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Going to the Field

14 Mar

photo copy 3One of my favorite and most important things I do with my job is travel. Though there are a thousand tasks calling my name regularly at the office and sometimes folks lined up outside my door with questions, I know I need to regularly get out of the office and into the field where our programs are located.

I need to see with my own eyes the impact our feeding, education, water and sanitation and livelihood development projects are having within the communities.

I need to be able to shake the hands of the field staff– some of the greatest saints I know who are changing the lives of children every day.

I need to be able to hear the cries of mothers who are pleading us to do more for their babies.

Because of all of these experiences, I come back with a different kind of leadership focus. I want to do everything I can to do right by those under my care.

Last week, I had the opportunity to travel to El Salvador and Honduras. It was my first time in El Salvador since becoming the President of FTC and I was impressed with the good work I saw, particularly the innovation.

It was wonderful to see the water project we have going on in El Guayabo. In this community, fathers, brothers and uncles are gathering together to help Feed The Children build a water line through their community that will provide 2,500 people clean drinking water for as long as the pipes hold up (which should be at least 40 years!). This clean drinking water will assist 600 children, all of which are a part of our school feeding program.

Men often get a bad rap in some parts of the world as being lazy or unmotivated, but not in El Guayabo! These men were working hard providing not only a better life for themselves but for their families too. They even got me involved in the action as seen below. In a couple of months it will be finished. I can’t wait to travel again and see the progress!

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Then, when we arrived in Honduras, one of my favorite things awaited me. I was given a couple of hours with the boys of Casa del Nino. This home is the orphanage that we run for 38 boys aged 6-16 in La Ceiba.

I love these boys as if they were my sons. And what a privilege it was to take the whole group to dinner at the boys’ favorite restaurant, Pizza Hut. We laughed, we smiled and I was able to introduce them to Tom and Phil, two of our new international staff that recently joined our Feed The Children team. See Phil below being silly with two of our boys.

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These boys have such joy in their life, even with all of the challenges they’ve faced. All of them come from communities with little food security. Most of them have lost one if not both parents. Many of them came from the streets or abusive situations. Yet they smile and they tell me, “Mr. Kevin, I love it here at Casa del Nino. Thank you for being my family.”

How can your heart not melt at this?

My goal is to visit one or more of our field programs once a quarter. Sure others on staff could visit (and some do), but I go not only to see and experience our programs and encourage our staff, but I go for myself. I go to find energy for the big tasks that lie ahead. I go to get my spiritual boast that this truly is God’s work and I’m just one instrument in the larger mission of what we’re seeking to accomplish together. I go to come back and work even harder.

Hope for the Future

4 Mar

Last week, Forbes Magazine came out with an article by Phil DeMuth called, “Death of the Big Charity” with the basic hypothesis that younger philanthropic givers are skeptical of large institutional charities.

DeMuth writes: “While their parents were happy to write elephantine checks to the “American Big Disease Association” or the “Big City Cultural Institution” or “Ye Olde Ivy College Foundation” or the “Mainline Church Denomination”, the kids (and by kids here I mean from age 18 through their 30s) have little interest in outfits like these”

Our name wasn’t mentioned but it could be inferred that Feed The Children falls in this category. We are a big box charity. In fiscal year 2013, we distributed 98 million pounds of food and supplies with a total value of $215 million to over 10 million individuals in the U.S.  Internationally we distributed 21 million pounds of food, medicine, and essentials valued at $129 million to children and families in the 23 countries we serve. Our reach is large. It would be easy for folks to be skeptical of us, especially those in the age category that DeMuth mentions and in women, the age of my wife as who wrote about her skepticism here.

But I don’t believe DeMuth’s argument is completely true. And it is because of young adults that I meet when I am traveling in the field, like the one I met recently, James Williams.

37a2c05James is a 20 something in Washington DC who several years ago had a dream of making a difference for families in the developing world. He could have allowed his age or fear of the unknown or even the fact that he was still in school to keep him from pursuing his dream but he didn’t. After a friend went on a trip to Africa and came back with a custom made hoodie, James and his soon to be business partner had an idea.

