Founded in 1919, Save the Children is a global nonprofit whose mission is to make sure that every single child, no matter where they live, has the opportunity to have a healthy start, an education, and to be protected from harm. Carolyn Miles, previously the organization’s COO, and now CEO, is on a mission to make a difference in every life Save the Children touches. We sat down with Carolyn, who had just returned from a trip to Somalia and South Sudan, to discuss issues facing children around the world today, what it’s like to run a 100-year-old nonprofit, and how technology plays a role in the future of giving back.
Let’s start with Save the Children’s mission.
Our mission is to make sure that every single child, no matter where they live or who they’re born to, has the opportunity to live past the age of five, to learn and get a basic education, and to be protected from harm. That’s what the organization has been all about since its founding in 1919. It’s an easy mission to say, but a difficult one to accomplish.
We’re going to have our 100th anniversary next year. Save the Children was founded in the United Kingdom by a woman named Eglantyne Jebb who believed that children should have those rights. In 1919, that was a really radical idea. Back then, women couldn’t own a bank account or drive a car, so the fact that she fought for the rights of children was revolutionary. Today, that’s the underpinning of everything Save the Children does.
It’s a wide, ambitious scope. How do you prioritize within that?
In health, we focus on children surviving to the age of five. We have good news on that side. In 1990, over 12 million children died before age five. In 2015, it was a little over 5 million. In the space of 27 years or so, that number has been cut in half—and that’s huge progress. Now, we’re down to the kids who are hard to reach, and there are 24 countries that account for 95% of those deaths. Our focus is on both target geographies and causes of those numbers. Pneumonia is the number one disease in the developing world for kids under the age of five, followed by things like malaria, diarrhea, and basic health issues. We focus on how we can change those things in those 24 countries.
In education, we’re all about primary or elementary school for children, and getting them through the fifth or sixth grade. For many kids that we work with in the developing world, that’s as far as they ever get in school. We want to make sure they can read, write, and have basic math skills.
We start our focus on preschool. There’s a lot of evidence that if you can get a child through a year of preschool, they do much better in elementary school, get up to fifth or sixth grade, learn to read, and have basic math skills.
The third piece is protection for the children, and that’s where our emergency response work comes in. The biggest need for protection is during times of natural disasters or conflicts. Conflict is a particularly challenging area that we work in. Many of the countries we’re working in now—including the one I just returned from last week—are countries that are in the midst of active conflict and in those, kids are abused, trafficked, and separated from their parents.
You just returned from South Sudan and Somalia. Tell us what it’s like on the ground there.
They’re two of the toughest places Save the Children has worked, for a couple of reasons. I’ll give you two examples: In South Sudan, a couple of weeks ago, one of our impact offices just outside the capital city was attacked. The group looted the office and beat up employees. But it’s not an unusual occurrence there. The security situation is really difficult and challenging. In Somalia, about a month ago, a suicide bomber jumped into a car containing a group of UNICEF staff and blew up the armored car from the inside out. These are the kind of security issues that our staff are dealing with, working out in the field. Keeping our staff safe is tough.
Our strategy at Save the Children for the next 15 years is to reach the most deprived kids. We’ve continued to work in tough, dangerous places. We’re a global organization, so we are lucky to have the capability to continue to go work in those places, and we hope to do even more in the next 15 years.
“It’s important for the CEO and COO to have a partnership where they’re comfortable enough to communicate openly and challenge each other.”
Where are the next big opportunities for Save the Children?
We’ve been creating our own little innovation incubators around the organization and incentivizing people to come up with new ideas and new ways of solving problems that kids have—whether those are around education, getting help closer to where kids are, or all other kinds of issues.
Digital technology plays a big role in our work. When we have an emergency situation—a rapid-onset emergency, like a hurricane or earthquake—the first priority is to get people who are trained on the ground so they can respond as quickly as possible. We’re in the process of developing and testing an app that would go on the phone of every one of our emergency responders. That’s about 150 people around the world who are trained in emergency response with all kinds of different capabilities. In the past, we’ve just emailed. It becomes an endless list of emails to try and figure out who’s available, who has the right language skills, who has the right technical skills, who could get on a plane tomorrow. With the app, our emergency responders can enter in their capabilities in every area and how quickly they’re available to deploy, get approval from managers, and quickly get that roster of people together and on a plane.
We’re also working with technology to help community health workers enter data about kids. For example, the number of cases of pneumonia seen in a particular village. Then, we can combine that data with data from other community health workers and make sure supplies are getting to where they need to be.
“I think that the role of a board member is to support that CEO publicly, but to question them in private.”
You joined Save the Children as COO and then rose to CEO. What’s the key to a good relationship between a CEO and COO?
Having seen both sides, it’s really about partnership. There are clear lines between me and Carlos [Carrazana, Save the Children’s COO]. I do more outside-facing work and he does more inside-facing work. Having said that, we also back each other up. We’re both aware of what’s going on, always, and one of us steps in if the other cannot. We both travel a ton, so we’re not always just there in the office. We’re there to back each other up.
I think it’s important for the CEO and COO to have a partnership where they’re comfortable enough to communicate openly and challenge each other. We don’t always agree, for sure, but at the end of the day we can come together and decide who is going to make the decision—and then we each stand behind whoever that is.
