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May 14, 2007

Ten (or so) Questions with Richard Stearns, President of World Vision

WorldVision.jpg

Richard Stearns is the president of World Vision. This organization is a "Christian relief and development organization dedicated to helping children and their communities worldwide reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty."

Stearns holds a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University and an MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. From 1977 to 1985, he held various roles with Parker Brothers Games, culminating in his appointment as president in 1984. In 1985, he became a vice president at The Franklin Mint, then joined Lenox in 1987 as president of Lenox Collections. In 1995, Stearns was named president and chief executive officer of Lenox Inc., overseeing $500 million in annual sales. He joined World Vision as president in 1998.

  1. Question: How much money does World Vision raise every year?

    Answer: Worldwide, World Vision raises about $2 billion annually; the U.S. office, which I head up, raises about half of the total.

  2. Question: Is this the 80/20 rule where twenty percent of the people send in eighty percent of the money or are donations more spread out?

    Answer: World Vision's strength is that we are supported by hundreds of thousands of faithful people who give us about a dollar a day by sponsoring children. Our "major donors" account for less than five percent of our total income. Also, for a non-profit, we have quite a diversified portfolio of revenue. Just over forty percent is cash from private citizens; thirty percent is government grants in food and cash; and about thirty percent are products donated from corporation--what we call “gifts-in-kind.”

  3. Question: You had a nearly seven-figure salary, a corporate Jaguar, moved and took a seventy-five percent cut in pay. Why did you leave the corporate sector in 1998 after twenty-three years to run an international Christian humanitarian organization?

    Answer: It wasn't something I planned. At the time, I didn't even want the job. I had been a donor to World Vision for fifteen years when, through a long series of circumstances, I was approached by World Vision, interviewed and offered the position. As a committed Christian, I felt I couldn't say no. When God gives you an opportunity to serve, you obey. I had "talked the talk" of being a Christian for many years, now I needed to "walk the walk." It has turned out to be the greatest privilege of my life to serve the poorest of the poor in Christ's name.

  4. Question: What was the biggest adjustment to your new role?

    Answer: There have been lots of adjustments. Business travel now means getting shots and medicine for yellow fever, malaria, typhoid and hepatitis. I used to travel to London, Paris and Milan, sharing $1,000 dinners with the heads of other luxury goods companies. Now I’m visiting desperate people in places like Ethiopia, India, Peru and Uganda. I'm more likely to be visiting garbage dumps, brothels, and refugee camps than five-star hotels.

  5. Question: What are the greatest differences and similarities between running a major corporation and running a large non-profit?

    Answer: They are both businesses with revenues, expenses, and a bottom line. Both have marketing, sales, finance, IT, HR, strategy, etc. Perhaps the biggest difference is that our bottom line is changed lives--money is simply a means to that end. Our shareholders are the poor, and our donors who make our work possible.

  6. Question:Are you trying to end poverty or evangelize Christianity?

    Answer: As a Christian organization, we are motivated by our commitment to Christ to love our neighbors and care for the less fortunate. That's why we do what we do. We don't proselytize. We do not force our religious beliefs on anyone, and we don't discriminate in our delivery of aid in any way. If the people we serve want to know why we are there, we tell them. St. Francis once said: "Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." Love put into action is a compelling and attractive worldview.

  7. Question:How can people who do not want to radically change their lives make a difference in the lives of the poor?

    Answer:To really change the world, values must change. Consider the civil rights movement. Racial discrimination was once openly accepted in the United States. Today it is unacceptable to our mainstream culture. Very few of us are civil rights activists, but we let our values speak in our work places, our schools and to our elected officials.

    Today, we live in a world that tolerates extreme poverty much like racism was tolerated fifty-plus years ago. We can all become people determined to do something to change the world. We can speak up, we can volunteer and we can give. Ending extreme poverty will take money, political and moral will, and a shift in our value system. When enough ordinary people embrace these issues, things will begin to change. Margaret Mead once said: "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it's the only thing that ever has."

