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A cheerleader for hunger relief

How Jo Luck motivated the growing Heifer International.

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HEIFER'S LEADER: Jo Luck.
  • HEIFER'S LEADER: Jo Luck.
When the board of Heifer International picked Jo Luck as its new executive director not everyone thought she was a great hire. One member of the board is supposed to have groused, before quitting, that it was a disastrous mistake to turn the organization and its precious hunger-relief mission over to a pretty blonde — an Arkansas blonde at that — who lacked even the qualifications of its field workers in equatorial Africa. Skeptics were even more abundant outside the organization. A friend from Hendrix College days thought either Luck (she was Jo Luck Cargile at the time) or the Heifer board would come to their senses within a year. The doubts were not based altogether on sexist stereotypes or the suspicion that she did not know a ewe from an Easter egg. (Yes, she did spend part of a summer or two on a relative’s farm.) Her predecessors in the 60-year-old organization had backgrounds in agriculture or international relief. While Luck had shown some management ability as state director of parks and tourism, the agency’s budget was guaranteed every year and its mission fixed by law. But Heifer Project, as it was known then, was an international charity whose success was based on arcane agricultural and environmental science, complex international relations and private philanthropy that seemed to have ebbed. The organization was in the throes of shrinking. Her first task as director was to cut $1.3 million from the $7 million budget, which involved laying off 38 percent of the headquarters staff. That was a dozen years ago, when she was made interim director. It took another 18 months before the board made the job permanent. Luck is now president and CEO and presiding over a new headquarters for the organization, all of which contributed to her selection as co-Arkansan of the Year. The admiration may be grudging in some quarters, but there are no detractors now. Jo Luck was not an agronomist and knew next to nothing about animal husbandry. Everyone knew her as a super cheerleader, a motivator, a distaff P. T. Barnum. It turns out that was exactly what Heifer needed. The evidence is there for all to see. In a dozen years, Heifer’s budget has grown tenfold, to nearly $70 million, the poverty-relief and community-development work has expanded sharply with permanent programs in 50 countries, including eastern Europe, and 30 states and recognition and imitation of its models have grown. Ten weeks ago, Heifer received the $1 million Conrad N. Hilton Prize, the world’s largest humanitarian award. “Ideas on how to help the poor in our world come and go,” the Hilton Foundation said, “but Heifer has produced a model that has endured for 60 years.” The model, developed by Dan West, Heifer’s founder, is to provide native domestic animals — heifers initially — to the poor and teach them how to use the animals to sustain their lives and protect the environment. Since Luck joined Heifer in 1989 as director of global services, it has embroidered on the basic model to strengthen the role of women in cultures that subjugated them and to promote peace. In war-torn Albania, Heifer is providing livestock in exchange for guns, which are destroyed. The sharpest manifestation of the success is the $17 million, 97,000-square-foot international headquarters of Heifer that is rising just east and south of the Clinton Presidential Center. Eventually, the environmentally futuristic building will be the center of an educational complex that will include a global village that will sweep around the Clinton library, although Luck worries that the hype about the future stages of the project — especially the global village — has got a little out of hand. The money for that undertaking will have to be raised locally and it may be a decade before it becomes reality. Heifer has an option on the land but it still must purchase it in the next two years. Before the global village Heifer will build a commons and visitor center and develop wetlands. While the travel industry and city promoters can’t wait for the global village to open, she said, the object is not to create another tourist destination but an educational center, where people can immerse themselves in the rural culture of eight poor countries and earn for themselves a sense of how we can inhabit the earth in concert with it and without exploiting it. “Instead of people waiting for this great big thing, this fabulous grand opening, they need to see it as an evolving educational piece that tells the story as it really is, in the slow, deliberate way that we do things,” Luck said. “When we’re finished it’ll be a fantastic thing, but the process will be just as exciting.” The new headquarters, which will open in the fall of 2005, will bring together the headquarters staff, now strung out around downtown Little Rock. That ultimately will save Heifer money, but the