The Common Good

World Vision's Richard Stearns sets out to put an end to global poverty

Date: August 23, 2009

INSIDE THE cavernous Spokane Arena, thousands of women looking on in eager anticipation, Richard Stearns walks onto the stage.

Tall, his dark suit every inch professional, he exudes calm self-assurance. But really, he begins, he's a bit nervous.

He's used to speaking before "standing-room crowds of a dozen people at a time" — roughly the number who want to spend their Friday nights hearing about poverty-stricken children in faraway places.

Besides, men have a hard enough time talking with their wives, so "the idea of communicating with 10,000 women is, believe me, terrifying."

The crowd, gathered for a Christian women's revival event, laughs out loud. It's a typical opening for Stearns: funny, a little self-deprecating, disarming.

Then he launches into what's become even more of a Stearns routine these days: telling his life story.

It's a story filled with leaps of ambition, faith and love; of a boy who rose from a lower-middle-class childhood into the Ivy Leagues; a young man who leapt from agnosticism to faith and on to lead major corporations. About 10 years ago, Stearns jumped again. Taking a huge pay cut and moving his family across the country, he landed in Federal Way to lead the U.S. branch of World Vision, the largest Christian relief and development organization in the world.

Now, Stearns is taking still another leap: trying to get enough people to commit to fighting extreme poverty so it becomes as morally and socially intolerable as racism is now.

"World Vision is trying to change the direction of the wind," he says.

Certainly, working to eradicate poverty is nothing new; many churches have long been involved in the effort.

But what's interesting about Stearns is his platform — the immense World Vision U.S., with revenue last year of $1.1 billion — and those he's focused on mobilizing: evangelical Christians and churches.

Hence, the telling of his life story, before groups and in his recently published book, "The Hole in Our Gospel." Churches and Christians have focused too much on personal salvation or spent too much energy judging others, he says, ignoring the numerous biblical passages calling on them to care for the poor.

His message comes at an opportune time. Evangelical leaders such as megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Bill Hybels are emphasizing poverty as a major concern.

There's also "a generational shift going on, a big one," says the Rev. Jim Wallis, a liberal evangelical leader and Sojourners magazine editor who has said for years that such a change was happening.

Stearns knows that trying to combat global poverty can sound like a pie-in-the-sky dream. But he's never been just a dreamer. He's tripled the revenue of World Vision U.S. since he arrived, doubled the number of donors and played a significant role in getting more evangelical churches involved in addressing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

Now, he's trying to call Christians to action, getting personal about the vast challenge ahead by asking a few simple questions he's often asked himself:

What does God expect of you? And what are you going to do about it?

"Two thousand years ago, 12 men changed the world forever," he says. "I believe it could happen again."

IN STEARNS' office, a large photo mural on the wall shows the children he's met: 8-year-old Chafuli, who's carrying rats he's hunted to feed his family in Mozambique; little Vikas from India, who lost his legs in an earthquake.

The photos help remind Stearns of the urgency of his mission.

Founded in 1950 in Portland by the Rev. Bob Pierce, an evangelist, World Vision has 40,000 staff members in 99 countries, doing everything from working with communities to get clean water to helping people after natural disasters. Last year, World Vision says it helped 100 million people, including 3.6 million sponsored children. (Individual donors worldwide sponsor children in need, giving at least $30 a month to help clothe, feed and educate a child.)

The U.S. branch, with about 1,200 employees, is primarily a fundraising arm that last year raised 42 percent of the $2.6 billion that finances World Vision projects around the world.

"I wake up, I have to raise $3 million a day, 365 days a year," Stearns says.

It's a far cry from Stearns' childhood in Syracuse, N.Y. He grew up the younger of two children to a father who had a drinking problem, filed for bankruptcy twice and was on his third marriage. Neither of his parents finished high school.

Around the time they were about to lose their house and his parents separated, 10-year-old Stearns realized he had to be entirely self-reliant. He sent away for Ivy League catalogs, eventually applying just to Cornell University, the only one that seemed within reach to a boy who'd never traveled out of state.

While a senior at Cornell, he met a freshman named Reneé Legg. On their first date, she pulled out a Campus Crusade for Christ pamphlet. It had been during a lull in the conversation, Reneé remembers now, and "truthfully, I didn't think there would be a second date."

He was incredulous. His mother, a lapsed Roman Catholic, had sent him and his sister to church, but early on he had concluded he was agnostic, possibly atheist.

Still, Rich — everyone calls him Rich — and Reneé continued dating, the relationship turning serious as he graduated and started working toward his MBA at the Wharton School of Business. The gulf over religion grew wider, though, to the point that one day he asked her to choose between him and God. She chose God.

Heartbroken and bored one evening, he started reading John Stott's "Basic Christianity." He began to be convinced that what was described in the Bible actually happened.

He called Reneé — the first time they'd spoken in months. She was wary but encouraged him to learn more. They began talking again.

Stearns read the Bible, and another 50 books on Christianity. By the time he finished, it simply became harder for him to sustain the view that humans, Manhattan, all of it, were the result of complete randomness. The agnostic lifestyle also didn't give him a compelling sense of purpose: "What was I living for?"

Many people become Christian through the heart, he says. He had to be convinced through his head.

It still came down to a leap of faith, but the chasm he had to jump was far smaller.

He leapt.

THE CALL CAME about 10 years ago from a corporate recruiter named Rob Stevenson, who was searching for a new president for World Vision.

"I think he laughed," Stevenson remembers of that exploratory call.

In the intervening years, Rich and Reneé had gotten back together when she saw that his change of mind and heart were real. He proposed.

