Two CEOs Share Insights on Leading in Challenging Times
As 2023 approaches, two nonprofit chief executives joined the Chronicle to discuss how they’ve been guiding their organizations through a host of recent crises, from threats of famine to recession fears. The panelists explained their strategies for advancing their missions through months of tumul, ensuring staff well-being, and maintaining a sense of optimism.
“It’s really been a devastating year,” says Barron Segar, president and CEO of the World Food Program USA, which operates in 120 different countries and territories. “We were already facing increasing levels of hunger around the world
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As 2023 approaches, two nonprofit chief executives joined the Chronicle to discuss how they’ve been guiding their organizations through a host of recent crises, from threats of famine to recession fears. The panelists explained their strategies for advancing their missions through months of tumult, ensuring staff well-being, and maintaining a sense of optimism.
“It’s really been a devastating year,” says Barron Segar, president and CEO of the World Food Program USA, which which supports the United Nations World Food Programme’s operations in 120 countries and territories. “We were already facing increasing levels of hunger around the world because of Covid and climate taking its toll. Then you have the war in Ukraine.”
This year, the World Food Program aims to provide meals for an impressive 152 million people, but Segar notes the number falls far short of the 345 million people who are suffering from hunger. The war in Ukraine and ensuing supply-chain issues have been especially devastating for world hunger, since most countries rely on the region for grain, he says.
Segar was joined on the panel by Anne Aslett, CEO of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which is the fifth-largest private HIV grant maker in the world. Aslett and Segar, a founding board member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation, have worked together in the past and often exchange advice on leading their nonprofits, they said. Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle, hosted the session, which was titled Leading Nonprofits Through Tumultuous Times. Read on for key highlights or watch the video to get all the insights.
Coping With Global Crises: Partnerships Are Key
In recent years, multiple hunger crises have forced the World Food Program to make harrowing decisions about where to direct its resources. The group has moved from providing two meals per day in Yemen to only one meal per day so that it can redirect food to people at risk of starvation in Ukraine, says Segar. “It’s at the point where we’ve had to take from the hungry to give to the starving,” he says. Still, the group has been working to find new ways of maximizing its partnerships to help minimize such trade-offs.
“The last thing we ever want to do is make a parent choose which child eats and which child does not eat,” says Segar, who cited the group’s work with UPS, which offers WFP use of its cargo ships, as one example of a partnership that helps bring food to hard-to-reach areas.
With significant advancements in health care and growing global crises, the Elton John AIDS Foundation has turned its focus more toward holistic funding for services beyond health care for populations affected by HIV/AIDS. Much of the foundation’s new work involves convening coalitions of corporate and nonprofit partners to address multiple issues at a time, says Aslett.
Over two decades ago, the group supported efforts by a group of Ukrainians with HIV who organized a patient-led nonprofit network to help people living with HIV in the country. The group, 100% Life, is now the largest organization for people living with HIV in Eastern Europe and Central Asia; it provides services to roughly 30,000 people per month.
“Building these structures creates deeper resilience,” says Aslett, who noted that other large grant makers, such as the Global Fund, have chosen to invest in 100% Life over Ukraine’s Ministry of Health because the group is better organized and more deeply connected to the populations they serve. Amid the country’s crisis, 100% has also become a major force for distributing aid beyond health care, including blankets, food, shelter, and other support.
Meeting Mission Often Requires Advocacy
Aslett noted that while the Elton John AIDS Foundation has always supported highly marginalized people in crisis, that work has changed in other ways over the past several years.
While the foundation used to focus primarily on the global South, its work now targets what Aslett calls “pockets of extreme marginalization,” regardless of country of origin. That includes advocacy for those affected by the continued criminalization or stigmatization of homosexuality, which can make it extremely difficult to access testing and care for HIV.
It’s still a crime to be gay in 68 countries, and a record number of U.S. states have enacted anti-LGBTQ bills over the past several years, including Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which restricts classroom discussions of gender and sexuality. The foundation supports projects providing information and services for around 100 million people in 90 countries around the world.
“Once upon a time, I would have said that HIV was a problem of lack of access to medicine and drugs,” Aslett says. “Now, I would say that the HIV pandemic, which should never have become a global pandemic, is a function of inequality and social exclusion.”
Show Your Value to Win Dwindling Donors
As preparations begin for the year ahead, nonprofit leaders face a possible a recession, which could hinder giving.
“We are monitoring it extremely closely,” says Segar, who noted that the upcoming midterm elections have also raised costs for advertising around year-end giving. While World Food Program USA has not seen a slowdown around donations yet, Segar has been cautious about budgeting for next year during recent board meetings.
“I would much rather go in with a more conservative budget,” says Segar, though he noted that many donors will continue giving to the causes they care most about during an economic slowdown.
“People do cut back a bit, but more importantly, they scale back on the number of organizations they support,” says Segar. “So be very clear about the value that you’re adding, about why you are unique, and the impact that you’re making in your space.”
Since the Elton John AIDS Foundation receives most of its funding from major gifts, rather than the general public, Aslett is “cautiously optimistic about next year and our ability to fundraise.”
A Positive Culture Helps Combat the Great Resignation
Segar and Aslett say they have spent the past year comparing notes on the effects of the so-called Great Resignation, which has led to widespread staffing shortages in the nonprofit world. Many professionals are leaving nonprofits altogether for higher positions in private companies, says Segar.
“Companies are coming in and can offer things that we just can’t offer if you’re young and starting a family,” says Segar, who noted that the World Food Program USA tries to provide competitive pay, good benefits, and a positive workplace culture.
It’s especially important that nonprofit leaders set that culture for their organization and get to know their employees and their career goals, says Aslett.
“Professional development is extraordinarily important” she says. “We’re lucky to work in an environment that is mission driven, so that solves part of the problem. Young people want a sense of purpose, but they also want to know how their career is going to develop.”