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.

You came to World Vision in 2003, but a much earlier encounter with Mother Teresa influenced your decision to join the organization. Tell me more about that.

In the early and mid-90s, I was working for Brown-Forman in India. I started traveling there with a colleague to do focus-group interviews. On one of those trips, in Calcutta, we got to spend about 10 or 15 minutes chatting with [Mother Teresa]. I was struck by how one person really had made a huge difference in a lot of people’s lives there.

After that trip, there was a period of time where I did a lot of soul searching and actively wondered if there was something else I should do. It was years after that when [World Vision CEO] Rich Stearns called me and said he was looking for a CFO. And I was reminded of that visit.

What was your biggest challenge coming to a nonprofit after spending decades in the for-profit world?

One of the biggest challenges was understanding the end-to-end economic chain for World Vision’s work, from the time a dollar is raised until it’s spent in the field. The question I get asked most often as a CFO is: How much of my dollar gets to my child or my community? There isn’t a simple answer, because it depends on your definitions. One answer is 89 cents — $1 minus overhead costs. But some people literally want to know: “If I give you a dollar for my sponsored child, how much of that dollar gets to my child?” We actually don’t give money to children or to their families, so another answer is zero. But what they really want to know is how much of that dollar gets to the community of my child and how it’s used.

So how do you answer it now?

A key question for us is: How do you get the most value out of a dollar? The simplest answer would be to get more money to the budgets of the local communit[ies]. That’s the right answer sometimes, but not always. It’s sometimes a better investment to hire a doctor who works at a national office, not in the local community of any given child, who can travel all around that country. Or we [sometimes] take a portion of the sponsorship funds and invest in a drilling rig for an entire country, which then drills fresh-water wells in the local communities where we work.

But what you want to measure ultimately is the benefit that the children receive, and not necessarily how many dollars go into the local community.

What are your main projects for this year?

We are embarking upon a major expansion of our water-access initiative, with the objective of bringing fresh water to every community we work in. Ideally what you want is for people to have access to clean water within one kilometer. It’s a big undertaking.

[I recently spent] some time in Africa — Ethiopia, Ghana, and Mali — with a major donor, and we were inspecting all of our water drilling rigs. I’ve been trying to make decisions on how many new ones we should invest in and where they should be deployed for the most benefit. There’s no way to do this job without having some level of direct involvement in what we do on the ground, which is a challenge because we’re spread all over the world and in some of the hardest places to work in the world. I was literally in Timbuktu, so if you’ve never been there, I can tell you it is almost at the end of the earth. But there’s no substitute for that.

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