structure and grounds will practice a Heifer principle, that development should enhance, not degrade, the natural world. Passive solar heating and green design will conserve energy. It will collect rainwater, recycle it through a water tower and back through the wetlands. She might not have taken the right courses in college to prepare her to run an international humanitarian organization but Luck has a sense that it was her destiny. She has carried memories of bedraggled and hollow-eyed children in Japan, where she lived with her parents immediately after World War II, and as a student at Hendrix she intended to be a teaching missionary in Asia. After college, while then-husband Bill Wilson (now the federal judge) was in naval training at San Diego, she taught early childhood and developed a preschool training program for parents from such diverse communities as Tijuana and the coastal paradise of La Jolla. In the spring of 1974, David and Barbara Pryor knocked on their door at Little Rock and asked Jo and Bill to help David get elected governor. She joined Carl Whillock, Pryor’s campaign manager, and coordinated the county campaigns. Afterward, she worked in Pryor’s office and in the office of volunteerism. When Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the liberal child-welfare advocacy group, formed in 1978, it hired Luck as the first executive director. “I wasn’t the right one to do it,” she said. “I could have been, over time, but Don Crary [who succeeded her] was the right one. He was ready. I’ve always been the pioneer, the person who brought everybody into the service. When I interviewed, I told them they didn’t need a specialist in education, health or social services but someone to champion and market it, to get the name out there. I think they decided they needed someone like me to get it started.” Bill Clinton’s election in 1978 was providential. Clinton wanted his first cabinet appointments to reflect his commitment to diversity or else Luck figures she might not have got the break. He appointed her as director of parks and tourism, B. J. McCoy, a black lawyer, as director of local services and Martin Borchert, a white businessman, as director of building services. Ten years later, she was teaching a class in psychology and motivational skills to adults in the evenings at the Adult Education Center “to keep my brain going” while she ran the Department of Parks and Tourism. “I would teach adults that they could be whatever they wanted to be,” she recalled. “Part of my requirement was that they draw a picture or cut pictures out of newspapers and magazines that would show where they were going to be in five years. So at the end, they asked me to demonstrate where I was going to be in five years. I said, ‘Well, I’ll have to think about that.’ ‘No, no,’ they said, ‘you have to draw a picture, too.’ So I went up to the flip chart — I still have it somewhere — and I drew a picture of several women sitting on the ground, cross-legged, a child, a tree or two and a man who was farming, I think. It was a village, a developing village.” The students wanted to know where it was and she guessed that it was Africa or Asia. She said she wanted to help people be all they could be, just as she was trying to help them. “‘Wouldn’t it be fabulous if I could do that in my next life?’ I said. But they said, ‘No, you said this life, where you expected to be in five years.’” Three days later, she recounted the incident at a breakfast with a group of women CEOs and they talked about where they would like to be in five years. “Within a few days, three of them received telephone calls from a Washington headhunter named Dick Irish asking if they knew of a woman who was primed for a leadership position with Heifer International. She would work around the world to end hunger. The title was director of global services. Because of that story, all three mentioned my name immediately.” Irish called her to ask if she was interested. “I said it would be fabulous but what are the qualifications? Well, the person needed expertise in animal husbandry, agriculture or veterinary medicine, be multilingual and have some international experience, maybe in the Peace Corps. I didn’t have one qualification.” Luck declined to provide a resume until her interview, where she made her pitch. “They realized that those qualifications were not what they needed to lead the organization because that’s what they had all over the world,” she said. “All our country directors are doctors, professors, veterinarians. We had janitors who had master’s degrees in environmental science. They needed someone with some imagination and energy, some enthusiasm, someone who could convince people to follow, a sort of Pied Piper.” She got the job, and three years later, when the executive director resigned, the same persuasion got her the interim job and eventually the permanent one. Much of the intervening three years she spent in villages around the world, learning the work and putting her own imprimatur on the global strategy, mainly programs to enable women. “We had