  8. Question: In the eyes of God, do you think someone who goes to Africa and helps AIDS victims is better or worse than someone who writes a check every month?

    Answer:I can't speak for God, but I believe God is pleased whenever anyone does something out of love to help the downtrodden. Hands, hearts, and checkbooks are all vital. If we all just did a little--our part--we could change the world.

  9. Question:What keeps you awake at night as the CEO of World Vision?

    Answer:If I thought every moment about the incredible suffering around the world I would never sleep. I worry about keeping the covenant we have with the poor and with our donors. It is a very sacred responsibility.

  10. Question: What are biggest hurdles to alleviating poverty?

    Answer:One word: apathy. The very frustrating part is that we actually have the knowledge and the ability to end most extreme poverty. The world just doesn't care enough to do it. The U.S. government has spent more than $400 billion on the war in Iraq to date.

    Our annual humanitarian assistance budget for the whole world is only about $21 billion. We spend less than a half percent of our federal budget on humanitarian assistance and less than two percent of private charitable giving goes to international causes. People and governments make choices based on their priorities. Poverty is still not a high priority for the world.

  11. Question: What's the biggest obstacle to get rich people to care about poor people?

    Answer: The obstacle is that poverty is often not personal. If your next-door neighbor's child was dying and you could save her for $100, you wouldn't think twice. But a child 10,000 miles away whom you have never met, that's just different.

    About 29,000 kids die every day of preventable causes--29,000! These kids have names and faces, hopes and dreams. Their parents love them as much as we love our kids. We've got to make poverty personal. Stalin once said: "A million deaths is a statistic, one death is a tragedy." We must try to see the face of the one child.

  12. Question: Why is World Vision so successful at fund raising?

    Answer: The real secret of our fundraising is the notion of child sponsorship. We allow people to see the face of that one child - we make that child real to them. It is very difficult to raise money for poverty eradication - much easier to raise money to help a specific child. It makes it personal.

    Of course we also have fiendishly clever and committed marketing people who really care about their cause. We also represent an amazingly compelling selling proposition: Where else can you spend your money and know that you may have saved a life, or changed the world for the better?

  13. Question: How has technology affected World Vision's work?

    Answer: Not enough. I think we have just scratched the surface in using technology and the Internet to change the values of Americans and to raise money for our cause. Technology can make this abstract and far away notion of global poverty real. We can take you straight to Africa via the web and let you meet your sponsored child. We can show you the village celebration when a drilling rig strikes clean water for the first time, or a clinic or school is dedicated. We are beginning to experiment with techniques to bring this stuff to life for people. Maybe some of your readers could help us.

  14. Question: What advice would you give to someone reading this who is considering leaving a corporate job to "change the world?"

    Answer:There's a tendency among those uninformed about global poverty to say, "This ain't rocket science. People are hungry; let’s feed them." What they don’t realize is that the deeper you get into relief and development, you realize it really is rocket science. Problems like poverty, disease and hunger are humanity's most intractable problems. They haven't been solved in 5,000 years, and they won't be solved overnight.

    We need to systematically address a wide range of social, environmental, cultural, political, and religious issues. But the good news is that we do have the answers. Now, we just need the resolve to make poverty reduction a priority and persevere until we see results. We can fix this; we really can.

  15. Question: Do the efforts of rock stars and movie stars really help alleviate poverty and AIDS or are these people just seeking more publicity to sell albums?

    Answer: They make a difference. Given the number of celebrities in our world it is actually shocking that so few of them are using their celebrity to make a difference. Bono is amazing. He has perhaps done more for the poor than anyone in the last century. I call him "Martin Luther Bono" because he has really been the leader of our movement.

    Bill and Melinda Gates are changing the global landscape for health and development. The media rarely want to talk to me about poverty, but many reporters gush at the chance to talk with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, or Oprah. That's just the way it is. I welcome celebrities who really want to make a difference.

