CARYL STERN | Humanitarian, Child Advocate, Activist, and Non-profit Executive
Doug Foulkes and Claire Haidar meet with Caryl Stern and discuss how our duty to leave a better world behind for children while continuing to manage fundraising during a time of global crisis.
Caryl Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves. She shares her perspective on creating access and opportunities to people in need and how her belief that those who are closest to the problems are the closest to the solutions helps drive progress forward.
[00:00:00] – Caryl Stern
Social injustice and racism are not new, but there’s a spotlight on them right now in our country that’s shining brighter than it ever has and forcing the world to take a look. One in five children in America today does not have access to the education that the other four have because of what’s happening with COVID. We need to find a balance of standing on the shoulders of those before us and leaving the world behind it for the children that we borrow it from.
[00:00:35] – Doug Foulkes
Welcome to The Future of Work, the podcast that looks at, you guessed it, the future of work. It’s brought to you by WNDYR for their blog, Chaos and Rocket Fuel. WNDYR are productivity and human behavior specialists who use technology to help us humans on our digital journey from disruption to transformation. Learn more by visiting WNDYR.com. That’s WNDYR dot com. I’m Doug Foulkes and along with WNDYR CEO, Claire Haidar, we meet up with industry experts and mavericks to get their take on work in the future.
This week we’re talking Global Crisis Relief and Family Foundations with executive director of the Walton Family Foundation, Caryl Stern. Caryl is a humanitarian, child and human rights activist with a very big vision who knows how to deploy aid and grant funding. Her type of work is definitely some of the most important being done right now.
[00:01:35] – Claire Haidar
I want to dig into and start with why you’ve chosen such a niche and extremely specific line of work.
[00:01:43] – Caryl Stern
I always say I didn’t choose the career, the career kind of chose me before I was born. I am the child of a Holocaust survivor. My mom came to this country, to the United States, when she was six and her brother was four with neither of their parents. And she was raised in an orphanage on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And so I grew up in a home in which she always felt that her survival gave her the responsibility to use her voice. And we kid her that from the time we were old enough to hold the sign, there was one in our hands. And if there was an opportunity to speak out, we were there standing next to her. And so, you know, she instilled in us that we have to leave the world better than where what we found when we arrived in it and we were taught that God gave us a voice and we have to use it. So I’ve had the privilege to take that kind of lifelong teaching and passion and make it my career.
[00:02:40] – Claire Haidar
We’re at a very interesting intersection in the world right now. The way I would term it is I’d say the globe is going through a renaissance, a revival where we’re questioning values, questioning human rights, questioning humanity itself as a whole. Give us some insights and some trends. So your work allows you what I would almost call like a macro view of what’s happening in the world. Can you share some insights and trends you’re observing through the flow of the foundation funds that you work with through the Walton Family Foundation?
[00:03:17] – Caryl Stern
Sure. You know, it’s interesting because many of my friends have described this as the precursor to the Renaissance. And it’s an interesting word to use because I think for all of us, the renaissance in gender’s beauty and and new ideas and growth. And I think there’s a window open for a renaissance. And what I’m seeing kind of across my desk is that people are being forced to rethink or in the thinking that I think will lead to the Renaissance. But right now, small nonprofits are questioning can we exist in the current economy? Large nonprofits are questioning themselves, probably even more so. And I think that’s been interesting.
And everybody’s seeking to figure out what’s their niche will be and how we’ll need to adapt. You know, we we have the privilege to fund a lot of different kinds of things. And, you know, I’m looking at huge art centers who are dependent on attendance at performances. Will there be performances again? Will the COVID legacy be that we can never have a large crowd again? What happens then? How do we redo the arts to ensure that there’s still such a necessary part of our lives, but are accessible in ways that are also safe? And then I get to the civil rights agenda and I can say that, you know, I spent 18 years of my career working in civil rights and these inequities have been with us for a long time. Social injustice and racism are not new, but there’s a spotlight on them right now in our country that’s shining brighter than it ever has and forcing the world to take a look. They can’t avoid that spotlight right now.
I believe that great unrest brings change. And the last time that I saw a great change in the world, it followed unrest. When the student uprisings in the 60s, when you saw civil rights laws being passed, you saw the voting ages come down. You saw major change in this country. And yet again this summer, we’re seeing students take to the streets, people take to the streets, allies coming forward and using the power that they have on behalf of others who may not have as much power.