After graduating from Wharton, Stearns had shot up the corporate ladder, becoming president of Parker Brothers Games when he was just 33. By the time Stevenson called, Stearns was president and CEO of Lenox, the luxury tableware company.

He flew first class, drove a company Jaguar, earned about $800,000 a year. He and Reneé — who had left her law practice — and their five children lived in a 10-bedroom house in Pennsylvania.

He was home for dinner most nights; on days when he was particularly busy, he'd come home to tuck the kids into bed, then go back to work, remembers his son, Andy Stearns.

Rich Stearns told Stevenson flat out he didn't think he was right for the job. He knew nothing about, and had little interest in, running a humanitarian organization.

But the more Stevenson learned, the more he thought Stearns would be a good fit.

World Vision's previous presidents all had experience in ministry or nonprofits. The board realized someone from the business world might be what they needed to manage an increasingly complex operation and jump-start idling revenues. Stevenson was struck by Stearns' "good sense of humor, his openness," the way he listened.

When the offer came, Stearns agonized. He was no Mother Teresa. And not only would he be taking a huge pay cut, he would be ending his corporate career and uprooting his family.

A nudge from Reneé and a question from Stevenson crystallized his decision: "Are you willing to be open to God's will for your life?"

Again, Stearns considered the question of what God expected of him. The answer, he realized, was everything.

He leapt.

UNDER STEARNS' leadership, World Vision U.S. set revenue records. But it's not immune in this bleak economy. Individual donations are up slightly, yet revenue from major donors is down. Earlier this year, the organization laid off several dozen people.

Over the years, as World Vision has sought to diversify its funding sources, it's taken more in federal grants. Last year it received about $280 million, roughly a fourth of its revenue.

That's put the organization in the middle of a debate over whether religious groups that take taxpayer dollars to provide social services should be allowed to hire only those of their own faith for those programs.

Doug Honig, with the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, says "taxpayers shouldn't have to support positions for which they cannot apply."

World Vision says the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects the right of faith-based organizations to restrict hiring to those of their own faith.

The organization does not proselytize and serves all, regardless of their faith. And about 17 percent of its employees worldwide are not Christian. But all its U.S. employees are. They sign a statement of faith and abide by a code of conduct that adheres to biblical standards. Extramarital sex and active same-sex relations, for instance, could be grounds for dismissal. Employees gather for weekly chapel to worship and hear Christian speakers and musicians.

Stearns, who was named to the advisory council of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, says the council will not take up the issue. But he hasn't been shy about saying what World Vision would do.

"Our Christian faith has been foundational" to the organization's mission, motivation, culture and work, he says. "If forced to choose between preserving our faith values or receiving government funds, we would have to walk away from the funding."

That said, the organization runs on hard numbers.

With brisk efficiency, Stearns talks of return on investment and cost per acquisition, or how much it costs to get one sponsor for one child. Everything World Vision does, from its traveling AIDS exhibits to television infomercials, is measured in such terms.

World Vision also advocates for addressing the root causes of global poverty, lobbying Congress, pushing for commitments from G8 leaders, and participating with other nongovernmental organizations on the ONE campaign to increase U.S. government funding for international aid programs.

World Vision partners with Christian groups that help spread the word. Women of Faith, for instance, sponsors about 130,000 children.

In recent months, Stearns has been heavily involved in trying to "influence the influencers," visiting World Vision's projects in Ethiopia with best-selling Christian author Max Lucado, and meeting with top corporate executives and church leaders who want to get more involved with World Vision.

A lot of nonprofit organizations say they welcome highly experienced volunteers, says Christopher Crane, head of Opportunity International, which oversees microloans to entrepreneurs in developing countries. But really, "they're nervous about it, threatened by it. It takes a pretty secure organization and CEO."

Senior Pastor Keith Stewart of Springcreek Church in Garland, Texas, was so excited after returning from a 2006 World Vision trip to Kenya that he got his whole church involved. Now, his congregation sponsors more than 500 children.

This involvement of evangelical churches in the global anti-poverty movement "is probably underreported," says James Wellman, associate professor of American religion at the University of Washington. And it's likely to grow, given that "younger evangelicals, in particular, are more internationally savvy and less addicted to the culture wars" of previous generations. Still, Wellman cautions, Americans give only a small percentage of their income to charity.

That's where Stearns comes in.

"Middle-American, ordinary Christian folks who don't think of themselves as radical or activists" can identify with Stearns and his explanations of why they have to think about their faith in a whole new way, says Wallis, the Sojourners editor, who's a friend of Stearns. "I think he's particularly good at reaching white suburban evangelicals because . . . he's from that culture."

Stearns and World Vision, among others, have in fact played a big role in getting evangelical churches to respond to the HIV/AIDS crisis. In the past, many such churches had regarded AIDS as a gay disease, or didn't want to get involved because of their opposition to condom distribution.

Stearns is realistic about the challenges. "We're aiming at global poverty with a pea shooter," he says.

And he doesn't believe poverty can ever be eradicated. But he points to encouraging signs: Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett on magazine covers for their work on global poverty; the attention Bono and American Idol's "Idol Gives Back" have focused on the issue.

And in the past 30 years, the number of children who die each day from poverty-related causes has gone down from 40,000 to 26,500. Why can't that be cut in half? he asks.

How does Stearns reconcile the things he's witnessed — children orphaned by AIDS, living in garbage dumps — with the idea of a loving God?

"I can hold two things in my hand," he says. "One is that there are children suffering and dying. . . . On the other hand, God loves them and his heart is broken."

Why it happens is a mystery, though he believes God is working out a plan that will eventually resolve this.

In the meantime, Stearns firmly believes: "We are God's plan to change the world. We're Plan A and he doesn't have a Plan B."

By which he means: Jump in.