  16. Question: How do you want World Vision to be perceived twenty-five years from now?

    Answer: I want World Vision to be the best at what we do. There is too much at stake to be anything less. If it could be said of us that we gave the poor a voice, that we provoked the rich and the powerful to action and that we gave hope to people trapped in hopelessness, I would be deeply gratified. My favorite Bible passage is from the book of Job. It would make a wonderful epitaph for World Vision:

    Whoever heard me spoke well of me, and those who saw me commended me, because I rescued the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to assist him.

    The man who was dying blessed me; I made the widow's heart sing.
    I put on righteousness as my clothing; justice was my robe and my turban.
    I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame.
    I was a father to the needy; I took up the case of the stranger.
    I broke the fangs of the wicked; and snatched the victims from their teeth.

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Comments

I am terribly disappointed to learn Mr Stearn's moral equivlance out weighs his common sense or even his knoweledge of G-d's word.

It's a pity sir, that you cannot morally differntiate between those who have consistently made painful concessions, who have thrown their own people out of their homes and those who teach their children that it is noble to kill as many Jews as possible while committing homicide bombing.

Can you even count the number useless peace treaties Israel has made with the Palestinians? Please tell me sir, how many of these treaties that were signed for all the world to see, have been honored?

In your statement you said: "As evangelical Christians, we embrace the biblical promise to Abraham: "I will bless those who bless you." (Genesis 12:3). And precisely as evangelical Christians committed to the full teaching of the Scriptures, we know that blessing and loving people (including Jews and the present State of Israel) does not mean withholding criticism when it is warranted. Genuine love and genuine blessing means acting in ways that promote the genuine and long-term well being of our neighbors. Perhaps the best way we can bless Israel is to encourage her to remember, as she deals with her neighbor Palestinians, the profound teaching on justice that the Hebrew prophets proclaimed so forcefully as an inestimably precious gift to the whole world."

You forgot the entire quote, the "full teaching" Mr Stearns. It goes like this: I will bless those who bless you … and whoever curses you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3)]

If there was a way for me to continue my support for Beberly Solayo without sending you another dime I would do it.

Marya Steiner

PS to Mr. Stearns: I wholeheartedly believe in the mission of WV and their wonderful impact to the children of this world-- they are truly following the calling that Jesus Christ has set before Christians.

But, there is so much internal strife that can no longer be ignored. A house divided against itself will fall, and I would hate to see such a wonderful organization be brought down because of a few bad apples who work there who are poisoning the whole harvest.

I would encourage you to evaluate the managers who mis-use department funds (donor dollars) on expensive hotels, those who promote their own personal businesses at work, and those who give promotions to employees based on their external friendships and favors from employer to employee (and vice versa).

I do not believe this was Bob Pierce's original vision. Please be true to his cause and maintain all of the good and the true that WV originally stood for. Go with the stregnth of Christ and encourage those who are not working with the spirit of the WV to find work elsewhere. World Vision is too special and too needed to be corrupted in this awful manner.

Humble regards,
anonymous

A question about this question: You had a nearly seven-figure salary, a corporate Jaguar, moved and took a seventy-five percent cut in pay. Why did you leave the corporate sector in 1998 after twenty-three years to run an international Christian humanitarian organization?

Is it truly amazing that Stearns gave up his nearly 7-figure paycheck and Jaguar to trade it in for a considerably high 6-figure salary--one of the highest in the Christian humanitarian non-profit sector? Is this an example of solidarity with the poor?

Blessings on a gracious heart that would follow the call to lead this ministry. I'd love to see him take a cut in salary and stand even more closely to the lives of the people he serves.

No other global cause has more relevance and importance. Poverty and hunger are not political issues, only the potential solutions as people want the credit. World Vision provides as effective a solution as currently exists, they just need more support and advocacy.

Wonderful interview, thanks for using your platform to spread the gospel.

