Caryl Stern says that when she became CEO of the U.S. Fund for Unicef, she replaced its hierarchical “pyramid” leadership structure with “a series of circles” built on teamwork and feedback.  She also details the charity’s wearable-tech venture, Unicef Kid Power, and some of the special relationships it has forged in the business world, and talks about combating donors’ “disaster fatigue.”

The following is a conversation between Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF, and Denver Frederick, host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.


Ms. Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF

Denver: There are leaders of major international aid organizations that possess all the skills and talents and managerial capabilities to successfully lead their organization in its life changing work. But there are only a few who not only possess those traits but just  strike you as having been born for the job. Caryl Stern, the President and CEO of the US Fund for UNICEF happens to be one those people, and she’s with us now. Good evening, Caryl, and welcome to The Business of Giving.

Caryl: Thanks! Nice to be here.

Denver: Let’s begin by having you tell us the mission and goals of the US Fund for UNICEF.  And what exactly is the nature of the relationship between the US Fund and  UNICEF?

Caryl: Sure! Well, UNICEF International is the organization that does really whatever it takes to save a child anywhere in the world. Working in 190 countries, 12,000 boots on the ground, under the phenomenal leadership of the Executive Director, Tony Lake. Underneath that, independent of it, there are 34 organizations around the world that enable that work.  I have the privilege to run the US arm of that– the US Fund for UNICEF. We are a 501(c)(3) located in New York City, and we have a tripartite mission. First and foremost, we raise money; it is our job to raise the dollars to help to make UNICEF’s work possible. Secondly, we are the voice of children from around the globe here in the US.  So, a part of my job is to go and bear witness to what’s going on around the globe and come back and talk about it. And then the third part, hopefully, is to raise a generation here in the United States that will do a better job than we have done thus far of saving, protecting and insuring that the the world’s children thrive.

Denver: That’s a great mission. Let’s talk about the current state of the world for a moment.  Perhaps you could do that through the lens of the three emergency levels that the UN uses to classify a crisis. What is the look these days?

Caryl: The UN does classify emergencies.  Obviously, not every emergency rises to the same necessity of response.  So, there’s a level 1, a level 2, and level 3 is the highest level of emergency. And up until about a year and a half ago, on occasion, you’d have one or two level 3s at the same time.  Currently there are five and unfortunately for those who respond… and not just UNICEF…all of the UN agencies that respond, the other NGOs..these are not either/ors.  You can’t say: “Okay, we’ll fund what’s happening in Syria right now instead of funding the response to Ebola, or the response currently to Zika.” They have to be “ands”; you’ve got to figure out how you are going respond to this, and this, and this, and this and this. Its an “and,” and an “and,” and an “and,” right now.

Denver: One of those level 3s is the refugee crisis.  Matthew Bishop of The Economist was on the show earlier this year, and we were talking about Davos.  He said it was the Number 1  topic of conversation there. And I said: “Well, is anybody talking about a potential solution?” He said: “No.”  You have been the leading voice and a strong advocate for the children caught in the middle of this unprecedented crisis. Is the world getting any closer to figuring out how we can handle this?

Caryl: I don’t think so. I think we are responding better, not solving better. Unfortunately, there are more children on the move right now, unaccompanied and accompanied, but more children on the move right now than in any period since World War II.

Denver: That’s remarkable!

Caryl: Really, it is remarkable. And we don’t get to pick where we’re born,  and surely wouldn’t pick poverty or a conflict zone if we had a choice. And the children on the move are really victims of the politics of adults.  These are not the choices they’re making that are forcing them to leave the home they’re familiar with, the community they’re familiar with, the practices and rites and rituals they’re familiar with.  To usually walk, not drive, great lengths for many days in the hopes of finding better space. And we are definitely not equipped around the world to treat the children as children when they arrive on those shores.

Denver: I bet. There have been a lot of recent stories, Caryl, around disaster aid.  Some of them haven’t  been been all that good. Supplies not getting through… and millions and millions of dollars being spent, and not much to show for it. But UNICEF operations are quite distinct from many of the others. Tell us how you’re unique in this regard.