So, you know, I think it’s happening because of a combination of social justice and COVID, but people are demanding that their voices be heard and they seem poised to take action. And I think that’s exciting. But at the same time, you know, Claire, I really, really believe that progress travels at the speed of trust and trust is low right now.
[00:05:56] – Claire Haidar
We can definitely see this as well because we touch a significantly large customer base in the market every month. And we also have that macro view. And what we can see in our niche that we operate in is that trust is a very big thing because people are waiting and watching.
[00:06:17] – Caryl Stern
And I think another really big trend, something that I’m finding really interesting to observe, is that the growing movement is bringing together different sectors. You know, traditionally in this country, there’s been the philanthropic sector, the marketplace sector, the government sector. And we’ve worked at things somewhat independently. You know, we’ve partnered on occasion. But for the most part, the work has been divided. And right now I see that the integration of the three and the reality that bringing all three together is bringing solutions that have not been thought of before.
You know, following COVID, watching something like—the best example of something called “Stop the Spread” that Ken Chenault and Rachel Carlson sold together. And they really you know, they called on industries that didn’t make respirators, that didn’t make face masks. And they said, “You have factories that are closed. Can we put them to good use?” So that was the marketplace solution. But in order to jumpstart that solution, they needed dollars and they reached out to the philanthropic sector to say, “how can you support that jumpstart?” While they also reached out to governments to say, “and how can you keep the momentum going?” And so it brought all three together. And I think it’s a model that a.) Allows for quicker response. And b.) Is a model that will be replicated moving forward on all these issues.
[00:07:47] – Claire Haidar
One of the things that really, really excites me about this this period of history that we’re in right now is that it really is forcing us to break down silos. And you’ve just given us a perfectly practical example of how that’s happened.
[00:08:03] – Caryl Stern
You know, even the ways in which we’ve been forced to work since we’re so isolated by forcing us to take that moment to say “so how are you, really? You know, what’s happening in your life?” Because we’re not having water cooler conversation. You know, we’re not bumping into each other in town. And I think it is just changing the whole social paradigm. It really is.
[00:08:28] – Doug Foulkes
I’m going to jump in here and just turn the spotlight straight on the future of work. I think it’s fair to say that it’s taken a bit of a turn in the last few months. What do you think that the landscape for children is going to be like in this new reality?
[00:08:41] – Caryl Stern
Yeah, you know, work definitely has taken a turn. You know, in March when we made the decision at the Walton Family Foundation to work from home, I really worried about it. I worried primarily because I was new. I had five weeks in the office before we went to work from home, so I hadn’t even met my entire team. But I also worried that work would slip, you know. And if anything, we’ve become more productive: We’ve approved more grants in this time period than we did a year ago, we’ve produced more blog posts, we’ve done more media statements. And the work got done.
But we had no training in how to work from home. You don’t learn that kind of on the fly. And we also had no training in how to do that when there is no separation between work and life. You know, before you had that, at some point you shut the door in your office and you went home and today you don’t do that. So, you know, we had to learn how to work with dogs barking and kids on laps. And we had to figure out different protocols, if you will.
I think in some ways it’s going to have a long term impact in a unique way, too, because I think for many kids who have never had exposure to an office, they’ve been exposed to them in different ways by working virtually. And I also think it is opening up for those of us who haven’t considered what it might be like to have never worked from an office. I always think about when I was Dean at Polytechnic University, and a lot of first time college goers, first generation college goers. And I would say to them, you have to dress up for your interviews in senior year, and then some girls would show up in party dresses and dress up in party dress. And they didn’t come from a home where someone had worked in the environment they were going into.
Or I had a kid I sent on an interview to California and I spent hours with him about—he’d never been on a plane so, you know, “what do you do when you get to the airport and how do you get to the ticket line?” And I took him to buy a suit. He’d never owned a suit. And I thought I’d covered everything. I prepaid for his hotel room because I knew he didn’t own a credit card. And I just thought, my God, we’ve done everything. So he came back from the interview and I said to him, “So how’d it go?” And he said, “well, I was really tired.” So I got really angry and I said “What, did you go out the night before?” I thought the kid had gone to party because he was in a hotel. And he said, “No, I forgot to bring an alarm clock. So I stayed up all night so I wouldn’t be late for my interview.” I had never told this child that he could get a wake up call.
