Scaling Innovation’s Peaks
Christian Leadership Alliance President and CEO Tami Heim recently interviewed Ken Calwell, Senior Vice President of Innovation for Compassion International on the “Innovation” theme of this edition of Outcomes magazine.
Calwell is a new addition to the Compassion team who throughout his accomplished career in the food industry has been deeply immersed in leading major innovation efforts. His extensive global executive leadership experience includes serving as Chief Marketing Officer & Executive Vice President of Research and Development for Domino's Pizza; Chief Marketing Officer & Executive Vice President/Product Development for Wendy's International; Sr. Director of New Product Marketing for Pizza Hut; and most recently CEO & President of Papa Murphy's International, where he grew system-wide sales $250 million to an annual revenue of over $950 million.
During his career, Ken Calwell has been widely recognized for his many accomplishments, including being named one of Advertising Age's Top 100 Marketing Leaders of the Year, winning a Gold Effie marketing communication award, being inducted into Indiana University's Kelley School of Business Brand Leadership Hall of Fame, and being named Kansan of the Year by The Topeka Capital-Journal.
An avid-mountain climber, Calwell has climbed 14 peaks in Colorado that are over 14,000 feet tall. He has also completed 100-mile plus bike races, triathlons and more.
Ken shared insights on innovation from his experience and related to his new role envisioning the Compassion International of the future.
How has innovation shaped your extensive career in the business world, and how do principles learned there translate to the nonprofit world?
Innovation always begins by listening to those you serve without preconceived notions, solutions or products. When you truly understand the pain points or needs of your audience, you can begin to identify ways to serve them. This has been a constant throughout my career in the business world—asking open-ended questions that lead to creative areas of opportunity. Whether it has been the unmet needs of young mothers around dinner time, 16 to 30 year olds who want to feel unique and different, or a church partner who doesn’t feel understood or valued, it all begins by listening.
Get to know your “neighbors” by experiencing their world firsthand.
I’ve seen such evidence for this in the life of Christ. In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus says that we should love our neighbor. Over my 32-year business career, I have learned that Jesus’ command to “love your neighbor” requires the same first three steps:
1: Know who your “neighbor” is: wherever you work, who has God put in your path to serve?
2: Listen to your “neighbor”: Find them, meet them and interview them. Ask them questions that allow you to fully understand their needs.
3: Serve your “neighbor”: create, test, validate, and launch any new initiative, product or model that meets the expressed needs of your “Neighbor”, as long as it is consistent with and supports the mission and values of the organization you serve.
What is your mission and focus as Sr. Vice President of Innovation for Compassion?
Compassion International’s mission is to release children from poverty in Jesus’ name. Our Innovation team will be responsible for creating, testing and rolling out new initiatives, products and models to increase our potential to release even more children from poverty in Jesus’ name.
Our focus will be to identify not just the children or the staff in the field, but also the people groups who are serving the frontline. Over the coming years, our first step will be to listen more to the children we serve, frontline church partners, supporting church partners, team members and others. We exist to deeply understand their needs and how our team can best serve them and their areas of influence in the future.
If we approach our “neighbors” with a heart of service, seeking the flourishing of their ministries and circles of influence, God will creatively uncover ways to serve them better.
Why is thinking and acting innovatively so important for Christian nonprofit leaders today?
I have interacted with Christian nonprofits in the past that feel disingenuous. It’s clear that they are not trying to build true relationships with supporters—the organizations treat them as a cog in the wheel, only focused on the end-goal in mind. It’s imperative that as we serve the children, we authentically seek to support, know and love all of our “neighbors.”
In my opinion, innovation is simply identifying the creative problem, and sowing skills that God gave us to find new and creative ways to serve our “neighbors” all over the world. By serving children in need and all involved in this great work, we are serving Jesus Christ himself.
Your adventurous outdoor pursuits are fascinating. How does the drive to climb mountains and complete triathlons inform your quest for innovation at Compassion?
On August 8, 1991, I was riding my bike, heading south on a rural road outside of Wichita, Kansas when a driver heading north fell asleep at the wheel. At 50 miles per hour, the car swerved across the center-line and hit me head-on as I was doing 20 miles per hour. The equivalent of a 70 miles per hour impact nearly killed me. I had 12 bone fractures including four fractures to my left leg, one compound fracture on my right leg, four fractures on my right arm and multiple fractures of my pelvis. I spent three weeks in the intensive care unit, over two months in the hospital, and over two years in physical rehabilitation. In that process, God healed me, taught me to walk, run, hike and swim again, and he also taught me to fully trust him with my life.
In my opinion, innovation is simply identifying the creative problem, and sowing skills that God gave us to find new and creative ways to serve our “neighbors” all over the world.
Every day that I hike or bike in the mountains, or run, or swim, I thank God for the many gifts he gave me. Only because of God do I still have my left leg and right arm. Only because of God am I able to bike, swim, hike and run in his mountains. Only because of God am I at Compassion, where every day I am blessed with the privilege of seeing and empowering the innovative ways God works and inspires my team to release even more children from poverty in Jesus’ name. God has blessed us so richly.
What encouragement would you share with other nonprofit leaders on being innovative in planning for the future?
For any leader of an organization, nonprofit or otherwise, I would strongly encourage them to make it a consistent habit of spending time on the frontlines. Get to know your “neighbors” by experiencing their world firsthand. Participate in their work, experience their surroundings, walk through their processes, and deeply understand their day-to-day. I always carry a notepad to jot down ideas when I’m in someone else’s realm of influence. I write down verbatim quotes that uncover the heart and essence of a person. God has opened my eyes to so many creative ideas while serving alongside my “neighbors”.
In planning for the future, I pray that God would bless nonprofit leaders with three things:
1: A “neighbor” or group of “neighbors” that they truly love so much that they just can’t stop thinking about them.
2: A mission worth dying for.
3: The team and resources necessary to achieve the mission.
6. What are you most motivated by when you envision Compassion’s future?
I love the mission of Compassion because of its incredible depth. It reflects the head, heart and hands of Christ. It’s biblically sound and aligns with everything that Jesus was passionate about—uniting the body of Christ, loving and encouraging children, caring for the poor and needy, and seeing his children thrive.
The word compassion inspires me. It’s a word that implies action and movement. Compassion is not just empathy—I certainly want to understand and share the feelings of children living in poverty, but compassion compels me to act. Once you take action to solve a need, God gifts you with unbelievable energy.
Studies show there are over 400,000,000 children living in poverty around the world. God loves children and he commands us to use the gifts he has given us to join him in bringing education, social development, and the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the children who need it most. For 66 years, Compassion has been a part of releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name. As I envision Compassion’s future, I am excited to participate in God’s calling to release exponentially more children from poverty in Jesus’ name.