Caryl: UNICEF International is responsible for the supply chain.  Frankly, there’s a huge warehouse. The primary warehouse is located in Copenhagen, and it was a gift of the government there to give us the space,  and it operates there. But there are also a series of pre-positioned supplies and warehouses around the world.  The reason that’s really critical is — you take what happened in Myanmar in Burma. While the world waited to see if planes were going to be allowed to land there when the crisis hit, we had a warehouse there; we had supplies there, and people went right to work.

Denver: Logistics.

Caryl: Logistics! UNICEF ships from UNICEF to UNICEF…

Denver: That’s a big difference!

Caryl: And actually I got to test that during the Haiti earthquake because we did some of what I called a “stack and pack” here– of Americans sitting together and putting together packages for children that had 14 different items. It was a great project. And then I literally wrote my name on some boxes because I knew I was going down with the Haiti warehouse.  I really wanted to see:  Did my box go where it was supposed to go?  And lo and behold, there I was in Port Au Prince with boxes with my name on it in the UNICEF tents.

It’s hard to entice the public, the press, the media to pay attention to those ongoing emergencies and keep them on the front page.

Denver: Very impressive. When we look at these disasters, it seems that the general public responds quite generously and very enthusiastically to catastrophic events… like an earthquake, or floods, or something that makes the news. But the slow moving crises– whether it would be a famine or drought in Sub-Saharan Africa, or the refugee crisis that you were talking to… not so much!  Is that the case?

Caryl: It is the case. I think what happens is it’s very easy to feel your heart string pulled or your brain to get around: “Oh my God, that building was there a minute ago, and now it’s gone… Mom and Dad were able to feed their child yesterday, and today they can’t.” As opposed to: “We ate less today, a little less tomorrow, a little less the next day and then, Oh my God, there’s a famine.” I think that’s part of it.  I think also there’s a little bit of donor fatigue around those things that happen annually. That happens as well. It’s hard to entice the public, the press, the media to pay attention to those ongoing emergencies and keep them on the front page.

Denver: Exactly right!

Caryl: I also think as Americans, we are geographically selective. When it’s close to our backyard, when we know people from that country, we’re much more generous than we are when it’s very far away, and we don’t really have to think about it.

Denver: It is strange, since we’ve become such a global society… with the internet, etc… that part of the way we respond hasn’t changed all that much…

Caryl: No, it really hasn’t. And then I think politics places an overlay on it all.  So, do we support those children versus those children?  And you get to define those and those for yourself.

Denver: Well, speaking of children, one of your big missions is to stop preventable causes of death. And while that number is still too high, it has come way, way down in recent decades, despite the growth of the world’s population! Give us a sense of what those numbers are, and what some of the big culprits are still out there causing these preventable deaths every day.

Caryl: Sure! Well, in the early 1980s especially, over 35,000 children were dying each and every day.  Now these are children under the age of five,  and the deaths we’re talking about are preventable deaths. So not the disease we don’t have a cure for or the earthquake you can’t predict is going to happen. But really, things like lack of water, lack of food, freezing to death for lack of a blanket, abuse and violence, are things you actually could do something about. And today that numbers stands at 16,000, so we have more than halved the number. UNICEF and partners, obviously not just UNICEF, have more than halved that number which is a great success. I mean, I wish I had a product that could show that success.

Denver: Yeah, absolutely! I don’t think many people are aware of that too. I think if you asked most people, they will say it has probably gone up.

Caryl: Well, exactly!  And when you think about the size of the world population, as you just stated… Since the 1980s, the world’s population has tripled! So theoretically, if there had been no interventions, there would be 105,000 children dying each and every day…..and we brought that number down to 16,000!  So, on the one hand:  great success, lots to celebrate.  70,000+, well actually, more than 80,000+ children alive today… that wouldn’t have been, had we done nothing–each and every day, not just today. But at the same time, if it’s your child…One child… the idea of one child dying of something we can prevent... is one death too many.

Denver: No question about it. You mentioned Tony Lake before.  He’s the Executive Director of UNICEF.  Armed with some rigorous research and statistical data, he altered the strategy of UNICEF with an approach called “The Equity in Human Rights Approach.”  Tell us about that.

Caryl: For many years, most of the aid that was being brought to bear, was being brought to bear in the urban environments and the places where you had the most people. It seemed to make sense: if you went to the place where there were the most people, you could do your most cost-efficient response!