Guy,

Thank you for stepping outside your norm -- or maybe not, for World Vision's message and methods are universal.

Yes, the poor will always be among us. I'm pretty sure Christ's statement that the poor will always be with us doesn't mean that we should not reach out to help. We're blessed that people like Mr. Stearns and Bono won't give up.

My wife and I are supporting our third child through World Vision and each year we enjoy picking out in whose name we will give the gift of a chicken or goat.

World Vision and Mr. Stearns are dear to our hearts.

I'm a child sponsor and I wish WorlVision could allow us to do more online. Though I can email my sponsored child, a response from him still takes 3-4 months. Moreover, I still have to get a paper statement of my annual contributions. It would be great if an online one were available.

Two more things to work on...

Edgar.
p.s. Great Interview.

Amazing article, Guy!

Guy,
Great initerview. I have a lot of respect for this hometown organizaation in Southern California and I have a couple of good friends who have worked for them in Africa and Asia.
Good work, Guy.

best,
Jim Forbes

Thanks for the post on such an important topic. God bless you.

I love your blog and I recommend it to all my friends.

Final post:

You can't escape poverty when your benevolent dictator has his boot on your neck.

I thought the point of this blog was to discuss innovative, out-of-the-box ways of changing the world for the better.

Each year more and more people are free than at any other time in human history. This is a direct result of the United States for the past 200+ years pushing our ideals: whether its basic human rights, charitable activities like World Vision, free trade, or even military action to achieve the those goals.

Tyranny is the root cause poverty. Shouldn't we treat this cancer on the human condition just as we would for breast cancer, AIDS or global warming?

Imagine the economic engine that would be unleashed if all 4+ billion on this planet were free.

"Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." Love put into action is a compelling and attractive worldview."

This is a beautiful quote that I have saved onto my computer and will use in the future.

I am not Christian, nor am I very religious at all, but when people criticize religion, I bring up the organizations like World Vision, and other charitable organizations associated with organized religion as tangible proof that religion, whether it's belief in God, Christ (or both) or any of the others does inspire(in the root sense of the word) people to do good. Thanks for highlighting it with this interview.

I think we must all think about ways to change our values and the values of those around us to a culture of positive engagement with others rather than violence and war-mongering.

Guy, thanks for the excellent interviews. It is refreshing to read from such a wide range of individuals who take part in such a variety of occupations.

Joe, you weren't Bible-thumping, you were making a valid point.

Jerry, you need to pick up Robert Dahl's book On Democracy.

Great interview. Quite amazing.

Jerry, you are flame baiting. Anyway, as other people has pointed out, World Vision's work is to support communities, not governments.

There are some people that think change will come from the top: let's change a government and everything else will follow. That somewhat relies on the notion of big government influencing everything down the line. As a classical liberal - Libertarian on US terms - I think that ultimately individuals make their own destiny and influence government.

Individuals do not need liberators, but they will set themselves free. World vision's work provide people with tools for escaping poverty: access to health, education and the opportunity to start their own businesses. I believe that it is a much more powerful way of allowing people to achieve their potential.

Finally, I think that everybody has the right to achieve their own dream life style. For some it will be the American dream, for others something different. Diversity is a great thing, you know.

Thanks Guy for posting such an inspirational interview. It made me happy to be a NZ World Vision supporter.

I'm not trying to proselytize or Bible-thump or engage in a useless religious debate, but I just have to say a couple things...

Jesus undoubtedly instructed his followers to take care of the poor and needy:

Luke 14:13 - when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind

Matthew 19:21 - If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me

Luke 12:33 - Sell your possessions and give to the poor

Jesus did not advocate overthrowing the totalitarian Roman government of His day. He instructed us to help the orphans and widows. Taking Mark 14:7 out of context to claim that Christians shouldn't address extreme poverty is a stretch at best...

Social justice is not about giving to feel better about yourself. World Vision (and other organizations) have their eye on the prize and exemplify what it means to follow Jesus' teachings.

