When Disaster Is Your Job

At World Vision US, CFO Larry Probus helps steer humanitarian aid and disaster relief to millions of people around the world.

The devastating earthquakes in Haiti and Chile earlier this year brought new attention to disaster relief and the nonprofit agencies that provide it. One of the largest such agencies is World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization. Last year its U.S. branch spent over $1 billion in more than 100 countries, not just on disaster relief but also on efforts to help disadvantaged children by supplying basic needs such as clean water and medical care. Despite the recession, revenue for World Vision US grew 10% in fiscal 2009, to $1.2 billion.

But Larry Probus, senior vice president and CFO of World Vision US, says he and his colleagues are “not overly impressed” with the organization’s size. That’s because “there are probably at least 2.6 billion people in the developing world that need help,” he explains. “When you put it in that context, [we address] a very small part of the need out there.” (The nonprofit’s Website estimates that the organization provides aid to about 100 million people around the world.)

Before joining World Vision in 2003, Probus spent more than 20 years with Brown-Forman, a Louisville-based maker of premium spirits and wines. He says that were it not for a chance encounter with Mother Teresa in the 1990s, he likely would have remained at Brown-Forman until retirement (more on this below). He also serves on the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s Financial Accounting Standards Advisory Council, as well as the Standards Committee of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability.

Recently, Probus spoke with CFO about World Vision’s outlook for 2010. The following is an edited version of the interview.

How do you forecast and budget for responding to natural disasters, which are inherently unpredictable?

Well, you can’t forecast natural disasters. But what you can do is be prepared to react quickly. For instance, we have storehouses of emergency supplies that we can deploy within 24 hours of a natural disaster. We also know from experience what our role will be vis-à-vis other nonprofit organizations. We are typically focused on children, providing safe places for children who may have lost their parents, as well as essential food and shelter.

So when the Haiti earthquake occurred, we had teams of people immediately entering the country to supplement the 800 staff we already had there — to work with them to distribute food and water, and then put in place these child-friendly spaces. Now we’re working on providing longer-term housing and shelter.

Larry Probus quote

When a disaster happens, is there a decision process about whether or not you have the budget to get involved?

The Internet plays a key [role] in that. We communicate the need to our donors, and as those donations come in, we monitor them daily and can adjust our response accordingly. The more money that comes in, the more resources we can put into the field.

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