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.
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.
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.”
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.