Caryl Stern knows it may sound a little corny, but, she says, she feels privileged to have her job as president and CEO for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF.
“I get to get up every morning and do something I really care about and I’m really proud of,” she says. “To be one piece in this big wheel that gets to save lives is a privilege. I took this job the year I turned 50; I always say it was my 50th birthday present to myself. Because even on my worst days, I don’t go home sorry I’m here. I feel really lucky.”
We recently spoke with Stern, a mother of three boys, about UNICEF’s Tap Project, a clean-water initiative; balancing work and home life; and how majoring in art helped inform her approach to the work she does today. An edited version of the interview follows.
MORE: What is the Tap Project all about?
CARYL STERN: It was started by a guy named David Droga, who got the challenge to put together a campaign that would get people to pay for something they normally get free . . . Every time you go to a restaurant, they put a glass of water in front of you for free, yet there are close to 4,000 children in the world dying today because they don’t have access to a glass of clean water. They die from lack of water or they die from waterborne diseases. So [Droga] decided if the American public knew that they could pay a dollar for that glass of water, they would if they knew that water bought enough good, clean drinking water for a child for 40 days. So [in 2007 ] we created a campaign where [during World Water Week, which takes place each March] at select restaurants across the country, when that glass of water is put in front of you, you get the opportunity to pay a dollar for it.
MORE: How has the campaign grown since that first year?
CS: We’ve continued to do the restaurant program, but then we expanded it to a host of other opportunities. Kids and schools across American do water walks, where they take an empty gallon jug, fill it with water and carry it either around a track or for a certain number of hours. They get sponsors, the way you would for a walkathon, and they do it in solidarity with what a child in Africa does every day . . . It teaches the child a lesson, but it also enables that child to raise money on behalf of the children of Africa and other places, and that helps bring good drinking water to children.
It also expanded into home parties where people started to host dinner parties and invited their guests to pay a dollar for the water they were drinking. It has gone into some corporate sponsorships. We have a great partnership with Acqua di Giò and Acqua di Gioia, which are Giorgio Armani fragrances.
MORE: It sounds like an amazing campaign.
CS: Over 3,000 volunteers worked this year, about 786 restaurants across the country participated and we’ve raised in total since 2007 more than $3 million for this project.
MORE: How can people still donate, or get involved for next year‘s World Water Week?
CS: People can give throughout the year—they’re not limited to that week—by going to the Tap Project website. We’ve also developed a host of educational materials, so kids can get involved. We’re not just raising money—we also have lesson plans for them about water, from both a conservation and a child-survival [perspective].
MORE: You have three boys—your hands must be very full!
CS: One is married now, so now he’s somebody else’s problem! But I still have two at home.
MORE: How does being a mom affect your work at UNICEF?
CS: I think if you are a mom or the caretaker of a child . . . that you cannot see any child and not, in some way, see the face of your own child on that child. When I go to Africa or Asia or Latin America, into a developing nation, when I see a child in need, you can’t help but think . . . there but for the grace of God. And as hard as it is as a mom to see a child in need, it’s heart-wrenching to see a mom who can’t give that child in need what they need. I ask myself a million times a day, “My God, what would I do?” So, the way I think being a mom has impacted me is the sheer urgency of having to find solutions. It’s just unconscionable to me that 21,000 children die every day of causes we know how to prevent.
I have sat with a mom who had the misfortune of being in a developing nation and having her child contract tetanus because when the baby was born— she gave birth at home, as most women in developing nations do—she used a piece of metal to cut the umbilical cord and unknowingly infected her child with tetanus. I sat and held her hand as her baby died for want of a 70-cent vaccine. I can tell you, I see that woman’s face every day. It was not the president of UNICEF and an unknown woman. We were two moms sitting together, and I just couldn’t wait to get home and hug my children that night. To know that I would board a plane and go home—my kids get these great seats at the table, her kid didn’t even get a chance. I don’t think it’s possible to be a mom and not feel that way.
MORE: How do you describe your leadership style?
CS: When I took over the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, it was a hierarchical pyramid. My predecessor, who was a brilliant, amazing guy . . . set up the top with two men reporting to him, and everyone else reporting up through one of the two. The organization at that time had kind of developed a tradition of two silos. When I campaigned to be the president and CEO, I made it clear that if I was given the opportunity to take on the job, I would be revising the management structure. I created six divisions, each of which has a senior vice president. They lead together, creating a senior management team, and all decisions are made by the team, whether I’m present or not. And we didn’t just declare ourselves a team, we actually hired a coach who taught us how to be a team. [He] coached us individually; he also sat in meeting and coached us collectively so that we would learn the difference between being a representative of a silo in amongst other representatives of silos, and being a true team. So, my management style is definitely that of being a team leader.
MORE: And were the changes successful?
