Caryl Stern says that when she became CEO of the U.S. Fund for Unicef, she replaced its hierarchical “pyramid” leadership structure with “a series of circles” built on teamwork and feedback. She also details the charity’s wearable-tech venture, Unicef Kid Power, and some of the special relationships it has forged in the business world, and talks about combating donors’ “disaster fatigue.”
The following is a conversation between Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: There are leaders of major international aid organizations that possess all the skills and talents and managerial capabilities to successfully lead their organization in its life changing work. But there are only a few who not only possess those traits but just strike you as having been born for the job. Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF happens to be one those people, and she’s with us now. Good evening, Caryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Caryl: Thanks! Nice to be here.
Denver: Let’s begin by having you tell us the mission and goals of the US Fund for UNICEF. And what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the US Fund and UNICEF?
Caryl: Sure! Well, UNICEF International is the organization that does really whatever it takes to save a child anywhere in the world. Working in 190 countries, 12,000 boots on the ground, under the phenomenal leadership of the Executive Director, Tony Lake. Underneath that, independent of it, there are 34 organizations around the world that enable that work. I have the privilege to run the US arm of that– the US Fund for UNICEF. We are a 501(c)(3) located in New York City, and we have a tripartite mission. First and foremost, we raise money; it is our job to raise the dollars to help to make UNICEF’s work possible. Secondly, we are the voice of children from around the globe here in the US. So, a part of my job is to go and bear witness to what’s going on around the globe and come back and talk about it. And then the third part, hopefully, is to raise a generation here in the United States that will do a better job than we have done thus far of saving, protecting and insuring that the the world’s children thrive.
Denver: That’s a great mission. Let’s talk about the current state of the world for a moment. Perhaps you could do that through the lens of the three emergency levels that the UN uses to classify a crisis. What is the look these days?
Caryl: The UN does classify emergencies. Obviously, not every emergency rises to the same necessity of response. So, there’s a level 1, a level 2, and level 3 is the highest level of emergency. And up until about a year and a half ago, on occasion, you’d have one or two level 3s at the same time. Currently there are five and unfortunately for those who respond… and not just UNICEF…all of the UN agencies that respond, the other NGOs..these are not either/ors. You can’t say: “Okay, we’ll fund what’s happening in Syria right now instead of funding the response to Ebola, or the response currently to Zika.” They have to be “ands”; you’ve got to figure out how you are going respond to this, and this, and this, and this and this. Its an “and,” and an “and,” and an “and,” right now.
Denver: One of those level 3s is the refugee crisis. Matthew Bishop of The Economist was on the show earlier this year, and we were talking about Davos. He said it was the Number 1 topic of conversation there. And I said: “Well, is anybody talking about a potential solution?” He said: “No.” You have been the leading voice and a strong advocate for the children caught in the middle of this unprecedented crisis. Is the world getting any closer to figuring out how we can handle this?
Caryl: I don’t think so. I think we are responding better, not solving better. Unfortunately, there are more children on the move right now, unaccompanied and accompanied, but more children on the move right now than in any period since World War II.
Denver: That’s remarkable!
Caryl: Really, it is remarkable. And we don’t get to pick where we’re born, and surely wouldn’t pick poverty or a conflict zone if we had a choice. And the children on the move are really victims of the politics of adults. These are not the choices they’re making that are forcing them to leave the home they’re familiar with, the community they’re familiar with, the practices and rites and rituals they’re familiar with. To usually walk, not drive, great lengths for many days in the hopes of finding better space. And we are definitely not equipped around the world to treat the children as children when they arrive on those shores.
Denver: I bet. There have been a lot of recent stories, Caryl, around disaster aid. Some of them haven’t been been all that good. Supplies not getting through… and millions and millions of dollars being spent, and not much to show for it. But UNICEF operations are quite distinct from many of the others. Tell us how you’re unique in this regard.
Caryl: UNICEF International is responsible for the supply chain. Frankly, there’s a huge warehouse. The primary warehouse is located in Copenhagen, and it was a gift of the government there to give us the space, and it operates there. But there are also a series of pre-positioned supplies and warehouses around the world. The reason that’s really critical is — you take what happened in Myanmar in Burma. While the world waited to see if planes were going to be allowed to land there when the crisis hit, we had a warehouse there; we had supplies there, and people went right to work.