What if these hoodies could be made by master tailors in Kenya and sold in the US? They loved the hoodies and thought others would feel the same.

James took a solo trip back to Kenya and pursued the project. His dream was to positively impact the lives of families in need in a community. The project would be called Udu.

Yet, James knew his business would need a larger partner. Through mutual connections he began a conversation with our Regional Director in Kenya who told James about Feed The Children’s focus on livelihood development. James decided to partner with us. During his visit and through continued virtual conversations, James taught the women and men in our programs in Nairobi to make his product. Today, these hoodies are sold through James’ website and at our Feed The Children store in Oklahoma City. (From what I hear the hoodies are selling out like crazy!) The profits go back into the local community in Kenya. I couldn’t be prouder that James and Udu has a partnership with us.

I know James is not the only young person passionate about big global issues like poverty, hunger and economic development. I know there are other James out there who are already working with us and we just haven’t had the privilege of meeting yet. I know there are more amazing ideas and projects like Udu yet to be discovered.

Meeting people like James give me hope for the future of big charities being able to connect and be relevant to the next generation – we aren’t dead. We are thriving and growing and hoping that people like you will partner with us soon.

We Need a Common Language

27 Feb

There’s something unique that happens when you are building a transformation driven culture in an organization– folks arrive at your doorstep speaking all sorts of different languages. And by this I don’t mean actual languages as in spoken in different country (well that happens sometime too especially when you are running an international non-profit). No.  Folks arrive as new employees at your organization, transplants from similar places and the words they use aren’t your words.

Over the past year at Feed The Children we’ve had new employees decide to join our team from other non-profits such as Heifer International, Food for the Hungry,  World Vision, Compassion International — just to name a few and we’ve also included the organization World Neighbors in our family. These new team members are passionate and excited about furthering our mission with their gifts and talents. They came to join our team because they knew something amazing was going on at Feed The Children. But, the problem of our community building is that all of these new employees use different words.

For example, at Feed The Children we might talk about the importance of child based community development or the four pillars– two bedrock words when we speak of our international programs and these same words might mean the exact opposite of what we are talking about to a new staffer.

And this is our current challenge: we have to find our language– together. Maybe some of the words we are using right now aren’t the best descriptions of what we are trying to do. Maybe some hybrid version of the best of our now collective experience can be our common ground.

If there is anything I know about organizational leadership, it is this: without effective communication among your team members, it doesn’t matter how good your programs are, they will fail. Unified teams that know how to speak to one another are those who get the job done.

This is why over the next quarter at Feed The Children we are going to be talking more about how we talk to each other.

It’s really a great problem to have, as far as problems are concerned– to be a surrounded by a diversity of thoughtful leaders. But the challenge for us is where do we go from here?

I love the idea expressed by John Kuypers in his book, Who’s the Driver Anyway? Making the Shift to a Collaborative Team Culture: “If you first take a minute, an hour or a month to let go of feeling annoyed, frustrated or critical of the person or situation that may be driving you crazy, you set yourself up for much greater leadership and personal success.”

May we all be more conscious of how we listen and respond to one another. Sometimes common language or not, if we just take a minute to sit with what is before us, we can usually see situations needing our attention more easily.

New Thoughts for the New Year

31 Dec

New Year’s Day will be here so soon!

It’s that time of year when we all seek to sit down and make resolutions. We seek to get our financial life in order. We want to lose weight. We want to be better people.

I am not the kind of guy who often makes resolutions. Not that I am against them or those who do, but I rarely follow through with some lofty self-improvement goal that rolls off my tongue on December 31. So years ago, I just stopped. Now I just try to live the way I know I ought to live every day of the year. Sometimes I fail miserably. Other times I do pretty good.

G.K Chesterton said: “The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes.”

I loved this quote when I first read it for two reasons.