Denver: Yeah!  

Caryl: He did a study that was really kind of fascinating.  By going to some of the more remote places, the hardest to reach, the child no one was getting to, you actually could have greater impact!  We’ve also seen over the course of these years, where that number has dramatically come down, that  two interventions made the biggest difference. One… immunization clearly has had a dramatic impact on preventable deaths. But, the other is teaching children to wash their hands…So there are some very low-cost interventions. If you bring them to places where this has not been looked at, you’re not only not competing with others who may be doing the same work, but you’re actually going to have a greater impact.

Denver: Well, all those things cost money.  So, let’s turn to your fundraising for a moment. And an important source of financial support for you in addition to creating awareness as well, are some of your corporate partners.  And you have a great list of corporate partners.

Caryl: We sure do!

Denver: GE and Google, Disney and Pfizer, American Airlines and UPS. Let me focus on UPS for a moment, because of what they do for you in terms of their “know-how,”  I find to be really fascinating. How do they help support your work?

Caryl: Not only are they a cash donor, to the tune of millions of dollars now. But they also have provided two things that have been phenomenal. One is technical expertise; they have actually loaned us employees who went and looked at our supply chain. They’ve given us advice. They are obviously the world’s largest experts on logistics, so to have them give input is invaluable. But they also give us in-kind donations, which means air movement.

The Haiti earthquake–when I talked about this “stack and pack”–this is a great example of what UPS did for us. I got a call asking: Could we amass a child response kit with pajamas, jackets, toothbrushes and soap, and as I said, 14 items. And we said, “Of course we can!” and they said: “Caryl, it’s 14 items… “  “Of course, we can!”  Well, we actually need 50,000 of them… and we need them in 2 weeks.”  Oh….No big deal……

So, you  hang up after saying you can do that, thinking: “I’ve never done this before!  What do I do?” And the first phone call I made was to UPS. And within three hours, they had flown their employees up from Atlanta to New York. They were in my office with someone from Supply at UNICEF.  And they gave us warehouse space;  we were able to get these items from a whole variety of sources. They gave us the trucks that picked up the items and brought them to the warehouse space…and then they gave us the cargo plane that actually brought the supplies in…

Denver: That’s a relationship… That’s more than a partnership. That is a relationship!

Caryl: Phenomenal!  And so we have an ongoing relationship now where they commit to  x dollars worth of air space. When an emergency hits, they’re one of those first phone calls you make.

We can take our steps, and we are the kids who are saving other kids.  And we know what it’s like to go to bed hungry.

Denver: We had on the show last month the President of Games for Change.  We discussed the innovative nonprofits that were using video games and wearable tech to drive engagement and contributions.  And you happened to be one of those innovative nonprofit organizations– as evidenced by a program you kicked off last October, in partnership with Target stores, called “UNICEF Kid Power.” Tell us how that works.

Caryl: Sure! And our two largest sponsors in UNICEF Kid Power are our founding partners. They are  Target Stores and  Lucas Films Star Wars Force for Change– in Disney. So it has been phenomenal!  Those are two amazing partners, and it doesn’t get much better…

Denver: You got the A list, there’s no doubt!

Caryl: Total A list!  The idea behind the program is:  one in four American children–I read a report– are under-active, contributing to all kinds of health issues here in the United States. While… one in four children around the world, globally, is malnourished, many of them severely malnourished. And we sat in our office, and then we said: “ One in four; one in four.”  There has got to be something we can do…

Denver: There’s a fit there, somehow.

Caryl: …and I wish I could claim personal brilliance… this was not my idea.  But I turned it over to my Senior VP for Innovation, Rajesh Anandan.  He went and met with other folks, and they came back with this idea. At the heart of it, we created a little in-house startup;  we actually created a low-cost Fitness Band for kids. That’s a big challenge because it not only had to be a movement tracker, but it had to be one you could throw at your brother, and it wouldn’t break! Okay? Or, forget to take  it off when you take a bath,  and it will still work. That kind of thing because it had to work for third, fourth and fifth graders. The initial program was a school-based program. The bands are given to children in school. They are in fourth and fifth grade in Title I schools, where 75% or more of the children are on some kind of food assistance themselves. That’s part of our deal with our underwriters in the initial program.