been training men,” she explained. “Not just Heifer, but other sustainable-development organizations and humanitarian groups had been training men for years. Then they would go off to the cities looking for work and the women would be the ones taking care of the crops and the children, foraging for food, whatever it was, so we started training women. We started the WILD program [Women in Livestock Development], educating young girls and really empowering them. It turns out that they are some of the most successful backyard farmers in the world. “The other thing was environmental impact. Our work can’t be sustainable if we don’t think about the environment from the beginning. So instead of cutting trees to build fences, let’s plant trees to build living fences. Let’s learn how to put the goats and other animals in raising pens so we can capture the manure and the urine underneath through open slats and use that to irrigate and to plant trees. We learned to terrace the hillsides.” Dan West’s original concept of giving a poor family a heifer and having them pass on the first offspring to a neighbor has expanded to goats, chickens, bees, water buffalo, oxen, sheep, yaks, ducks, turkeys, fish, elephants, alpacas, llamas, donkeys, guinea pigs, grasshoppers and earthworms — whatever the local geography supports and the culture needs — but also trees and shrubs. Luck’s promotion to director was an abrupt change for the organization and it was accompanied and followed by some strife. It may have helped that Heifer already was in financial straits and, besides, it didn’t have the money for an international search. Heifer had benefited a couple of years in the early ’90s by the collapse of beef prices. The industry had donated nearly 2.5 million head of cattle to the organization, and it went on the books as income. Heifer couldn’t keep the pace and Luck’s first unhappy task was to winnow the staff. The competition for church gifts, a big source of income, was intensifying. Luck describes herself with only slight abashment in some of the same terms her old detractors used. “I’ve always been a cheerleader type,” she said. She began waving the pom pons for Heifer. “I said, ‘OK, we’re going to have to do something fresh here. We can’t keep on going the way we are. First, if we’re cutting all this money we’re going to have to have a video. I don’t mean a home video. I mean a fine, first-class video to tell the story. This is the greatest story since sliced bread. Passing on the gift, dignity, sustainability — wow, it doesn’t get any better than that!’” Someone donated the money and she got Dick Young, who had made a video for the United Nations for the Year of the Child, to do a first-class video. The organization had to get into four-color publishing with a regular slick magazine that told Heifer’s story. Tom Peterson came up from Atlanta to direct the marketing and publications. “I said we’ve got to do direct mail. I personally don’t like it. It makes me gag. No one still ever makes any money off me by direct mail, but I understand that it works and I want to try it for humanitarian fundraising.” It did work and Heifer kept acquiring mailing lists from other groups and expanding its marketing. A gift catalog was a big hit. A super web site has been a bonanza for fund-raising. “Three or four years ago when we mailed out 8 million catalogs we didn’t even tell people the number because it sounded so flashy. It was the same year that we started prospecting, renting lists from environmental groups, World Watch, ecumenical groups. You’re supposed to lose money when you first start making cold calls from those lists, but we never lost a dime from the first.” She continued: “And we figured out that you can’t just focus on Christianity. We’ve got to be inclusive. We need to reach out to Jewish, Islam and Buddhist because we don’t go in and ask ‘Are you a Christian?’ before we help people take care of themselves. “Oh, the criticism: ‘You’re getting too fancy. Why are you working with women’s projects and the environment and everything else? We need to focus on the animals. That’s who we are.’ Yes, the animals are who we are, but that’s the catalyst for long-term development. We have to tell the story that way. We began telling the story, doing hands-on activity and jazzing up the Heifer Ranch at Perryville. My predecessor wanted to sell the ranch and not have a foundation. I said we have to have a foundation and build up the endowment. I don’t want to run from payday to payday and not have a foundation.” Heifer will soon hit its first $70 million budget. Luck wears a simple necklace with three reeds, a family heirloom given to her by a village chief in northern Thailand. It is called Namjai, translated as waters of the heart. “It’s a wonderful world out there,” Luck said. “I have great respect for these people. All of us in this country can learn a lot from them. We’ve had it too easy for too long. I just hope my health holds up and I can continue to grow this organization and expand its work.”

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