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So, You Want to Start a Nonprofit? Part 5

Advice from five organization leaders on getting started, setting goals and what they’d do differently a second time around

Nonprofit organizations are the culmination of passion and practicality. While some may choose to join an organization or volunteer to do whatever they can, others want to forge their own way and found a new nonprofit for their chosen cause.

But what are the challenges of starting one? And does the world need another organization fighting [insert crisis here]?

In this series of articles, you’ll hear from people who either joined an organization or founded a new one. Each offers a behind-the-scenes perspective on what they’ve learned, what keeps them going and their hopes for a new generation of advocates.

These nonprofit leaders are answering Christ’s call to care for the least of these—and they’ll explain how others can, too.

While he was the president of Lenox, Richard Stearns received a phone call asking if he’d consider interviewing to become the president of World Vision, U.S. After two decades in the business world, he initially said no. But after a bit of convincing, in 1998, he decided to take it on. Here, he discusses getting to the root causes of global poverty, how his business experience speaks into the nonprofit sector and how he had a life-changing revelation in a mud hut on a Peruvian mountaintop.

You were in the business world for a little more than two decades before joining World Vision—including being a president and CEO at other companies. How has that experience affected your work with World Vision?

Nonprofits are businesses—they have revenue and customers and finance departments. They even have factories in the sense that the work we do around the world, those are factories wherein we produce our product, which happens to be service delivery for the poor. But it’s a product we offer to donors that if you want to do service delivery to the poor in Haiti, World Vision is a good organization to do it with and we can deliver X, Y and Z for so many dollars that you give us. So I was actually quite pleased to find how directly relevant and applicable my business experiences were to the nonprofit sector.

What misunderstandings did you have about global poverty before joining World Vision?

I think we in America have a very simplistic and naive view of poverty. I had no idea, for example, that more than 2 billion people in the world don’t have a toilet—that more than 1 billion people don’t have a glass of clean water to drink, let alone to cook with or bathe with. I think I misunderstood the dimensions of poverty and the symptoms of poverty that people struggle with. 

I think another misunderstanding I had was the scope of global poverty—that in a world of over 6 billion people, more than a third of the world’s population live on less than $2 a day. I’d [also] never really thought about the multiple dimensions of the causes of poverty—everything from government corruption to the effects of colonialism 100 years later, the lack of education, the lack of natural resources or access to capital. It was much more complex than I gave it credit for being.

What taught you the most in your early years?

I did a lot of listening. It was pretty easy for me to play dumb in the early months and first couple of years because I was pretty dumb about the work we did. So I asked a lot of stupid questions. And then there was no substitute for just getting on an airplane and visiting lots and lots of projects in lots and lots of countries and seeing with my own eyes.

What’s one way you’ve made a difference in your position?

I came in with very little knowledge and I had to listen and learn a lot, but I also noticed [things] people at World Vision seemed to not be able to see because they were too close to the problem. My very first trip with World Vision in 1998 was to Uganda. We worked pretty much at ground zero in the AIDS pandemic, and I visited child-headed households and was confronted with the orphan problem. For the first time ever, I saw what the AIDS pandemic was doing in Africa. I was just totally shocked by what I saw. I was unprepared for it.

When I came back, I started to ask some of these stupid questions like, “What are we doing about HIV and AIDS?” And people were saying: “What do you mean ‘what are we doing’? It’s another disease. A lot of people are dying and we’re working with those communities to try to help people with food and water and those kinds of things.” Then I said, “But the AIDS pandemic is a big deal.”

It took a few years before I could really get other leaders in World Vision to fully listen. That was probably one of the main things that became kind of a turnaround situation within World Vision that I was able to add some value—mostly because I was a fresh pair of eyes.

What kind of pressures do you face as a president of one the largest humanitarian organizations?

One of the constant pressures is the need for fundraising. We have to raise roughly $3-$4 million a day, 365 days a year, in World Vision United States to hit our goals and our budget.

One of the [other] things we all worry about today with our workers around the world is security. Last February, seven World Vision staff were killed in Pakistan with automatic weapons. Increasingly, being a humanitarian worker means there’s a target on your back. 

What is one event that has deeply affected you so far?

One story that profoundly impacted me early on was [in] 1999. I’d been at World Vision just a year and I went to Peru. We went 14,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains near Cusco—we have a project area there where we work with people up in the mountains who are very poor. We met a widow named Octaviana, and she had three children living with her.Here is this widow, probably in her 40s with three young children, no husband, living in this harsh climate, having to fend for herself and grow her own food. I asked her, “Octaviana, when you pray, what do you pray for?” She said: “I had been praying that God would send help. That God would not forget us here on this mountain with my children, and He would send us the help we need because I don’t know how we’re going to survive.”

I realized that here I was, the president of World Vision, one of the largest humanitarian organizations in the world. I was 10,000 miles from Seattle where our headquarters are, I was 14,000 feet up in the Andes Mountains and I was sitting in her mud hut. I had this chill up my spine, and I realized that in a very real way, every one of us is the answer to someone else’s prayer—right now, today, all around the world, desperate people are praying.

And what a privilege it is to be able to be the answer to someone’s prayers, someone who desperately needs something.

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