Don’t be afraid of failure- embrace it, it is inevitable and has much to teach.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Nunn.
Michelle Nunn is the president and CEO of CARE USA, an international development organization that works around the world to save lives, defeat poverty, and achieve social justice.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My parents had distinguished careers devoted to public service. My dad served as a U.S. Senator from Georgia for more than two decades and my mom worked for the CIA and later as a teacher and then volunteer leader. They were my first role models who demonstrated to me the profound power and impact of service.
Shortly after graduating from college, I helped found a new volunteer organization called Hands On Atlanta. The group started when 12 twentysomethings found ways of creating new pathways to give back to their community. We volunteered together at food banks, tutoring at schools, and building homes. We served on evenings and weekends, creating dependable volunteers for agencies that needed help and maintaining flexibility for the volunteers. When the organization earned its first big contribution — $2,500 — I joined as the first staff member: 10 hours per week.
After 15 years we merged with President George H.W. Bush’s Points of Light: the world’s largest organization dedicated to volunteer service. My service experience with Hands On and Points of Light transformed me. These experiences taught me that real meaning is found in service and connection to others — and lasting change comes through community-led change.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Every day is interesting when you lead a humanitarian organization! CARE operates in 100 countries and reaches upwards of 90 million people annually, and for the last 75 years, we’ve made saving lives, fighting poverty and achieving social justice our mission. Ninety-five percent of the people we serve come from the communities they serve- from Afghanistan to Ghana to Guatemala. This local leadership is key to our success. Finding creative and innovative ways to support our team members around the world is where I find the most joy. That might mean delivering CARE packages of food to neighbors in the US or supporting women farmers to increase their yields in Malawi, or enabling girls to complete high school in Afghanistan.
One of my most interesting days at CARE was a trip to Niger where I lost my luggage and ended up borrowing clothes, including shoes from one of my CARE colleagues in Niger who was about 6 inches taller than me. I had to have two people escort me, bracing me on both sides, so I could shuffle in with shoes that were 3 sizes too big. The meeting went well!
This past year, it has been particularly interesting to remind people about the history of the CARE Package. Many people don’t know we created of the concept of the CARE Package. We started 75 years ago packing the first CARE Packages after World War II and sending food to families in need across Europe. Today, we have digitized the CARE Package and are able to send many CARE Package options all around the world for those in need.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I joined the start-up organization Hands On Atlanta right after college we were trying to raise money. We had raised a few thousand dollars in $25 increments. We created a big proposal to ask a foundation for $25,000. I wanted to deliver the package without a folder, because I thought that it was too extravagant to put it in a folder. A board member, a few years older than me, convinced me to buy a 25-cent folder from Office Depot and glue our brand on it to make it more professional. We got the $25,000 dollars, and I learned that a good “package” can be a good investment.
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
CARE puts women and girls at the center of its work. We know we will overcome poverty only when all people have equal rights and opportunities. Our programs are designed to empower women and girls with opportunities to access education, employment training, funding, health care, especially reproductive health care. We provide millions of dollars of cash assistance to refugees and those displaced from their homes from Syria to Venezuela. We coordinate the world’s largest micro-savings program engaging 10 million people in saving more than $500 million dollars each year to start small businesses.
CARE is now mobilizing for fast and fair vaccine global distribution. Our goal is to help vaccinate 100 million people in low-income countries starting with 275,000 health care workers, 70% of whom are women. It is our strong belief that none of us are safe until all of us are safe.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
There are so many powerful stories to share. During the last year, 55 percent of the women we work with reported that income loss was one of the biggest impacts COVID-19 had for them, compared with only 34 percent of men.
So, we set out to engage women in stopping the spread, with the hopes of restoring their income as soon as possible. We worked with millions of women in CARE’s saving groups as leaders in their communities to share information and build thousands of water stations.
One of these women is Aichatou Cheitou, who is the president of her Village Savings and Loan group in Niger. She witnessed families in her community struggle to put food on the table at the onset of COVID and took the initiative to lead her group by borrowing money to buy fabric so that the women could make and sell face masks in the marketplace. CARE invested in the community by collaborating with a local organization to buy the group a sewing machine. To date they have made more than 10,000 masks, creating a new stream of income for the savings group. Hers is emblematic of the millions of men and women who are meeting enormous challenge with great resilience and courage.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
The three things I would encourage people to do are to donate, advocate and vaccinate.
No matter the size of a non-profit organization, funding is always a challenge. This coming year we anticipate that humanitarian needs around the world will increase by 40%. Everyone can make a difference and so I encourage people to give when they can.
Our elected leaders at every level of government have the power to change so much in our neighborhoods and our world. It is important that we engage with these leaders and demand action to strengthen our communities and to help those who are being left out.
And lastly, my own PSA: get vaccinated. None of us are safe from COVID until all of us are. We need to keep spreading the word that the vaccines are safe and effective.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I believe in the idea of Servant Leadership as coined by Robert Greenleaf:
“The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead.”
I see this spirit of generous and empathetic approach in CARE’s humanitarian leaders all over the world- from Yemen to Syria to the DRC.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Don’t be afraid of failure- embrace it, it is inevitable and has much to teach.
- Always assume others are acting with good intention, your believing it helps make it true.
- Take sabbaticals, and long breaks between jobs whenever possible.
- Travel as much as you can as often and early as you can.
- Find some form of exercise that you love and can do over a lifetime!
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
All of us, can and must work together and advocate for equitable vaccinations around the world. This will save millions of lives, ensure we defeat Covid-19 from dangerous variants, and in order us to move the global economy forward.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Service is the rent we pay for being. It is the very purpose of life, and not something you do in your spare time. — Marian Wright Edelman
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to meet with Angela Merkel or Jacinda Ardern!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!