Five Minutes with Caryl Stern, CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF

This Halloween, the United Nations Children’s Fund will celebrate the 61st birthday of Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF—the door-to-door campaign that has raised more than $164 million. We chat with chief executive of the US Fund, Caryl Stern, about heading one of the world’s most successful nonprofits, the fund’s latest efforts and how being a mother of three and a grandmother has shaped her work.

by Samantha Lear
caryl stern unicef haiti photo
Caryl Stern in the field in Haiti.
Photograph: UNICEF

More: Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF started in 1950 and has been a great success. What are some recent highlights?
Caryl Stern: This year, the campaign is getting a high-tech makeover. We have a Microsoft tag on the box and anyone with a smart phone can scan the tag to donate right off the phone. We are also having our first online costume party this year—we’re trying to break the record for the largest costume party on the web. Plus, the party is being hosted by this year’s Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF ambassador, Project Runway star and top model Heidi Klum.

More: Do you have any great stories from Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF throughout the years?
CS: Each year I hear so many heartwarming stories from moms who will write saying “my daughter gave up her allowance this year,” or “it was my daughter’s Sweet Sixteen and instead of asking for gifts she asked for everyone to fill their trick-or-treat boxes.” I’m always really heartened that a lot of kids in need actively support Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF. It doesn’t take a lot of money to save the life of a child in a developing nation, so anyone can participate. One dollar buys enough water for child for 40 days. You find that a lot of children who are normally recipients of assistance actively participate in Trick-or-Treating for UNICEF. They get the opportunity of the gift of giving themselves through this campaign.

More: I know that there are a lot of celebrity ambassadors for the US Fund—Sarah Jessica Parker, Alyssa Milano, Laurence Fishburne, Selena Gomez and and Clay Aiken. How are they getting involved in the UNICEF projects?
CS: When I took on this job I was somewhat skeptical—but they are amazing. These are people who work so hard and have no obligation to give back, yet they take the power of their podium and use it on behalf of children.

I can scream from the mountaintop about children dying and some people will hear me, but when Selena Gomez says it on her website, her fans listen. When Sarah Jessica Parker goes to an event, people show up. When someone like Alyssa Milano says “instead of sending me a baby gift, make a gift to UNICEF,” you’d be amazed at how much money is raised. They really commit to learning about who we are and they even go to the field—I’ve taken many of them with me personally.

For example, Sarah Jessica Parker just helped us introduce our HIV/Aids innovation fund at a global business conference, where she was a speaker. Selena Gomez was our Trick-or-Treat spokesperson for a number of years, she’s traveled to Ghana and Chile and she in particular uses her website to benefit us on an ongoing basis. In addition to asking her fans to donate, Alyssa Milano has also worked as the spokesperson for our direct response TV campaign and she’s traveled to India and Kosovo. Laurence Fishburne does a play every year at the Kennedy Center, and this year he dedicated one night of the play to us and gave us tickets for some of our donors.

I think that what’s really fun for them and for us, is that the title of being a UNICEF ambassador is not easily earned. It’s a select group and people are aware that it’s earned.   

More: You must be really busy. How do you translate your work into being a mom with your own kids?

CS: Some days are better than other days. My children call my Blackberry our fourth child—they’ve even named him. My youngest will say “should I set a place at the table for your Blackberry mom?” They put up with a lot, but at the same time, my children have traveled to the field with me. I took them each individually and then I took them together last year as a family. They’ve delivered bed nets to villages and they’ve hung them in huts. They’ve held babies while being vaccinated and they’ve weighed them for malnutrition. They are so actively a part of what I do. It’s fulfilling for me because I don’t think I’ll get to see the solutions for the things I’m doing in my lifetime, but my children will be a part in finding them for the next generation.

More: The New York Times had a story about your work style as a leader and how you take the time to get to know each of your employees. Have you found this to be effective and why do you make this effort?

CS: I wish I could say it was for altruistic reasons, but I spend more time at work than I do anywhere else. I don’t want to work in isolation. I want to know the people I’m working with. When you know the people who work for you, they’ll be more receptive to bringing their ideas and concerns to you, and you become a better boss.

As the staff has turned over and changed, I’ve recently reinstituted breakfasts [with employees] because it’s a new crop of people I really don’t know now. The breakfast always starts with new people the same way: You have to tell me something about yourself that your resume won’t tell me. I’m amazed at what I’ve learned—who plays the guitar, who has six kids, who speaks different languages—and how we can connect on things.

More: Tell me about your Believe in Zero campaign. What has it achieved so far and what do you hope to achieve with it in the future?
CS: The campaign has the goal that we will not rest until no child dies from a cause we can prevent. When we first embarked on the campaign, 26,000 children under the age of five were dying every day from preventable causes, and after about four and a half years, that number is now 21,000. That means each day there are 5,000 more children alive than there would have been—5,000 more moms that get to kiss their kids goodnight.

What we ask is for America to get on its feet. I recognize as the president of this organization that it’s going to take a lot of dollars to reach that goal, but it isn’t going to take just dollars. It’s about moral support and making it imperative. It’s not okay that my child has seat at table when children around the world have no chair at all.

More: What’s a common misconception people may have about UNICEF?
CS: Most people believe that UNICEF receives direct funding from the UN budget and while we do receive some money, we’re not a line item. Many UN agencies are funded through each country’s UN dues, whereas UNICEF will only exist as long as people want us to. We’re mainly dependent on voluntary contributions from the public.

More: Is there anything else you want to convey to our readers?
CS: I think that as moms we have the responsibility to care about children everywhere. I’ve had the privilege to be in 31 different countries over the past five years and no matter where you go, kids are kids. They play ball, sometimes it’s made of rags and sometimes it’s made of rubber or leather, but they still play ball. I know that when we have the opportunity as Americans to help, we do. Unfortunately for the children around the world, because they’re not right in front of our faces, the question doesn’t get posed to us every day. That’s my goal: I want to put the question in front of you because I believe you will say yes when asked.

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First Published Tue, 2011-10-04 18:20

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