As a CEO, what advice do you have for aspiring leaders?
The first thing I’d say is, “watch out for what you wish for.” But I do think one thing that will surprise a lot of people is that when a CEO says, “I think we need to do this specific thing,” or, “We really should be doing this,” people will still say to me, “That’s an interesting idea. We’ll come back to you with what we think you should do.”
Of course, there are times when I’m firm and insist on a course of action. I still ask everyone if we’re on the same page, and try to make sure we come out of meetings in agreement. Save the Children is a very consensus-driven organization. People can really romanticize the idea of being a CEO, but there will always be bosses, no matter what position you’re in. When there’s a board, and in our case a global network, we all have to play nice with each other.
The other thing about being a CEO is you need to be super clear about the reasons you make the decisions you make. People are really only with you because they believe in your mission, so your decisions have to be rooted there. If you don’t tie them back to that mission, people will think you made that decision for the wrong reason.
Another critical role of a CEO is to look over the horizon— to see where the world is changing, and steer the organization to be responsive to those changes. There are so many changes in our sector. There are some countries that are becoming much more capable of doing some of this work themselves. There are other countries that are falling into chaos. I have to look at how our work works in different places, and be constantly aware of technology, the private sector, and so many other things changing, and adjusting to those as we go.
How do you measure success in your role?
There are specific things we measure against with our two sets of stakeholders. The first is the children and families we serve. We measure our ability to make an impact on a group of people, in a country, in a project, in a particular program. We ask how we’re moving the needle on getting more kids into school, into staying in school, and in their success at reading. How are we moving the issue of education and reading in a specific country? And how are we moving it globally?
The second set of stakeholders is the donors. Save the Children can’t do anything we do unless we raise resources. It’s an interesting dynamic, because the people who pay for the services are not the group who receives them. Raising the funds to be able to do the work we do, whether those funds come from the government, from corporations, from individuals—funds received in five dollar or five million dollar increments—that whole constituency is critical to our organization. The resources are much easier to measure, frankly, than the first set of stakeholders.
How do you lead a large global organization made up of so many different cultures, people, volunteers, and full-time employees?
This is probably one of the hardest things that we have to do at Save the Children. Not only do we have 25,000 people working for us around the world in 120 countries, we also have many different pieces within the organization. We have members with vastly different cultures, and Save the Children International, which delivers all the programs outside of the member countries. We are one of the most diverse organizations you will find. We have a set of five values—accountability, collaboration, ambition, creativity, and integrity—and make sure everyone fully understands what those values mean.
You are a member of multiple boards, companies, and organizations. You also have a very diverse set of trustees on your own board at Save the Children, from business leaders to entertainment figures to venture capitalists. What’s the role of a good board member?
I think that the role of a board member—and particularly, the chair of the board, who works really closely with the CEO—is to support that CEO publicly, but to question them in private. Having been on both sides of that relationship, I know that’s incredibly useful and helpful. That chair should be a cheerleader in public and nudging the CEO, in private, to aim higher. They should be asking the pointed questions, but not in the press and not in the board meeting.
The board’s role is to be partners with the senior management team and CEO. They should have a give-and- take relationship where they’re acknowledging the really good things that the team is doing and nudging them to be even more ambitious.
How can other executives help you and your mission?
The relationships we have with companies has changed from a funding-only relationship to a much broader relationship where we’re asking for skillsets from organizations. Some of our corporate partners have skilled volunteer programs, where people with skills we don’t have come and work with Save the Children for three or six months on short term projects. The projects range from data technology to functions like HR. They bring in their skills to help bring an outside perspective in. The private sector world is ahead of the nonprofit world, and we receive so much value from that experience by bringing in people through these skilled volunteer programs.
Who do you look up to? Who do you look to for guidance and inspiration?
One is our past chair, Anne M. Mulcahy, who was the CEO of Xerox. She took a gigantic company that was in real trouble and turned it around. She engaged people in a vision and motivated a team. It wasn’t some whizbang new product they came up with—it was basically convincing people that they could change the trajectory of the company. I really admire her.
The other person I’d point to is the current head of the United Nations, the secretary general, António Guterres. Despite what is a really hard environment for the UN, he remains grounded in the most important thing that the UN does, which is to make sure that the most disadvantaged people in the world have a voice. He truly believes in that.
What are you most excited about as you celebrate the 100th anniversary of Save the Children?
I am looking forward to how we can change things in the next 100 years. We’ll take a minute to do a little celebrating. What most excites me, though, is the work we’re doing on the three breakthroughs I talked about, particularly on the work we’re doing on pneumonia. I’m excited about changing the way people think about getting kids into school programs at three to four years old. We know here, in the United States, why preschool is so important. The brains of the children in Somalia are no different. Helping people understand the idea of early education will really change things down the line.
When Save the Children was founded one hundred years ago, it was about war, conflict, and the impact of World War I on children. Today, looking at protecting children in conflict, we haven’t progressed very much in that area. Schools and hospitals are being targeted, kids are separated from their parents, child soldiers are still being recruited. There’s a ton of work to do there. I think we have an opportunity in this hundredth year to get people to stop and think about protecting children. To realize they’re not doing enough today, and to do better. I’m looking forward to that.