Development is much more than installing the "hardware" of schools, water wells, clinics and housing; it is more about the delicate chemistry of human beings, their motivations, their values and their capacity to come together in community to tackle their own problems, and be empowered by local and national leaders to do so. These "software" challenges often are more important than the tangible things more easily measured.
At World Vision, we often say that "hope" is our most enduring legacy. If we can revive in a community of people their belief in themselves -- if we can rekindle their almost extinguished hopes for a better future for their children -- then we have accomplished much more than just punching a water well into the ground. This is the art and spirituality of development. The triumph of the human spirit is not easily measured.
Rahim Kanani: What are the most effective practices you have adapted from the for-profit sector to that of World Vision's operations and strategy, which you can concretely trace back to better efficiency and outcomes?
Richard Stearns: Shortly after I arrived at World Vision U.S. in 1998, I encountered a prevailing belief here and among many NGOs in response to the scrutiny of charities: "We're good people doing good things and that's good enough." My response to this misguided philosophy is, quite simply, "That's not good enough."
Like my work for more than 23 years in the corporate sector, I tried to bring to World Vision U.S. a greater emphasis on identifying measurable goals for fundraising, for our work internationally, and a greater rigor to reduce overhead costs. We've adopted the mantra of "Expand the best, discard the rest" regarding marketing initiatives. That is, devoting more resources to those initiatives showing a greater return on investment, while eliminating those with a much lower ROI...more.