CS: Well, the upside was . . . I created new roles, and many of [the people] came from the outside, so, selfishly, I got to hand-pick that team. That makes a huge difference, when you get the opportunity to think in terms of the collective. In a traditional mechanism, maybe I would think, I need a senior VP for marketing and communications and they must have the following skills, and I need a senior VP for development and they must have the following skills. And then you interview 100 candidates and none of them has everything you want, so you settle on some level. But when you’re creating a team, you make a list of all of the skills that you want at your table and you fill in the six people to get all those skills. It‘s really an interesting and different approach to work. And we have been phenomenally successful. We are one of the few nonprofits that have made our numbers every single year, even though the economy tanked. We continue to grow every year. We have been able to trim expenses at the same time, without laying off a single person—very few nonprofits can make that claim. And we continue to receive the highest ratings from all the outside charitable navigators.
MORE: What’s the work environment like at UNICEF?
CS: There’s a significant number of people who work here who have done Peace Corps-esque kinds of experiences before coming here, so even down to the guy in the mailroom, if you ask them, “Why are you here?”—they’re here to save children’s lives. It’s a highly mission-motivated organization which lends itself to a more collaborative environment. Now, it’s not utopia—there is no utopia in a work place, we all have desires to get ahead—but it’s probably the most collaborative environment I’ve ever worked in.
MORE: You started out in art and theater—what brought you to the nonprofit world?
CS: I always say if the Metropolitan Museum had bought a painting, I probably wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. I was always a very engaged volunteer in the nonprofit world. My mom is a Holocaust survivor, and she was brought to this country with her brother, without her parents, by a woman whose last name she knows, but she never even knew her first name, and who she never saw again. So we had it instilled in us from the moment we were born that one person really can make a difference in your life.
At the same time, my grandfather was on the ship the SS Saint Louis, on what is often called the Voyage of the Damned [in 1939]. It was a ship that passengers paid dearly to be on, to go to Cuba to restart their lives. When they got to Cuba, they learned that all their entrance documents were fraudulent, so Cuba wouldn’t take them. This ship sat in the harbor for 40 days while the world debated these people’s fates. Even the United States would not take them, though everyone knew sending them back to Europe, because most of them were Jews, would mean sending a significant number of them to their deaths. And so I also had the harsh lesson of what happens when the world turns its back.
I don’t think I ever had a choice but to be community-engaged and involved. From the time we could walk, we were at a rally, we were at a march, we were stuffing letters in envelopes. I had all the best training in the world at my dining room table for what I do right now.
MORE: And being a painting major helped, too?
CS: When you study visual arts . . . you learn how to look at everything from a variety of perspectives. You find where the light’s coming from before you start to draw it. And that’s definitely an approach I take to work. There is no singular answer—there’s a multitude of angles you can look at it from. You just have to decide what kind of light you want and where it’s coming from. The skills I learned studying art were so transferable and applicable to what I do, I’m awed by it.
Even the theater classes—half my time is spent at a podium these days, doing publicity campaigns, doing media events, doing speeches, fundraising pitches. And I definitely have a comfort at the microphone that comes as a result of taking acting classes.
MORE: What advice can you offer other women on managing their time and trying to find that balance between office life and home life?
CS: People always ask me, how do you do it? And I say, some days better than others. That’s my advice: Develop that attitude. I can honestly say that I don’t think I have found the balance. I have done homework in the middle of a camp in Darfur over the phone with my child, who was 10 at the time. I have done a full science project from a hut in Mozambique on the phone. I have gotten an iPad 2 so I can Skype so I can actually say goodnight with a face every night. And, in the end, my children call my BlackBerry my fourth son. They always complain that he gets a place at the table better than theirs, because he’s seated right next to me.
MORE: It’s a constant struggle.
CS: There aren’t enough hours in the day, so you might as well just accept that and learn to laugh about it and give yourself permission to screw up—because you do. You think you’re going to make your kid’s concert—you schedule all your travel so you can make it—and then it snows that day and they move it to the next day and you’re on a plane. You can only do what you can do, and you have to help your family to understand that it’s not that they don’t come first—they do—but . . . that they also have to understand and respect why you do what you do. My kids get it. They understand that I’m trying to save lives, and they feel proud of that, they participate in it. They’ve gone to Africa with me, they’ve gone to Latin America with me, they’ve helped babies who are being immunized. They understand that if I’m not with them it’s not because they don’t matter.
You have to marry well—that’s my other thing. And not because they have money, but because they have heart. They have to share your passion. My husband gets what I do and he supports it.
MORE: How do you encourage others to get involved with UNICEF?
CS: It doesn’t take a lot of money to save a child’s life. You don’t have to be a millionaire to participate. These are children, we’re grown-ups. If each of us does a little bit, we sure could make a difference.
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