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.

Was it hard to respond to Chile’s earthquake, given that it came so close after Haiti’s?

Yes, the response for donations was much lower for Chile. But the need wasn’t as great either, since it is one of the more-developed countries in South America.

Despite the recession, your revenue overall was up last year, largely due to government and corporate help.

That’s right. We get government funds largely through commodities from the U.S. government. We also get a large amount of gifts in kind; a lot of that is pharmaceuticals and school supplies and clothes from corporations. Finally, we have cash gifts that are primarily from individuals.

Does having an explicit Christian mission ever present a problem in working with companies that might want to be more neutral?

It can, [but] generally no. We’re very clear that we serve everybody according to their needs, so we make no distinction on a faith basis for that. The way we view the world is that people should give to those organizations that do the best job; that are the most effective. The faith-based component is important for the people who work here, because just about everybody is here because they feel called to serve. But I think that’s what gives us the ability to be effective.

As a CFO, how do you measure effectiveness?

I’ve come to learn that the appropriate measurement is how many lives are changed as a result of our work. That’s a very difficult thing to measure, so most people gravitate to some other metric like the overhead rate. What we have been trying to do is measure objective metrics on the overall welfare of children. For instance, when we go into a community we will measure how many children are inoculated, how many have stunted growth, how many children in school, how many have access to clean water within one kilometer, and so on. Then we measure those again 5 years later, 10 years later, 15 years later. One challenge is that there are lots of things going on in those communities other than just World Vision, so it’s not always the case that the changes are solely due to our work. But it’s still the right thing to do.

Speaking of overhead costs, yours dropped 2% last year to 11%, a historic low for World Vision. How are you getting those costs down?

Like many nonprofit and for-profit organizations in the past 18 to 24 months, we’ve had some significant cost-containment measures. We have not had any merit [pay] increases for our employees for two years. We had a [layoff] that amounted to about a 5% reduction in positions about a year ago. We’ve reassessed all of our discretionary spending and reduced the amount of travel. Sometimes it takes a significant shift in economic conditions to make you do things differently than you have in the past.

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