Sponsored by Oregon Business

The quality of mercy

| Print |  Email
Archives - October 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
Keny-Guyer2-cmyk
MERCY CORPS
www.mercycorps.org
FOUNDED: 1979, Seattle, as Save the Refugees Fund
EMPLOYEES WORLDWIDE: 3,700
2010 PROJECTED BUDGET: $240 million
PHOTO BY KATHARINE KIMBALL

As CEO of Portland-based Mercy Corps, Neal Keny-Guyer has seen enough rickety elevators in Third World countries to think of them as likely death boxes, and takes the stairs even in the organization’s shiny new global headquarters in Old Town.

The congenial 55-year-old sees a lot of failing infrastructure as Mercy Corps’ globe-trotting top ambassador — a fitting role for a Tennessee-born, North Carolina-educated gentleman who has retained his Southern graciousness as well as a slight twang. Keny-Guyer might fly one week to Zimbabwe, where Mercy Corps, an international aid nonprofit, pays for school improvements and medical supplies for orphans, and the next week to a Denver event sponsored by Western Union, which has partnered with Mercy Corps on programs that improve financial literacy. But he wasn’t always the agency’s public face.

“When I first came here, Mercy Corps was very different,” Keny-Guyer says. “I was involved much more in operations… I can remember the days when I read every single proposal.” He adds, laughing, “Now I’m lucky to even know what we’re doing half the time.” When he joined as CEO 15 years ago, Mercy Corps was in about 15 countries with a budget of $30 million. Today Mercy Corps is in 40 countries with a budget of $278 million.

The most recent growth spurt happened virtually overnight. Revenue quadrupled from 2004 to 2005 because the agency happened to have staff in Indonesia when the Indian Ocean tsunami hit. Mercy Corps workers were on the ground in the Sumatran city of Banda Aceh, ground zero of the disaster, within 24 hours. Donations rolled in thanks to an aggressive Web fundraising campaign and the agency’s reputation as a tight ship. Keny-Guyer, who was a director at the behemoth international aid agency Save the Children before joining Mercy Corps, refuses to take credit for Mercy Corps’ growth spurt. “I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of being in the right place at the right time,” he says.

But luck can’t explain how Mercy Corps scaled up so quickly without major growing pains. There were a few bumps, most notably the end of one of Mercy Corps’ proudest claims to fame: its unusually low overhead.

mercy4
mercy9
mercy7
mercy10
mercy8
PHOTOS COURTESY OF MERCY CORPS

Non-program costs ballooned from 5% to between 11% and 13% as Mercy Corps expanded its internal auditing department and improved employee benefits. The increase made some of Mercy Corps’ staff and board members wonder if the organization was growing too fast, but Keny-Guyer says it’s necessary in order to remain accountable to donors and the government. “As long as we can stay roughly between 10% and 15%, we’ll feel like we’re meeting all the best standards out there,” he says.

But there is no sign that Mercy Corps has overextended itself. The organization seems poised for steady growth with its solid corporate partnerships, high marks from ratings agencies and the opening of its global headquarters this month. Keny-Guyer says Mercy Corps has the edge in what he calls “Web-based storytelling” — using Web and social media to explain aid efforts to donors using videos, pictures and blog posts from the field.

Catastrophic change is routine for Mercy Corps, which adapted smoothly to its new size and scope. Revenue fluctuates wildly due to world events, so much that the agency calculates two budgets: a core budget that includes unrestricted private donations that don’t vary much, and a restricted budget of donations made to programs. (In 2007, when there were no major disasters, revenue was $26 million; it jumped to $49 million in 2008 after the Chinese earthquake.) Keny-Guyer says Mercy Corps’ greatest long-term challenge is climate change, which causes migration, conflicts over resources and freak natural disasters.

Mercy Corps’ greatest short-term challenge is another disaster, the recession. Lehman Brothers collapsed a month before the grand opening of the first Mercy Corps Action Center, an open lobby designed to educate high school students in Manhattan about Mercy Corps’ efforts, and patrons abruptly pulled or reduced their pledges. Other donors didn’t cut back as much as Keny-Guyer expected, but the agency had to cut costs everywhere but field operations. Travel and consultants were reduced, almost all the executives took voluntary salary freezes, and 22 employees were laid off in January.

The ability to mobilize and demobilize efficiently is one of the arts of international aid, Keny-Guyer says. Mercy Corps’ disaster training seems to have translated to its business strategy. The same flexibility and levelheadedness it uses in emergencies has kept the young organization on its feet and moving forward. 

ADRIANNE JEFFRIES
 

More Articles

Green Rush: Cashing in on legal marijuana

March 2015
Friday, February 20, 2015
BY COURTNEY SHERWOOD | OB CONTRIBUTOR

Marijuana is big business in Oregon, and it’s about to get bigger.


Read more...

Downtown flower shop readies for the Valentine's Day rush

The Latest
Monday, February 09, 2015
021015-giffords-thumbBY MEGHAN NOLT

VIDEO: Gifford's Flowers brings family approach to PSU-area shop.


Read more...

100 Best: The Power of the Worker

March 2015
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
BY KIM MOORE | OB RESEARCH EDITOR
AND AMY MILSHTEIN | OB CONTRIBUTOR

Technology is empowering people like never before and transforming how employees interact in the workplace. How can companies attract and keep staff engaged in this rapidly changing world?


Read more...

Thy neighbor's house

March 2015
Friday, February 20, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

Vacasa may lack the name recognition of Airbnb. But not for long.


Read more...

4 winners and losers in the Kitzhaber scandal

The Latest
Thursday, February 12, 2015
021315-govorno-thumbBY JACOB PALMER | OB DIGITAL NEWS EDITOR

Examining the governor's rapid fall from grace in a "bizarre" and "unprecedented" saga.


Read more...

The week journalism died

Linda Baker
Sunday, February 15, 2015
deadjournalismthumbBY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

As the investigation against the governor moves forward, those of us in the news business should reflect on our own potential for subverting the democratic process.


Read more...

Game On

March 2015
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
BY LINDA BAKER | OB EDITOR

The big news at Oregon Business is we’re getting a ping pong table. After reading the descriptions of the 2015 100 Best Companies to Work For in Oregon, a disproportionate number of which feature table tennis in the office, I decided it was time to bring our own workplace into the 21st century. It was a tough call, but it’s lonely at the top, and someone has to make the hard decisions.


Read more...
Oregon Business magazinetitle-sponsored-links-02
SPONSORED LINKS