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September / October 2010
What Would Jesus Do?
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Wednesday, 01 September 2010

Richard Stearns
Helping hand: Richard Stearns '73 with an injured earthquake victim in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

When he's not traveling the globe as president of the relief organization World Vision, Richard Stearns '73 is exhorting his fellow Christians to practice what they preach

By Beth Saulnier

Richard Stearns '73 took a roundabout route to running the world's largest Christian relief organization. He was raised in a secular household and didn't find religion until his twenties. When he met his future wife, Renée Legg Stearns '75, on a blind date shortly before he graduated, she offered him an evangelical pamphlet—and he compared her faith to belief in the Easter Bunny.

After earning an undergraduate degree in neurobiology and an MBA from Penn, he spent more than two decades in corporate America, helming the board-game company Parker Brothers at age thirty-three and eventually running Lenox, Inc., purveyors of fine china and crystal. Stearns had grown up in a household that lived paycheck to paycheck, financing his education with loans and summer work; when he was tapped to head World Vision, he had a plum job with a corner office and a company Jaguar. As he told the organization's recruiter: "You seem to be looking for someone who is part CEO, part Mother Teresa, and part Indiana Jones."

Stearns took the job in 1998—a decision that required a cross-country move, a massive pay cut, and much prayer and inner turmoil. In his 2009 book, The Hole in Our Gospel, Stearns describes his struggle to accept that God had called him to serve as World Vision's president and offers his own journey as an example of how Christians, no matter how imperfect, can dedicate themselves to improving this world as well as finding salvation in the next. The book's title refers to its central thesis: that American evangelical Christians have lost touch with essential Biblical teachings about aiding those less fortunate. As he writes, "Focusing almost exclusively on the afterlife reduces the importance of what God expects of us in this life."

Stearns and his wife live in Bellevue, Washington—though he spends much of his work life on the road, visiting World Vision sites worldwide. They have five children, including Andy Stearns '04 and Hannah Stearns '07.

Cornell Alumni Magazine: When you travel to severely impoverished communities, how can you bear it? How can you stand to see that human suffering?

Richard Stearns: The first two years that I had this job, my wife called me "the crying president" because I was constantly in tears. I would see things and then I would give a speech a month later, and as I was recounting what I'd seen I would start to cry. But after twelve years of doing this, I went to Haiti a week after the earthquake and saw dead bodies lying in the streets, and you could smell the decay—it was just horrible. And I almost hate to say it, but I didn't cry. It still hits me, but I've seen so much that I've developed some defense mechanisms. When you do this kind of work, there's a lot of burnout potential, so you have to celebrate the victories. If you dwell on the failures—on the enormity of the problems, the people you can't help—you'll become overwhelmed and go screaming into the night.

small business
Back to work: After a cyclone struck Myanmar, World Vision helped fund an economic recovery program for small businesses.

CAM: How is World Vision different from other international aid groups?

RS: Many charities do one thing like hunger, clean water, housing, health care, or microfinance. All of those are good. But if a charity comes into a desperately poor community and helps develop the food supply so that malnutrition goes down—but you don't have access to health care, you don't have a school for your children, you don't have clean water and sanitation, you don't have a job—then you're still poor. Unless you tackle those things simultaneously, the community will never pull itself out of the rut of poverty. World Vision tries to do multiple things, believing that unless you address all the root causes, a community will remain poor.

CAM: Does being faith-based affect World Vision's approach?

RS: It does. For instance, our staff worldwide tend to live with the poor. They don't live across town in the rich communities and drive to work, they live in the slums of Calcutta. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we're available to the people we serve. I once mentioned that to the head of the Gates Foundation in India, and he was shocked. He said, "How can you get your people to do that?" And I said, "Well, that's what happens when you're motivated by your faith."

CAM: When you were running Lenox, you could judge your success by how much china and crystal you sold. How can you tell if World Vision is fulfilling its mission?

RS: In for-profits, success is measured by money. How much did you make, what was the earnings per share? In the nonprofit arena, the end is the work you're doing. At World Vision it's helping people out of poverty—and how do you measure lives transformed? But we can measure things like: How many people in a community in Africa now have access to clean water and sanitation that didn't five years ago? What percentage of K-8 children are in school full-time? How many children have been inoculated? How many households are using bed nets to protect against malaria? How many people attended your HIV/AIDS prevention seminar? We often say at World Vision that we're in the business of restoring hope in hopeless places.

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 01 September 2010 )