February 24, 2013

Veteran Leader of 3 Big Nonprofits Says Charities Should Find Their Own Identity, Not Copy Others

Christopher Scott/International Rescue Committee

During George Rupp’s extensive career, in which he has led two major universities and an international relief organization, he has held himself to two rules: Never stay in a job more than a dozen years and never have the next one lined up before leaving.

“It’s not responsible for the CEO of an organization to sort of be snooping around for other things to do without having made clear he or she is moving on,” he says. “That creates all kinds of anxiety in an organization.”

There’s a third rule that Mr. Rupp, 70, has also been able to follow: Always leave the organization wealthier than when you arrived.

This summer Mr. Rupp will step down as president of the International Rescue Committee, a 90-year-old organization that provides immediate relief and long-term assistance following humanitarian crises as well as help for refugees who are rebuilding their lives in 40 countries and 22 cities in the United States.

During his 11-year tenure, the group’s budget tripled, to $430-million, and its sources of revenue expanded to include many more donations from individuals and from abroad.

A Sense of Identity

Mr. Rupp came to the organization from Columbia University, where as president he exceeded a $1-billion fundraising goal by $1.8-billion and strengthened the university’s relationship with its surrounding neighborhood of Harlem.

During his tenure as president of Rice University, that institution’s endowment more than doubled, to $1.25-billion, and applications for undergraduate admission spiked by a third.

“While they are totally different institutions, the goal of leading them, or the challenge, is really not so different,” says Mr. Rupp. “At the core is to figure out what the central identity of an institution is and make it more itself rather than imitate other institutions, by having a sense of what that core is and how to move it forward, and then recruiting an outstanding team to make it happen.”

Unified Mission

At the International Rescue Committee, Mr. Rupp focused on unifying the group’s mission around a single theme: helping people in crisis rebuild their lives, whether they are refugees in a new country or working to improve the village or town where they have long lived.

While the charity is best known for assisting with immediate needs following a crisis, the group also works for years in the same locations. For example, it has worked in 2,400 Afghan villages over the past decade, in partnership with Afghanistan’s government, helping local residents build schools and health-care facilities as well as sanitation and irrigation systems, among other projects.

Mr. Rupp also put a premium on hiring and training local workers for the charity’s projects. “They know the language, the culture, and have connections,” he says. “It’s much more cost-effective. And most important, when we leave, they stay.” Of the charity’s 12,000 workers abroad, 97 percent are from the communities the organization’s programs serve.

Leaders of the International Rescue Committee say Mr. Rupp’s tenure has better equipped the organization to deal with the myriad challenges it faces in the developing world, helping displaced people coping with war, famine, and other crises.

“He was definitely the right guy at the right time,” says Sarah O’Hagan, co-chair of the board of directors “We exactly needed someone who could bring professionalism and standardization and strategic thinking to all aspects of the IRC’s work in the U.S. and overseas.”

Next Act

The son of German immigrants who arrived in the United States in the 1930s seeking better economic opportunities, Mr. Rupp considered careers in the ministry and teaching before deciding his strengths lay more in “shaping institutions than teaching individual students,” he said.

While he spent the greater part of his career in higher education, the developing world has been an abiding interest, dating back to a year spent in Sri Lanka studying Buddhism during graduate school.

Mr. Rupp passed on his affinity for other cultures to his two daughters, both anthropologists. One of them spent two years living in a mud hut in Cameroon, an experience Mr. Rupp credits with helping him want to work for an organization like the International Rescue Committee.

With his self-imposed time limit expiring at that organization, Mr. Rupp is mulling his next act. The author of five books, Mr. Rupp is considering writing a new one informed by his years at the International Rescue Committee. He’s also harbored a longstanding interest in working for the federal government.

“I’m looking around,” says Mr. Rupp. “I’d like to make a difference one more time.”

George Rupp, president, International Rescue Committee

Education: A.B., Princeton University; B.D., Yale Divinity School; Ph.D., religion, Harvard University

Career highlights: President, Columbia University; president, Rice University; dean, Harvard Divinity School

Books written: Five, including Globalization Challenged: Conviction, Conflict, Community

Salary: $395,612, according to the organization’s 2011 informational tax return, the most current data available.