It was a really good lesson for me in understanding that we each walk in a set of shoes with a set of life experiences that bring us to the point today. I think when you work in an office, you become aware of those. When you don’t work in an office, you have to remember that fact.
And now we face an education crisis. So to answer your question, more specifically, one in five children in America today does not have access to the education that the other four have because of what’s happening with COVID. Maybe it’s because they don’t have broadband. Maybe it’s because there are six kids living in one room and so only one can be on a computer at a time. Maybe it’s because mom and dad have never gone through the education themselves and they can’t really support that child the way the child in a home with educated parents can get that support as we look forward to the return to school in September. And many parents contemplate, do I send my child to school? Do I school them at home? That’s a very different question for the mom working two jobs and wondering what does she do with her children? Very different question for the parents who can afford tutors and support.
We know that for three months, two to three summer months was originally installed in this country because of the agriculture, because farming was done. So kids had to stay home to help out on the farm. And it’s just become tradition. But we know that kids have a learning gap. Then when they go back to school after being away, what’s going to happen when we go back to that child, who’s that one in five who may have been out of school for a year? Will he ever be able to catch up?
[00:13:08] – Claire Haidar
For me, it’s also the violence that these children are exposed to. Where school in many ways was a safety.
[00:13:15] – Caryl Stern
And not only is school the safety and the violence, but then also school, maybe where they got their hot meal every day.
[00:13:21] – Claire Haidar
Exactly. Yeah. Yeah.
[00:13:24] – Caryl Stern
And school is also, you know, school is more than reading, writing, and arithmetic. It’s the socialization process. It’s learning to negotiate conflicts. It’s learning to sit still, to train that attention muscle. It’s all of those things that happen for a child as they go through the education process.
[00:13:46] – Claire Haidar
Coming back to that thing about the upside of what this whole remote work thing is teaching us is that we’re learning that we can be more flexible in how we work and as bad as what the situation is for economically disadvantaged groups of people, particularly children, that’s the piece that actually excites me, is that people are learning to be more flexible. So that very hard, rigid outline that there was around what is acceptable in work, those lines are starting to blur. And I think that’s a very healthy thing. And I think it’s those incidences that are going to help us to blur those lines in a healthy way where people are going to be able to show up to work in more natural ways.
[00:14:35] – Caryl Stern
No, and I think even the tolerance, as I said, for dogs barking and kids on laps, we wouldn’t normally have historically brought our children to our office and expected to be able to do our work all day. It was a rare exception that a child showed up in the office. And yet I would say more than half of my meetings today, I will see children. They will be—you know, and it’s gotten to the point, even with my direct reports, where the kids come out in the morning to say good morning to me just because we’ve talked to each other so often.
[00:15:07] – Doug Foulkes
Caryl, I’d like to talk about aid. It’s a big component of your work, has been for many, many years. Aid is a word, it’s a noun, it’s laden with a lot of history. How do you think fundraising, certainly for major global crises, has to pivot and change in this environment?
[00:15:24] – Caryl Stern
It’s really interesting because I’m always struck when I think about fundraising, that people are much more compassionate than we give them credit for and that even in the worst of times, somehow the public comes through. And I remember in the worst economic crisis that we were going through in this country, I had kids writing me letters and adults even saying, “we no longer eat beef, we can’t afford it. But here’s my ten dollars, because I know there’s a child somewhere who’s not eating at all.” And I think that that has held even through COVID. I spoke with my UNICEF colleagues. They are still receiving gifts. People still care. People still looked at what happened in Lebanon recently and also what happened here in our backyard in Iowa and said “Here’s a natural disaster. These people have less than I do,” and they still give.
I think the other big change is that, for a long time, people saw aid as charity. And one of the reasons I joined the Walton Family Foundation is because the work we do is about empowerment, not charity. And I think that’s true for the global aid organizations as well. You know, it’s about creating access to opportunity for people and for communities. And that’s actually the whole mission: is to create access to opportunity for people and communities. And, really, the word I use is blessed. I have been blessed that with an opportunity to work for a family foundation that has a set of values, that really hits home with that idea.
