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The quality of mercy

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Archives - October 2009
Thursday, October 01, 2009
FOUNDED: 1979, Seattle, as Save the Refugees Fund
2010 PROJECTED BUDGET: $240 million

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.


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. 


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