First, it speaks to the fact that there is nothing overtly magical about the ticking of the clock towards 12:01am on New Year’s Day. Yes, it’s great to stop and celebrate, to have a good time with friends and family. But, in the end, New Year’s is not that big of deal. It’s just another moment, another day, and another opportunity to breathe with thanksgiving for the gift of life. We are lucky to have so many of these moments through the year.

Second, I love the idea that Chesterton speaks of transformation. To truly be the “better people” that many of us crave to be, we have to allow something greater than ourselves (and I call this God in my own life) to change us– to give us a new soul, a new nose, a new backbone, new ears and new eyes.

Simply put, we have to see the world differently.

Over the course of 2013, I have had many opportunities through my work with Feed The Children to see the world with a new perspective.

I’ve met girls like Karen in Honduras who must go through the trash every day in order to earn her family a few dollars to live on. And though she misses school, she goes in later and gets the class assignments she missed from her teachers in an attempt to get the education that she hopes will lift her and her family out of poverty.
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I’ve met child care workers like those who run our orphange in Kenya who love and care for the children under their care as if they birthed these babies themselves.

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I’ve met boys like Oscar who our country staff calls “Kevin 2” although we are no blood relation– there is something about his spirit that has captured mine and vice versa.

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And through these experiences I am slowly and gradually changing.

This year I bought fewer Christmas gifts for those who really don’t need the excess and I gave more away.

This year as I sat around the Christmas table with my family, I couldn’t help but remember my larger family (and children!) around the world.

This year when late nights at work and piles on my desk sought to stress me out, I took a moment and remembered why I am working so hard– for the children– and I carried on.

I’m sure 2014 has much more to teach me and I am ready. New Years resolutions or not, 2014, here I come!

Chocolate Milk Mondays

16 Oct

photoAs I seek to be an adaptive leader, I often think that the best ideas emerge when you listen to your team.

This is the story of how one such new FTC tradition began. It’s called Chocolate Milk Mondays.

When I came on as CEO of FTC, I asked HR to place a suggestion box in the break room for employees to suggest ideas that they felt would make their experience at FTC a better one.

However, when our head of HR kept telling me that there were countless suggestions for “chocolate milk Mondays” in the suggestion box, I wondered what I had gotten into. As much as I wanted to honor (within reason) what employees suggested, I wasn’t sure about this idea. Surely it was just one person stuffing the box with the same idea over and over again?

But then, one evening last February I worked late. My wife and I had just hosted an all-staff Valentine’s party where we gave each member of the team in Oklahoma a heart-shaped cookie. I wanted to be the one who took the cookies to our night crew in the call center so that they wouldn’t feel left out.

As I spent some time chatting with them, it was soon apparent that it wasn’t one person who stuffed the box with the chocolate milk idea but an entire team: the night-time call center team.

They told me that their crew had asked for chocolate milk Mondays– knowing that it was a silly idea, but something they thought would brighten their day– just to see if I was listening. They wanted to know if it was really true that they could suggest anything and be heard?

The following Monday, I knew what was next. I drove to the local 7-11 and purchased several gallons of chocolate milk. I took it to the call center, and we sat down and drank chocolate milk together as a group.

The joy that followed overwhelmed me.

I heard from several employees that this act was the first time in their experience at Feed The Children that they had felt heard and cared for in such a specific way.

I heard a lot of “I’m so glad I work in an organization where the CEO knows my name.” I left that evening feeling uplifted and encouraged about the workplace culture I’m helping to create.

And so the tradition of chocolate milk Mondays lives on. Once a month, like I did this week (in the picture above), I spend some time with the evening call center thanking them for all they do for us each day at FTC with chocolate milk in hand. I don’t even mind staying late on these days because I always leave encouraged and empowered. I am surrounded by so many incredible people at FTC each day!

Who would have known chocolate milk could do all of this?

To the rest of the FTC team: don’t be afraid to suggest ideas. Who knows what might happen next? I’m listening to you.