The kids were challenged to meet the minimum number of daily steps. The teacher was given a tablet they swipe to track their stuff, but it is also preloaded with info. on nutrition, on movement, but most importantly– for us– on children around the world and what they were facing… and on philanthropy and giving back. For every 2500 steps the kids walk, they earn a point. The tracker lights up, and it buzzes. It’s wonderful!

Denver: A Fitbit for kids.

Caryl: It’s really fun. And for every 10 points they earn, UNICEF releases a set of ready-to-use therapeutic food to a starving child.

Denver: Oh, what a great idea!

Caryl: So the motivation to the third, fourth and fifth grader in America is:  You get healthy, you will save the life of a child. We piloted the program,  and to date, we have over 60,000 kids in the in-school program. But that wasn’t enough; we wanted 1 million.  Now, we’ve lifted the goal– it’s 2 million now.

We initially set out to have 1 million American children saving the lives of 1 million kids around the world.  We also recognized that it couldn’t be only Title I schools, although there has been something wonderful about it being Title I schools, because these are the kids… and they have written me amazing letters… and they say: “We’re the gets; we’re not the gives.” These are their words… Because we’re the kids whose moms don’t bake a cake for the bake sale; there is no disposable income in my house. We can’t buy the chocolate bars for the sports team, because Mom just can’t write a check.  But we can walk!

Denver: We can take our steps.

Caryl: We can take our steps, and we are the kids who are saving other kids.  And we know what it’s like to go to bed hungry. The stories from these kids… I could fill your whole show! Anyway, we wanted to do more than that. We reached out to Target, and now the bands are available in Target stores. The purchase price also covers one cycle of treatment of ready-to-use therapeutic food. When you buy one at Target, you get access to a password-protected app. Your child is challenged to go on missions.  You, as an adult, have to participate in this program in order for the child to go online because it’s completely COPPA compliant. But you go on a mission; the missions are led by nationally recognized names; Maya Moore did one; Alex Morgan did one; the Star Wars cast just did one. Each mission brings your child to another place in the world. They learn about children around the world; they learn about philanthropy, but in order to complete the mission, they have to take their steps!

My mom believed if you’re not part of the solution, you are the problem. You’re not part of the problem; you are the problem.

Denver: Well, that is intelligent design from start to finish.  Just a great program! The commitment, inspiration and perseverance, Caryl, that you bring to your current role was really shaped very early in your life.  And much of that was surrounding the stories of your mother and grandfather. Share those stories with our listeners, if you would, and the lessons you took away from them.

Caryl: My mom and her brother were put on a ship when she was six, and her brother was four… with a woman whose last name they knew, but whose first name they didn’t know.  They were too young to reference her by first name. They came to this country, unaccompanied by their parents, because the Nazis had invaded Austria. The only way that their lives could be assured was to save them here. So, they came to the United States at a time the US was receptive to their coming, and they were sponsored by a relative here and put into an orphanage on the lower east side of Manhattan, where they lived for several years. And my mother told us that story as kids about this woman who accompanied them to what ultimately saved their lives, and how one person can make a difference.  She ensured that we grew up understanding the responsibility. My mom believed if you’re not part of the solution, you are the problem. You’re not part of the problem; you are the problem.

Denver: Instilled early.

Caryl: Early… and she always had us march…we  kid around… She painted the signs; she put it in your hand.  You went out on the street, and you said what you thought. So, that was Mom. At the same time, my grandfather was on the SS St. Louis, the Voyage of the Damned– which was not allowed to dock anywhere. They had purchased… dearly… documents to enter Cuba.  When they arrived in Cuba, they learned that their documents were fraudulent.  No country would take these people, even knowing that they had fled for their lives. And they were ultimately sent back to Europe, where the majority did perish at the hands of the Nazis.

My grandfather was one of very few who did survive… I knew him, and he really taught us what happens when the world turns its back. So, you got Mom telling you: you’ve got to be out there!  You’ve got Grandpa telling you what happens if you don’t!  I don’t think it’s any surprise that my generation in our family are all in helping professions.

Denver: Yeah!  I can’t think of much better training for your current job than those two lessons.  They’re just absolutely fabulous.