And I think this is true when I think about the fundraising side, you know, the values that we operate on are that those we support have to be active participants. So for those of you who are thinking about giving to a cause, you really want to see the supportee, if you will, as an active participant in the work. You want to see work that’s rooted in the communities themselves. The solutions should come from those you’re serving, not from pejorative outsiders. Well, I think the first thing is that when a crisis hits, you start by supporting your existing grantees, or if you’re an individual donor, the charities you would normally support. You know, and we’ve really leaned into this. We have worked with our grantees to say, how do we redirect what we were doing with you with minimal hurdles to address how your needs are shifting. Like, recognize for years you thought this was the right thing to support. You clearly have faith in them. You know they’re your trusted partner. Don’t give up on them.
Now, the second thing would be work through expert organizations. So now they’re going to stretch. You know, it’s especially relevant for like elementary and secondary education programs that we collaborate to ensure that efforts in the space are coordinated. Like, you want to know that people who know what they’re doing are the people you’re supporting. You really want to look for the experts and invest in them.
And then you want to enable local responses. As I said, in our values, we believe those closest to the problems often have the best solutions. And we—focused on our home region of northwest Arkansas and other communities where we work in our education environment program—and we’ve really double down on meeting the needs of our community, you know, working through our grantees, exploring how we can support new ways as we combat this virus. You know, it’s uncharted territory. It’s evolving every day, but it is, again, sticking to our values and knowing that the community has to be part of the solution.
And then I think the other two points I would make would be you can’t make perfect the enemy of the good. You know, we have to think about how to use our dollars quickly when there’s a crisis and we want to think about particularly those most vulnerable.
And then simultaneously, we want to remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint. So act quick, do what needs to be done, but save some resources for the long haul because you don’t recover overnight from something like this. And then I think the last kind of dot on the i that I would talk about is that, remember that the poor, the marginalized across the US are going—the existing disparities are going to be intensified. And we’ve seen that, people of color have been disproportionately harmed by COVID. That is not because of physical makeup, as much as less access to health care before, less access to better schools before.
[00:20:03] – Claire Haidar
You’re most effective as an individual, but also as part of a team when you have that almost like three layered approach to your work. Are you taking care of the base resources that actually build and sustain our lives? Are you nurturing your community? And then are you choosing to be very specific and very focused in the projects that you then choose to exert your extended time and energy on because there’s so much to get involved with. But being focused in that is a really good thing.
And I think, you know, if I take that recipe and I apply it to the future of work and business leaders who are grappling with this new reality, I think that such a succinct but really powerful way to go about this, you know, to say are we looking at the core foundations of what makes us tick as businesses? Are we looking after our immediate community? And then are we being very focused, as you say? Are we seeing this as a marathon, but still investing in those things that mean a lot to us?
[00:21:10] – Caryl Stern
You know, when I describe a family foundation and one of the joys that I have found in this job in the past nine months of doing it, is that it is a balance between standing on the shoulders of those who came before—so, you know, Sam and Helen Walton, who really had a vision that was of giving back, of building the community that helped to build their future, of ensuring that children have access to a quality education, not just education. I mean, those are the kind of the stalwarts of what this was built on and we stand on their vision. And at the same time, a recognition that the family now is in its third generation of leadership and will continue to grow, that we borrow the world from the children we leave behind. And so you want to make sure that what you’re doing is building for the future, not just on the past.
[00:22:00] – Claire Haidar
Turning the conversation towards a more personal lens. You’re also a mom and one of the most meaningful conversations that you and I have ever shared, I don’t even know if you can remember this. It was outside the ladies room at the UNICEF gala. And I was literally about three days away from giving birth. And you left me with an incredible piece of wisdom that I’ve carried with me ever since then. You said take notes of what this child is like in your womb, because when he comes out, he’s going to be exactly the same in real life. Tell me, as a mom, so not as a professional/employee/colleague/mentor all of those things, as a mom, what are the conversations you’re having with your children right now about the world that they are moving in.