My 2 cents and I will now step off my soapbox.

joe

You want to really change the world? I mean long lasting, dramatic change that benefits every living man, woman and child on this planet?

Do everything in your power to end totalitarian governments by 2017.

Stop wasting your money and efforts on band-aids which ease your guilt for cashing in your stock options and living better than anyone else in the history of mankind.

I will even help you get your thinking on the right path:

What is the first thing you would do to bring freedom to the people of the prison nation of North Korea?

>>I disagree.... I don't think Jesus sees the American lifestyle is the ideal.

Maybe the Ethopian, North Korean or Iranian way of life is more to your liking: At least you have a life style choice and the freedom to live your life in accordance with teachings of Jesus or not.

"The question is this: Does every person on this planet have a right to live the American life style and dream? I say yes and would like to think Jesus would as well."

I disagree.... I don't think Jesus sees the American lifestyle is the ideal.

Thanks for this post, Guy. Keep up the great work! These are conversations worthy of our time and attention.

>>Even in the short term it's a little impractical to consider invading and forcibly democratizing 10-20 totalitarian regimes around the world.

You don't always have to invade a country for a change in regime: Look at China or India.

>>Current experience in Iraq suggests that in long term, it doesn't work.

6 is years is long term? Good thing you weren't around after the American Revolution: It took us nearly a decade after the war to get our act together; After WWII. It took 7+ years to get Germany and Japan on the right footing.

>>World Vision doesn't support governments; it tried to build up communities>>

What's the point of building communities under brutal dictatorships? It's cruel and inhumane.

You have not answered my original question:

Do people in Ethopia, Iraq or similar country have a right to live their lives the way you do in the United States?

Good post. Comment to Jerry, below ...

Friend, you sound like a Red Brigade ideo-thug spouting nonsense like "we will kill you to set you free."

Even in the short term it's a little impractical to consider invading and forcibly democratizing 10-20 totalitarian regimes around the world. Current experience in Iraq suggests that in long term, it doesn't work. And a "former corporate big shot," I should think you would know enough about finance to see the imbalance between $400 billion spent on something that's patently not working, and $20 billion spent on something that has at least some notable successes.

World Vision doesn't support governments; it tried to build up communities.

Instead of World Vision subsidizing totalitarian governments which keep their citizens in perpetual poverty, I believe Jesus would want regime change in those countries like we are currently doing in Iraq.

It's easy to donate a few dollars or put on a concert and feel good about doing something to maintain the status quo. It is quite another thing to actually change a country from being ruled by a ruthless dictator to one that is own and governed by its people.

As a former corporate big shot, I would think Stearns would do everything in his power to introduce capitalism to Ethopia, etc. Capitalism is working wonders in China and India...even Vietnam.

The question is this: Does every person on this planet have a right to live the American life style and dream? I say yes and would like to think Jesus would as well.

Thank you for the great interview. I appreciate some of the transparency and honesty in it.

One question: As someone who seeks to follow Jesus, what does Mr. Stearns think about this quote from Jesus:

"The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me."

I saw some people got the idea that Mr. Stearns' goal was to erradicate poverty. But if that were the case, how would that work? If Jesus says, "the poor you will always have with you...", then wouldn't that vision go against the very motivation (Jesus) of World Vision.

I made a 2-minute video about it, if you'd like to see:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7zZwwipOU4

Great interview Guy. What I loved most about it was the eternal optimism that Mr. Stearns has - defeating poverty is something that we can actually do tangibly.

I have been listening to Jeffrey Sachs and his speeches on the BBC for the past 5 weeks. He also speaks with the same kind of optimism and passion for the world. Some of your readers might be interested in that as well.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2007/

Thanks for the great blog!

Thank you, Guy. Putting these kinds of stories out front and increasing the chance that they will receive the coverage they deserve is one of the primary reasons that you, sir, are one of my heros. A guy could do much worse than to grow up to be like Guy Kawasaki.

Smittie

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