Caryl: And I know that I see the faces of my mother and her brother on every child refugee that I encounter right now.

Denver: A skill of yours that I found to be very interesting… and very central to how you relate to people from different cultures around the world–not to mention your staff–is cooking!  Tell us about your love affair with cooking, and how it impacts your work.

Caryl: My mom was a good cook, and I grew up in a house where there were not written- down recipes; there was a spoon. And so you throw a little of this in, and then you tasted it. And throw a little of that in, and then you tasted it.

Denver: Improvisation.

Caryl: Improvisation. And if you were sad, somebody would cook you something.  And if you were sick, they’d cook you something.  And if you were celebrating, you ate something.   So, I definitely take that to heart, and I find that for me, cooking is really cathartic. I come home at the end of a workday,  and I cook dinner.  That’s what I do.

And my son who’s at college, I bake on Sundays to mail him off something. Any Sunday I’m home, he’s going to get a package because that’s how you show you care.  And that’s how you care for yourself  because it’s a real unwind for me!

Denver: But you also use it in different places around the world. I hear you will just barge into a kitchen for a recipe when need be.

Caryl:  I will!  ‘Cause I always want to understand what I’m eating.!  So, yes, there’s an infamous story in East Germany… about two weeks after the wall came down. I was in East Germany and eating dumplings that I knew I had had as a kid…made by an aunt who’s no longer alive.  And so I did barge into the kitchen and make the chef teach me on the spot  how to make them, I did, yes. And I have done that in other places… And now though, the only difference is: I do write them down and have a great collection! I do have a family cookbook that someday will belong to my kids. And this past year, one of our board members, Hilary Gumbel, put out a phenomenal book. If you have an opportunity, I’d totally encourage you to pick up the book, it’s called: Unichef. The proceeds do go to UNICEF,  and she reached out to some very, very prominent chefs from around the world. They each tell their story, and they each tell what cooking means to them, and they each gave a family recipe in the cookbook.

Denver: Super! Well, speaking of basic principles… as in cooking, with some improvisation thrown on top, that’s pretty much the corporate culture of the US Fund for UNICEF.  And you have one of the great corporate cultures in the nonprofit sector. Tell us how you went about developing it.

Caryl: Well, when I first came to the US Fund, I came as the Number 2,  and it was a lateral move for me. I really took the position because I was so impressed with the CEO at the time, Chip Lyons. He was funding a very healthy, successful organization, and I thought I could learn a lot from him. Three weeks after I got there, Bill Gates offered him a position at Microsoft, and he left me. And I suddenly found myself in a space I’d not worked in before;  I hadn’t been in the international humanitarian space, and didn’t know a lot about the content, but had had a lot of years of experience running nonprofits. And I dismantled Chip’s pyramid and proposed a series of circles.

And we created a senior management team.  I believe its success was based on the fact that we based it on…I used to teach a course in the MBA program called “Leadership and Teams” at Manhattanville College in their Leadership Masters. And I took my own book. We didn’t just declare a team: we brought in a phenomenal coach Mark Sarkady. And he worked with each  member of the team individually; he coached us, and then he sat in our team meetings for almost a year. And if you were acting in a capacity that wasn’t reflective of teamwork, you got called on it in the moment.

Denver: Real-time feedback!

Caryl: Real-time feedback. And we collectively created:  What would the team be?  And we set as a goal–for the remainder of my leadership tenure, anyway,–we wouldn’t set goals only on what we would accomplish, but based on how we would accomplish them. The process and the journey of getting there was as important as the conclusion.

Denver: Very smart.

Caryl: And it’s been phenomenal;  it’s been very exciting and rewarding to be a part of. And I believe it’s why we succeeded in the lean and mean years.  Because when the economy tanked, we were one of the few nonprofits whose income continued to go up. And that’s reflective of the team that came to work every day– even though there weren’t raises– and stayed long hours because we couldn’t hire additional staff.  But we were all in it together, and I think it permeated the message we sent out.

Denver: It really all comes down to the people and how they work together.

Caryl: Oh, and I have really the best professional team I’ve ever worked with.

I came back with the phrase: “I Believe in ZERO” because even the death of one child is one too many, and that’s the name of the book. It didn’t change our mission, but it changed the urgency that I brought to the mission.

