Changing Hearts One at a Time

Changing Hearts One at a Time

World Vision's Atul Tandon discusses his philosophy of donor engagement.

Interview by Frank Lofaro

Christian Leadership Alliance president Frank Lofaro recently interviewed Atul Tandon, senior vice president of donor engagement for World Vision, U.S. Tandon also serves on the CLA board of directors. During Tandon's tenure at World Vision, total overall giving has increased from approximately $469 million (in 2000) to more than $1 billion annually. Individuals' donations make up approximately $500 million annually and have grown about 12 percent each year since 2000. With a current base of about 1.2 million donors, the organization is a leader in Christian nonprofit resource development.

What is your role at World Vision?

I lead a team whose primary goal is to engage and excite donors to serve the poor. In doing so, we not only aim to see the lives of poor children and communities changed around the world, but to see our supporters' lives changed, too. The strength of the bridge we build between the donor and the child or community is the touchstone by which we measure ourselves.

How has your background in the private sector impacted your work?

I have had the privilege of working in both developing and developed countries, building consumer businesses from the start-up to the global scale. My key role with Citibank was to build its global branch networks. It was an exciting time for any banker. Over 15 years, we watched Citi grow its global consumer base to more than 146 million customer accounts with $5.3 billion in net income with a presence in 101 countries.

All to say, I learned three crucial things: how to recruit customers, how to retain customers, and how to grow those customer relationships in diverse contexts. That is essentially what World Vision fundraising does. We identify and recruit donors and supporters, and then figure out how to retain and grow those relationships.

Were there any big surprises in making that transition?

The biggest "aha" was that we are really not fundraisers. I believe fundraising is about "heart changing." That is what we do.

When I came to World Vision, my division was called marketing and communications. I said, "Wait, that's not really what we do. Yes, we package products. Yes, we present them to donors. It seems like marketing, but we are not selling anything, and the donors aren't buying anything." Our purpose is to connect our donors directly with the cause and the beneficiary they are serving and helping. That is why I changed the division's name from marketing and communications to donor engagement.

The second "aha" was that I needed to do all I could to enable our staff to know and feel the impact they are having on our mission—and to reinforce that knowledge and feeling every day. In many ways, we have traded monetary compensation for what I call impact compensation. We are impacting the lives and livelihoods of the poor and donors every day. World Vision is a staff-owned and -operated enterprise. It exists in the hearts, minds, and souls of our staff. Each of us believes we were called here, and that our calling is to serve with excellence, honor, humility, and complete devotion.

You have shared before that you view donors as your customers. Can you elaborate?

When I arrived at World Vision, I found an organization singularly focused on its mission—building a better world for children. That is not a bad thing. It is wonderful. World Vision works in nearly 100 countries with over 5 million children and family members. If you add up the numbers, about 100 million people every year are helped.

But when we were embracing children, we had our backs to someone else: the donor. We seemed to think of them as ATM machines. You send out a direct-mail piece, make a phone call, do a presentation, get the check for $10 or $100,000, and off you go. To me, it was an earth-shattering realization that we were leaving out one of the two primary stakeholders in building a better world for children. The donor is a partner and an equal stakeholder in this transformation.

The way to look at it is that your job is to engage the poor and the donor. We seek to transform both. I think that is true for every charity. We have to transform ourselves into thinking and believing that we stand in the middle and hold hands on both sides—beneficiaries on one side and donors on the other.

Has World Vision tried to measure its success in changing hearts?

Yes. Changing hearts is our day job. We perform donor surveys once a year on key questions: Are you more aware of the poor? Is your time with World Vision enabling you to serve the poor better? Is your walk with Jesus Christ changing because of your walk with the poor? The critical question is, Have you changed the way you spend your money and your time? In 2003, 59 percent of our donors said they had changed the way they thought about and spent money and time. Today, that number is up to 76 percent. God has been faithful.

What impact does the current economy have on fund development for ministries like World Vision?

We are at the beginning of a global recession and a tough resource-development environment. Donors are likely to reduce their giving and the number of charities they give to regularly. We have to make the cut by reminding donors why they gave, what impact their gifts have had, and what impact their current gifts will have. Recently, we launched an enterprise-wide FAITH campaign ("Financial Action In Times of Hardship") that has three legs: donor retention, revenue preservation, and stewardship.

How do you communicate to donors the impact of their support?

Donors look for three things: specificity, connectivity, and impact. Whether you are a donor giving $35 a month or one giving $250,000, you look for those things.

World Vision is where it is today because of a specific, straightforward concept embedded in our child sponsorship programs. We create a direct relationship between the donor and a poor child in one of our projects. The donor experiences change in that child's and community's life because of their giving as seen through the child's eyes.

When donors sign up to support a child, they get photographs and literature about the child's village, community, country, and the child. They regularly receive letters from the children. Supporters remain faithful and loyal to the child and then to World Vision.

The same concept applies on larger scales. For example, we facilitate partnerships between churches here and communities overseas. The church raises funds to support World Vision projects in that community. Then the church joins with that community to help train and equip leaders and teachers, build schools and water systems, and provide things like basic hygiene education for children.

Our financial model is based on leverage and multiplication. We raise private cash dollars, close to $500 million now. In addition, we raise government and institutional funding, add corporate gifts-in-kind, and then integrate all of this funding at the project level. This allows us to stay longer in poor communities, to go deeper and have a significant impact. For example, this year we raised private cash to send more than $100 million worth of medication given to us by pharmaceutical companies to Africa to eradicate intestinal parasites in children.

Do programs have to connect back to the donor?

Absolutely. If you look at our community development programs, we are able to stay in a village for 10 to 15 years, unlike many charities, which can only be there two or three years. Other charities are often funded by large institutional donors who sign on and ask, "How long is the project?" World Vision can stay 10–15 years because we have donors who choose to stay with their child and their community for that long. We design the project with long-term donor engagement in mind.

If a friend joined a $1 million ministry and asked you to come out for a day to advise on resource development, where would you start?

A day is not enough; I would refuse the invitation. Charities do significant and important work and need all of our time, talent, and treasure to succeed.

I would ask the executive team, Are you clear about who you are? Are you clear about why you are here? Are you clear on the institution's mission and values?

The next question would be about people. For example, World Vision is not a balance sheet. World Vision is not a building. World Vision is its people. World Vision exists in the hearts and minds of our staff. The quality of the people who are called here and their passion, skills, competency, hearts, desire, energy—all of this makes World Vision what it is.

I would challenge the organization to look at its key stakeholders: the beneficiaries, the donors, and the staff. If the institution does not see its staff and itself as being a bridge between the cause and the donor, then frankly, the rest is history. You will have success by seeking to change and transform all three. Every charity is a robust and comprehensive public engagement platform.

What is the quality of your programs? Are you fulfilling your beneficiary promise? Is it aligned with your donor promise? If the answer is yes, how good are you at fulfilling both? The next question is in regard to implementation: What is the strategy? What are the appropriate structures? Platforms? Processes? Techniques are important, but they come later.

And finally, are you in God's will? Toward your cause? Toward your donors? Toward each other?

World Vision is a Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families, and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice. World Vision serves close to 100 million people in nearly 100 countries around the world.

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