Welling talks about AmeriCares and saving lives
Published 12:07 pm, Saturday, May 11, 2013
A few weeks after announcing his retirement, AmeriCares President and CEO Curt Welling sat down for a discussion about his 11-year legacy at the disaster relief organization, the changing nature of nonprofits in a turbulent world, and the qualities that those who work in the sector need most of all.
Q: With your experience in both finance and the nonprofit world, how do you think that some of the skills and leadership qualities from the finance world can benefit the nonprofit world and vice versa?
A: There are some obviously common elements of management in general. All organizations benefit from having a quality of management which is clear and decisive and accountable and transparent. Americans give about $300 billion to all charities each year, and that's a very big marketplace. And so, there is the potential for learning between the two sectors. When I got here 11 years ago, nobody liked to talk about competition in the nonprofit world because there was this feeling that competition was sort of unseemly between nonprofit organizations. Well, I think that's a mistake. I don't think competition is a bad thing. That, just as in the corporate world, that motivates us to think about, "how can we do more to make sure that we're delivering to donors what they most want?" Because it's not our money, it's their money. And they choose us every time they write a check. They're choosing us because they believe we're the right organization to trust, that we will do what they want done with their philanthropy.
Q: Has AmeriCares responded to disaster differently than it did 10 years ago?
A: We've become quite a lot more sophisticated in our understanding of the dynamics of a big emergency. And so we have found more ways to participate in the emergency relief and we've also learned that it's important to stay engaged beyond the immediate period of the emergency. There are a lot more people who participate in emergencies today, and they bring a wide range of skills and materials, so we've had to be more thoughtful about what we send, how we send it and who our partners are. We've learned that you can make the emergency less painful if you prepare for it. So it's really about trying to create mechanisms in advance that will allow local responders to respond more quickly.
Q: How do you think nonprofits can use public awareness to their benefit?
A: There's no underlying difference between for-profits and nonprofits, there's just a difference in resources. Advertising, promotion, visibility, brand building -- those are all incredibly powerful things for an organization which is seeking to do more. The challenge in our world is many of our stakeholders don't like us spending a lot of money on that stuff. So we have to be more resourceful, we have to use our money very wisely and in a focused way. That's why the Internet and social media have become so important to nonprofit organizations.
Q: How did your background in finance prepare you for what you did in the nonprofit world?
A: I understand how organizations work, I understand finance, I understand technology. Ultimately, all nonprofit organizations are businesses. So the fact that I spent that much time in the securities business, I understood the nuts and bolts of business, which I think has allowed me to build the organization in a sound way that someone who didn't have a business background might not have.
Q: Is there any advice you'd give to the next person who's going to be leading this organization?
A: The person who is fortunate enough to be chosen to lead this organization will be an incredibly talented, accomplished person -- of that I have no doubt. So I wouldn't presume to need to advise such a person too much. The one thing I would say is to be clear that the dynamic in this area of humanitarian assistance and emergency response is changing and the rate of change is accelerating. And the ultimate unpredictability and change of course is that we have no idea when the next natural disasters are going to take place and what the implications of climate change are on all of this. It seems as though the weather has gotten more volatile, it seems as though the intensity if storms is greater. In my time here it's certainly been the case that we've had a number of historically significant events. So embrace the change. That would be my one thing.
Q: What drew you to the nonprofit world and do you think there are certain personality types or skills that particularly fit with the employees here on any level?
A: What drew me here is the essence of and the reason why AmeriCares exists. It's the mission. And that's what draws anybody to AmeriCares: you embrace and you fall in love with and you accept the importance of the mission. The critical thing that someone needs to accept here is that you're challenged to do as much as you can with chronically limited resources. There are a billion people in the world who don't have access to any really primary health care or medicine. We can't do anything about a billion people. We can do something about 20 million, and that's a lot. And I'm very proud of that.
Q: When you're in an emergency situation, how do you separate your personal response from getting in the way of your professional capability?
A: It's a little bit like what doctors go through. Some amount of the self-protection is required when you go into some of these very difficult places. Haiti is a good example: If you go to Haiti and you see the incredible energy of the people and the beauty of the place -- and at the same time the overwhelming poverty and deeply difficult human conditions -- you have to focus on something you can do, otherwise you'd be completely ineffective. That's one of the things I've learned in 10 years here.