News and analysis
December 16, 2010

A Beleaguered Charity Giant Turns to a Veteran Leader to Restore Its Reputation

Adam B. Auel

Cass Wheeler

During the 30 years that Larry Jones ran Feed the Children, in Oklahoma City, he was the charity’s well-known face, appearing in television ads and plastering his name or likeness on the group’s billboards, trucks, and stationery.

Now, a little more than a year since Feed the Children fired Mr. Jones after it said he had wiretapped charity officials amid a power struggle with the board of directors, a new leader with a much lower profile has moved in, at least temporarily.

“I’m a no-name person,” says Cass Wheeler, the retired chief executive of the American Heart Association who was appointed interim president of Feed the Children last week. “I was a no-name person at the Heart Association. It doesn’t take a name to run a charity. It takes a team and a plan and commitment to a mission.”

Still, Mr. Wheeler is well known in charity circles, where he served as co-chair of a prominent committee formed in response to Congressional concerns about nonprofit abuses. He also knows a lot about running one of the nation’s biggest charities.

American Heart, which he led for 11 years, was No. 26 among the organizations that raise the most in private donations, according to The Chronicle’s Philanthropy 400. (Feed the Children raised more, mostly in donated goods, than all but three charities in the list.)

Mr. Wheeler started a consulting company in 2008 after he retired from the Heart Association, where he is credited with increasing the charity’s revenues by two-thirds while leading a major national reorganization. He plans to work part-time at Feed the Children for up to 12 months, splitting his time between his home near Austin, Tex., and the charity’s offices in Oklahoma. Travis Arnold, the group’s chief operating officer and interim chief executive, will continue to manage Feed the Children’s day-to-day operations.

'Huge Accomplishment’

Mr. Wheeler says his job has three main tasks: leading a search for a permanent chief executive; developing a three- to five-year strategic plan; and expanding and restructuring the group’s five-member governing board.

In a written statement, the board’s chair, Rick England called hiring Mr. Wheeler “a huge accomplishment as Feed the Children continues improving its operation, restoring its reputation, and, ultimately, helping more people.”

Feed the Children, which provides food, medical supplies, clothes, and other necessities to needy children and families in the United States and overseas, raised more than $1-billion in donated goods and cash in 2009, according to the charity’s latest available financial statements.

But Feed the Children has faced a raft of negative publicity in the past two years, the result of legal wrangling, discord among its leaders, and lawsuits that include accusations against Mr. Jones of wiretapping, receiving kickbacks, and misspending charity money. Mr. Jones has denied wrongdoing. The organization is also the subject of an investigation by Oklahoma’s attorney general. Against that backdrop, charity officials estimate that giving dropped by as much as 20 percent last year. The decline is due in part, they say, to the tough economy and to the organization’s decision to save money by reducing paid television advertising. In an interview, Mr. Wheeler discussed his new role and how he plans to help Feed the Children overcome its troubles and continue its mission to help people in need.

Why did you take on the role of interim president as opposed to working as a consultant?

The job allows me to operate in an official capacity, giving me not only a certain amount of authority and responsibility but a level of accountability that would not exist without the title. This way, I have a defined role with the staff, the board, and with external constituencies.

What was your first act as interim president?

I introduced myself to the staff and met with the board of directors. It was a regularly scheduled meeting, and the board approved my approach for the hiring process to interview four different search firms. And they approved of my general approach to establishing a new strategic plan. We’ll do an environmental scan, looking at trends and collecting data from our constituents. We’ll analyze our strengths, threats, opportunities, and challenges, and we’ll have a board retreat to develop specific objectives.

The organization has been so wracked by infighting and allegations of misconduct and ethical problems. What makes you believe it can put its house back in order?

I spent a day with the senior leadership team and the volunteer chair of the board, and I did some fact-finding and made observations, and while this organization has been through a lot of turmoil, they have demonstrated to me that they are now doing business differently and they are committed to doing business differently going forward. My assessment based on that commitment is that this organization deserves another chance. There will be more children fed if Feed the Children continues to exist than if it does not.

How is Feed the Children doing business differently now?

They have a new conflict-of-interest policy. They adopted a new ethics statement that will be introduced to the staff in January. They have streamlined their operating budget and cut costs. They are meeting with the [Oklahoma attorney general] to cooperate with the investigation. And they have a commitment to employ the best practices of the nonprofit sector. I see they are making good progress, and I wanted to help them continue to make that progress.

How does Feed the Children demonstrate that progress to the public, which has been exposed to so much bad press about the organization?

This is not a quick process. We can’t rewrite the history, but what we can do is re-earn public trust by doing the right things the right way for the right reasons. You prove you are trustworthy by being transparent, by being accountable, and by renewing commitment to your mission and following through on meeting that mission with best practices.

One of the biggest questions about Feed the Children’s accountability is the way it has calculated the value of donated goods. Watchdog groups and other observers say the organization overstates the value of the products it receives and accepts unnecessary goods. What are you doing to deal with those concerns?

All that is being looked at with fresh eyes. And it’s not being done in a vacuum. We are looking at what comparable organizations are doing and how they do their valuations. We also need to ask, when we are offered donations, Is this something needed, and how do we best use it? This is an ongoing initiative that started before I became engaged with the organization, and it is not something I am directly involved with. But everybody is anxious to bring this to closure, to make sure we have consistency and transparency and fairness when it comes to valuations.

Any lessons from your tenure at the American Heart Association that you are bringing to Feed the Children?

One question that was effective for us at the Heart Association was, What would it take to achieve X? X is an aspirational goal, but when you set your sights high, it forces you to reframe issues and stretch yourself. At the Heart Association, setting an aspirational goal meant, for example, that we set up more strategic partnerships, like with the Clinton Foundation, recognizing that we needed to change entire systems to save thousands of lives, not just focus on one life at a time.

What are the key qualifications you’ll look for in choosing Feed the Children’s new chief executive?

A proven track record, knowledge of the nonprofit sector, high ethical standards, a team builder. Someone to be a face of the organization, but not the face of the organization.