[00:22:52] – Caryl Stern
There’s so much in the news about which age group is being physically hardest hit by COVID. And there’s a lot of conversation around what’s happening to elementary school children and high school children. But I actually think the 18-25 year olds are being hit harder than many. And I say that not from a perspective of the impact of the disease physically, but this is when they’re entering adulthood. It’s supposed to be a carefree time. I think back to my college years in my twenties. I mean, that was the fun time. It was the last time you really get to be carefree. And all of that has been stripped away from them with no replacement for it. They’re sitting in a bedroom and taking classes online. That’s not a college experience. A college experience is going away from home, gaining your independence, shifting your values, screwing them up a couple of times and recovering from it, getting your life skills together. They’re being robbed of that.
And in our home, we’ve talked about that a lot because I have a college senior who’s going virtual only right now. You know, that’s not how he wants to spend his senior year. Not at all. He was looking forward. This was supposed to be the best year. Over the hurdles. So he’s made a decision for this fall semester, he’s taking two classes. He’s going to extend his time in college in the hope that he’ll get that senior experience once it’s over. He’s going to continue his education, but he had a summer job. He’s keeping it. And in the hopes that maybe by January this will change.
I also have a 25 year old who, he got a brand new job offer, just when COVID hit. And literally his letter of hire read “as soon as we can return to work.” He looked at me and he said, “Well, do I take this job or don’t I? It could be years. It could be a month. Like, what do I do?” And it was a job he really wanted, so we did take the job. And actually now, although they’re still not back in the office entirely, he is now working for them, but he’s not necessarily getting the mentoring you would get as a new young professional. He’s not in the office where somebody takes an interest in you if you’re lucky or you seek out that mentor to take a look at your work. He’s got to be his own judge and jury on everything he’s doing. Feedback has to be scheduled. It’s a whole different ball game.
Plus, social life. They’re missing all the personal connections. And, you know, I thought about when I was that age. What did I do with myself? I worked, I went out after work, got a beer with a bunch of colleagues. Weekends, we were at a concert, we were at a bar, we were at a party. You can’t do any of that.
So, you know, I think about young professionals who I’ve crossed paths with, and I helped mentor, or I got an opportunity to learn from myself. And that whole situation is just not happening. So I think that’s impact. And I think the other conversation we’ve been having has been about work life balance. How do women go to work? For the women who followed the work-life balance was about figuring out daycare and whether to work full or part time while raising kids. And with the next generation of women, I think it’s all mixed together because there isn’t a separation of work and life anymore.
[00:26:24] – Claire Haidar
As we wrap this up, I want to hand it over to you and I want to ask you to leave us with one final thought in terms of, you know, this is about the future of work, this is about global crisis relief, family foundations, where and how money is being spent. What do you feel is one really important thing that we should all keep in mind right now in terms of progressing our world forward?
[00:26:51] – Caryl Stern
I guess there’s a lot—and it’s a political year—so there’s a lot of rhetoric and I feel like we have to stop kind of spouting ideology and instead spout concern for people. Whether it’s immigration—you’ve heard me say before—let’s separate the issue of children at our border from the issue of immigration law and let’s treat children as children and law as law. And I feel that way about a number of issues that we’re confronting right now. We need to see the potential in everyone, regardless of zip code, skin color, money in their wallet. We need to recognize everyone deserves equal access to opportunity. That is what this nation is built by. And we need to disrupt the systems that lead to inequity. And all of that ties together to what I kind of where I started with. We need to find a balance of standing on the shoulders of those before us and leaving a world behind for the children that we borrow it from.
[00:27:53] – Claire Haidar
Carol, thank you for your time with us today. It’s gold. Your wisdom is something that more of the world should be hearing and listening to. So, we’re very excited to get this podcast out and to share it with our large community that we have access to in the world of business. And thank you. Thank you for taking the time.
[00:28:11] – Caryl Stern
No, thank you for having me. Always great to talk to you and, Doug, nice to talk to you as well. And please send my love to everybody.
[00:28:19] – Doug Foulkes
I’ll just echo that. Thank you, Caryl, and thank you, Claire as always, for organizing everything. And there you have it. A humanitarian outlook towards the future of work. If you’ve enjoyed this podcast and found it of value, please pop back for more top of mind conversations. For more information about WNDYR, you can visit their website. That’s WNDYR.com. And from my, Dough Foulkes at Chaos and Rocket Fuel, stay safe and we’ll see you soon.
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