When the lady from Alabama called Heifer International's catalog line last week to order a llama, she did not know that listening in at Heifer's end was the CEO of the company, Pierre Ferrari. He heard her say she liked llamas, which she was buying for Heifer as a gift for her grandchildren, but she added that the organization, which helps lift people from poverty with farm animals, could use the money wherever it needed it the most.
Ferrari, 60, wearing a headset, scribbled an answer to a reporter on a pad. Why was he listening in on Heifer's catalog calls? "I want to understand what we do everyday — understand the systems we must have to function efficiently," he wrote. And a moment later, "Also: I share in their lives."
His two-step answer was characteristic of how he'd responded in all situations that day, as he was shadowed by a reporter. The African-born entrepreneur and former Coca-Cola executive is putting his marketing expertise and worldwide business contacts toward making the global non-profit work in the best way it can. That means growing the non-profit (but not too much), and collaborating with corporations like Ben & Jerry's (Ferrari is on the board), Danone (Dannon in the U.S.), Green Mountain Coffee, Garnet Hill and Eli Lilly, in relationships that will benefit Heifer and the small farmers that Heifer helps lift from poverty worldwide. He and his teams — one just in from Kiev — talk about everything from the benefits of a Heifer flavor for a Ben & Jerry's ice cream (increasing contributors from "half a million donors to 3 million fanatical eaters," Ferrari said), supply chains, and using "metrics" to test efficiency and effectiveness, to company accounting practices in the Heifer gift shop.
But always, at the end of every strategy discussion, the Cambridge University and Harvard Business School economist comes back to the bottom line: the mission. It's not about making money. "It's about improving life and reducing pain and suffering," he tells the group gathered at the small table in his office.
Ferrari's credentials in the civil society movement run deep. As special assistant to the president of the humanitarian organization CARE, he provided performance analyses for a hospital and banking projects in Africa; he is on the board of a non-profit that raises funds for a Kenyan anti-poverty organization. He is also an investor in for-profit companies that benefit, for example, reforestation in South America. He sees a "rapid convergence between the for-profit and the civil sector."
Serendipitously, Ferrari said, "I had decided to focus on one thing," narrow his energies, "and Heifer was looking for a CEO." He knew about Heifer largely through his own child's involvement in a Read to Feed project at his Atlanta school, a fund-raiser in which students raise money for Heifer by getting sponsors for the number of books they read. After Heifer contacted him, Ferrari talked to his friends in the NGO world; they reported that the organization "has gotten an incredible reputation in the development field." "To a person," Ferrari said, his contacts said that "of all medium and large-sized [organizations] it is the best." Ferrari said he was the interviewee "who categorically, energetically wanted [the job] the most."
Ferrari's arrival at Heifer comes after an upheaval of sorts: In 2009, in the midst of the economy's downturn, the organization's financial situation was such that it had to reduce its workforce 20 percent (330 people, Heifer said in June 2009) and its operational expenses by $10 million. Heifer International's revenues were off $24 million from the year previous ($106.3 million, compared to $130.8 million for the fiscal year ending in June 2008), and the organization was in the middle of a $13.5 million project, the Heifer Village. Longtime CEO Jo Luck retired in January and the organization had begun to feel rudderless. Ferrari hit the ground running; two months into his tenure, he'd met, he estimated, with a third of its employees. "I was shocked at how quickly we felt the presence of a new leader," Hilary Haddigan, vice president of planning and enterprise effectiveness, said.
But Ferrari says that at its core, the organization — which reported $157 million in assets in June 2009, the most recent figures available — "is very sound," and that contributions for FY 2010 are up 6 percent over last year. When Heifer's board of directors interviewed him for the job, he said, "they were very frank" about the finances. "One of the first things I need to do is to engage everyone here to surface the passion for the work we do."
Among Ferrari's top priority is to diversify Heifer's fund-raising strategy. Individual donors — like the lady buying the llama — make up the lion's share of the philanthropic dollars Heifer receives. Ferrari wants the organization to rely less on direct marketing — though that should remain significant — and reach out to "high-wealth donors," use its expertise as collateral with corporate partners, and seek increased foundation giving, such as the $42 million grant Heifer received from the Gates Foundation for its East Africa Dairy Development project.
"The scale of the problems we're facing is huge," Ferrari said. "We want to work faster."
It's a good time to be looking at "high-wealth" donors, thanks to Warren Buffett's "Giving Pledge"; last week, the number of billionaires who've pledged to give away half their money to charity rose by 17 individuals and families to 47. (Ferrari will have to skip Arkansas, apparently; none of Heifer's backyard billionaires have signed on. Financier Warren Stephens was reported to have told a meeting of the Little Rock Chamber of Commerce last week "we ain't doin' that.")
Sipping yerba mate through a straw in a gourd — perhaps the secret to the fast pace he keeps up during the day — Ferarri talked about what seemed to a reporter great complexity about Heifer's work all over the planet to end hunger. "We are the boots on the ground," he said, preparing communities, not pushing an idea upon unready people. "Heifer has 64 years of dealing with communities on the basis of assets," like livestock, to create a sustainable economy, Ferrari said. Their projects are about creating income, yes, but "also about savings, a place to go back to if things go badly." Their experience and expertise is what Heifer has to offer non-governmental organizations the world over.
Ferrari said the idea to grow assets as well as income was a new one for the Gates Foundation, funder of Heifer's project to improve milk production in East African communities. There, Heifer is helping farmers move away from sustenance dairy production to producing milk on a market scale, for sale to other African villages. The key: more productive breeds of cows to create a surplus of milk, and the construction of cooperatively owned chilling plants to keep the milk from spoiling so it can be sold in nearby African countries.
Layered atop Heifer's provision of animals — whose offspring are the "gift" that is passed on within a community — is its commitment to real fair trade, in which all players — farmer, village, supplier, distributor — are lifted.