CLA President and CEO Tami Heim recently interviewed Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International.
Tandon has a background marked by building, scaling and turning around some of the world’s best-known for-profit and nonprofit enterprises. Over a 35-year career, his work has impacted financial services and consumer banking, the social sector, nonprofit management and governance, the digital economy and marketing.
Prior to joining Opportunity International, Atul founded and served as CEO of the Tandon Institute, which provides strategy, solutions and staffing to enable social sector enterprises to rapidly accelerate their impact, revenues, public engagement and organizational capacity.
Earlier, Atul served as the leader of United Way Worldwide’s 41-country international network, helping shape and form the world’s largest network of community-based charities. He also wore a twin hat as United Way’s Executive Vice President of Investor Relations. In this role, he oversaw the organization’s worldwide donor engagement and fundraising functions.
Responding to God’s call to serve the poor in 2000, Atul joined World Vision U.S. as Senior Vice President of Donor Engagement. He served on World Vision’s executive team for nine years and led the organization through a period of unprecedented expansion, tripling revenues over his tenure. In addition to his U.S. responsibilities, he led World Vision’s global initiatives to expand its fundraising in 25 countries. He also served on the board of VisionFund International, World Vision’s microfinance network. Prior to his leadership roles in the nonprofit sector, Atul had a successful career in the global financial services industry with Citibank in India and the U.S.
Atul earned a master of business administration and a bachelor of commerce with honors from the University of Delhi. He holds a certificate in governance from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.
He is a board member for several organizations, including Christian Leadership Alliance, Forbes Nonprofit Council, Docusign’s IMPACT Advisory Board and Mission Aviation Fellowship. Tandon has taught at both University of Washington's School of Business and University of San Francisco’s McLaren School of Business. He is recognized as a thought leader in the nonprofit industry, and is frequently quoted and published in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Huffington Post, Non-Profit Times and other leading media outlets.
Heim spoke with Tandon about this edition’s theme of generosity and his work at Opportunity International.
In your experience in nonprofit leadership, what is the key to encouraging generosity in donors' hearts?
As nonprofit leaders, the key thing for us to understand is that our job is to be the best bridge possible – the bridge between the donor and the beneficiary. As leaders, we must embrace this role and inspire those in our organizations to also embrace it. Donors and beneficiaries have the power to effect change in each other. They have the potential to transform each other’s lives. Our accountability is to facilitate the growth and support of those relationships.
Understanding the needs and wants of donors, as well as the clients or beneficiaries of our organization is essential in connecting the two. We must see ourselves not as marketers or fundraisers. We engage with and transform lives—on both sides of the oceans. This way of thinking about donor engagement, i.e., engaging donors deeply in our work and in the lives of our beneficiaries, is now the cornerstone of fundraising work at many charities, large and small, across the globe.
Tell us about Opportunity International, what is the most significant focus for you as CEO today?
At Opportunity, our most significant focus is on engaging our donors, supporters and the American public in what we believe is the greatest transformative and achievable objective of our time: ending extreme poverty in our lifetime.
You and I, stand at an extraordinary milepost in the history of humankind. If we continue doing the things we all know to do, there will be no one left living on less than $2 a day on the planet, in our lifetimes. The World Bank Group has actually placed a date on that possible achievement, Dec. 31, 2030. It is not that poverty will disappear, but that every living human being will be able to go to bed on a full stomach and a shirt on their back. Opportunity International is looking for the believers, for the people who are driven by hope and not despair, joy and not gloom, to join us—and other organizations embracing this cause—to put our hearts and minds, and strength and spirit behind this vision.
Fifty years from now, people will ask, “What did your generation do?” The answer will be as simple as it is profound: “We ended extreme poverty.” And in doing so, answered Jesus’ haunting question, “who is your neighbor?”
I know you’re passionate about addressing worldwide poverty. What encourages you most in that regard today? What are key challenges to be overcome?
Indeed, all of us at Opportunity are committed to addressing global poverty and, particularly, extreme poverty. Thirty years ago, eradicating extreme poverty seemed impossible – more than a third of the planet lived in extreme poverty in 1990. Since then, open markets, free trade, and key interventions like microfinance have lifted more than 1.1 billion people out of extreme poverty – the equivalent of 130,000 people per day for the last three decades. Now, instead of one in three, only one in ten people in the world live on less than $1.90 a day. No generation before us has been so close to eradicating extreme poverty! We face the challenge of reaching those at the very bottom of the economic ladder—those who are most excluded, and have not yet been reached through the traditional poverty alleviation efforts of the last three decades. Those who need us to innovate, and become smarter, more compassionate and more intentional with our philanthropy. Those who have been waiting generations for their opportunity.
The good news is that we now have more collective knowledge, more technology, more resources, and more willpower than any other generation in history. By working together, each of us fulfilling our roles in which God prepared in advance for us to do, we can make this the era that we end extreme poverty, for all.
I also am inspired by the extraordinary work of our staff. Over the last 46 years, their collective work has helped over 24 million families, that is nearly 110 million people, build sustainable lives, get educated and start to lead lives of dignity and purpose.
How has your experience at World Vision and United Way influenced your thinking on donor engagement?
It has taught me that as nonprofits we cannot and must not view donors as human ATM machines. Those days of sending mass mailings and expecting a windfall of cash in return are over. Donors want to engage. They want to make an impact with their time, their talent and their treasure. And not only in the lives of beneficiaries, but in their own lives. That realization drove World Vision’s massive scale-up over the nine years that I had the honor to work there with my colleagues.
Donor engagement means making that understanding a reality in the lives of our supporters here at Opportunity International.
What key principles can Christian nonprofits of all sizes take from that experience and implement in their organizations?
Leaders of Christian nonprofits and their organizations would be well served by understanding all they can about their donors. One way to start is to ask those donors three vital questions:
- How satisfied are you with your relationship with us?
- How long do you foresee maintaining that relationship?
- Would you recommend us to a friend as an organization to support, and, if not, why not?
These and other efforts to survey donor satisfaction are critical to gaining insights and learning not only what donors expect, but also how leaders and their teams can engage with donors. This is a process, not an end. Such efforts will always need refining. Moreover, these efforts enable leaders to transition donors – those who give money – into supporters, who give time, talent and influence.
As a board member of CLA who has been actively involved for many years, how would you describe CLA’s importance for Christian leaders?
Christian Leadership Alliance (CLA) is a unique community of people. What makes them unique is their shared call to serve at the place and for the purposes to which they are called, and do so as followers of Christ. CLA is the place where we come together to encourage, to reaffirm, to rebuild, to refocus, to sharpen, to learn from each other and, in our own hearts, to be transformed.
When I joined in 2001, we used to have an annual event and received a magazine. Today we have an annual conference, the ability to access magnificent content 24/7, and opportunities to connect with other members in an engaging manner. Of course, technology has helped enable that but CLA has fostered these connections in a way that far exceeds the technology. Given the stakes, I cannot imagine a more important time to be part of CLA.