Denver: Speaking of books, you’ve written a very moving book entitled “I Believe in ZERO.” And that draws on your travels around the world,  what you’ve witnessed, and what you’ve learned in places like Mozambique, Haiti and Bangladesh. And I guess being with that young woman in Sierra Leone really brought home the point that one preventable death is one too many. Tell us that story, and also about your book.

Caryl: Sure.  That day had a profound impact on me personally. We were in Sierra Leone as part of a tetanus campaign.  We had never seen the disease tetanus. In United States, you step on a nail, you get a tetanus shot. You’re going off to college, you get your tetanus shot. You don’t really think about the word “tetanus,” what is the disease… And the Minister of Health invited us to come over to a hospital to see the disease, so we would understand what we were fighting.

So you arrive at a hospital that is a very far cry from what you’re used to in New York City.  No running water, no nursing staff.  Moms sleep on the floor on a mat next to their child on a mat. They go outside and light a fire, and cook a meal, and bring it back in to feed their children. Big blackboard with medications on it, most of which… next to them, there is an” X,”  because it just doesn’t exist… not even a Tylenol for a child in pain. And off behind a curtain in a little corner is a mom whose baby is actually on a little cot-like bassinet, and the baby has tetanus. The baby is 6 days old;  the mom is 18 years old.  She spoke no English. I did not speak her language. And the reason her baby had tetanus is she gave birth at home.  She cut the umbilical cord with whatever was sharp in her hut.

Denver: Or whatever handy…

Caryl: And tetanus, unfortunately, is a spore that lives in dirt; you can’t eradicate this. Yes, you can eliminate it, but you can’t eradicate it. And so she unknowingly infected her child with tetanus. Extremely frustrating to me, because if you immunize women of childbearing years against tetanus, they will pass that immunity on to the child. This is a completely preventable death. Tetanus makes the child supersensory;  you can’t touch the baby because it will hurt her. You can’t sing to the baby, because it will hurt her. You can’t turn the light on, because it will hurt her. So all of those kind of mom instinctive things you do for your own children…you can’t do. You can just sit and watch you child writhe in agony. And so, I sat down next to her, and I just took her hand.  She had no idea who I was because we couldn’t talk to each other. All she knew is:  I was another woman… and another mother.

Denver: Yeah, it was mom talk with eyes.

Caryl: Yeah, and we just sat, and we held hands. While we were sitting there, I could only think about the 70-cent vaccine that would have prevented this. The $3- and-something cents that would have cured this… None of which was available where we were.

And while we were sitting there, I watched the color draining out of her baby’s hand. And I knew her child was dead. And I’d never seen a child die before, and I knew I knew the child was dead… and that she didn’t. And she was still holding my hand, and I knew that I didn’t have the words to tell her her child was dead. So I had to extricate myself and go get a nurse, and I did.  The nurse went in, and I heard that woman scream. It’s a sound…as I’m telling you this story, I hear it.  And I will tell you, it has never left my head. I came back with the phrase: “I Believe in ZERO” because even the death of one child is one too many, and that’s the name of the book. It didn’t change our mission, but it changed the urgency that I brought to the mission.

Denver: It’s a pretty powerful story. Tell us about your website, where people go to find it, what information is there, and what one can do if someone wants to get involved as a volunteer… or a financial contributor.

Caryl: Sure! The website is  You can go on that site.  There is a whole section for volunteers and ways to get involved. There’s definitely a way to donate and contribute. $1 buys enough good clean drinking water for a child for 20 days, so every gift counts and makes a difference. We encourage you, please, give and give often, and also get involved. Be part of this; we each bring something to the table that can change the way the world views its children.  We need all of us to be bringing what we bring… and using it.

Denver: Amen! Well, Caryl Stern, the President and  CEO of The US Fund for UNICEF,  I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. The book is “I Believe in ZERO: Learning from the World’s Children.”  It was a real pleasure having you on the program.

Caryl: Thank you, thank you! It was a pleasure to be here.


Caryl Stern, President and CEO of the US Fund for Unicef, and Denver Frederick, host of the Business of Giving

The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6 and 7 PM Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on I Heart Radio. You can follow us at bizofgive on twitter and at

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