May 28 2008

Wess Speaks

We recently gave you the opportunity to ask our President, Wess Stafford, any questions you like. You didn’t disappoint. We got a variety of questions ranging from serious to silly.

Wess is a fascinating storyteller. We wanted you to feel as if he were answering your questions in person. So we sat down with him, recorded the interview and transcribed his answers word for word.

Instead of choosing 10, he wanted to answer them all. (We combined some of the similar questions.) Because of the length of his answers, we’ll answer one question per day.


My “unofficial” start with Compassion was probably when I was 5 years old, clear out in a little African village where my heart was being shaped and my respect for the poor was being formed.

My first “official” job was 31 years ago in Haiti, where I was assigned as a field worker. I was young, 27 years old, and it was wonderful. I can remember riding along in a truck thinking, “They pay me. They actually pay me to do this!” I stayed in little huts in the villages. I ate their food. I slept on the floor. It took me back to my boyhood in Africa. Most Haitians are descendents of West Africa so I was right at home.

But my biggest job in those days was sitting down and talking with leaders of poverty-stricken communities — listening to their hurts, dreams and hopes. I would write up a project, get funding for it, help that community implement that program, evaluate it and then move on to the next one. We built roads to open up isolated communities. We built hospitals and clinics. We did reforestation of mountainsides. I put in water systems, wells and captured springs and water treatment. We did a lot of relief during famine times.

At that time I represented six relief and development agencies -– Compassion was just one of six. The longer I worked in Haiti, the more I listened to the poor and the more I understood their hearts and what they would do if they had financial resources. The more I listened to them, the more they talked about children. The poor would say to me, “If you want to help me, help my child. Because that’s where my hope is, that’s where my dreams are and that’s where my resources go.”

Well I heard that enough from the extreme poor –- and Haiti isn’t just poor, it’s extremely poor –- that I realized I was not going to give my life to serving the poor unless I was able to do what the poor would do if they had financial resources. And where their money goes is to their children. So among the six agencies I worked for, it was Compassion International that honed in on children. The more I studied Compassion’s mission and what was truly important to the poor, the more strategic sense this ministry made.

After I left Haiti. I got a doctorate in non-formal education. And I have been with Compassion ever since. I’ve had just about every job in the place and have now served for 15 years as president.

So my time with Compassion goes back 31 years. And pretty much everything I need to know to lead this ministry came from the poor themselves, either in my little village in Africa or in Haiti.

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  1. May 28, 2008
    at 9:11 pm

    Loved this. God doesn’t waste anything, does He?

  2. May 28, 2008
    at 11:18 pm

    Wess’s life and ministry are a testament to what can be accomplished when we let God take our deepest hurts and our crowning achievements to create an incredible and beautiful tapestry.

  3. May 29, 2008
    at 2:35 pm

    That’s interesting to know — that you served at Compassion in other capacities before becoming president. What other jobs did you hold at Compassion??

  4. Jun 9, 2008
    at 3:32 pm

    Well let’s see, I’ll have to go back a long way in my memory here. You might want to get a cup of coffee and prepare to settle in for awhile, since I have a pretty long history with Compassion!

    Following my years “in the field” working for a consortium of relief and development agencies (which included Compassion), I joined Compassion as the Associate Director of Education in 1980. In that role I worked to improve the quality of primary education in about 30 different countries. I also designed some programs to integrate nonformal education into community development programs in several countries. And of course, Haiti still held a very special place in my heart, so I also focused a lot of attention on the Compassion programs in Haiti.

    In 1984, I transferred to the President’s Office and was privileged to work closely with Compassion’s prior president, Wally Erickson. My official title then was Assistant to the President and my duties in that job included acting as the official spokesman for the ministry and representing the President’s Office at public events and on overseas assignments. I also spent a lot of time in those days working with a committee of people to document the core corporate policies of the ministry. Now why I was given that task I’m not exactly sure… I suppose drafting policy and articulating that kind of thinking was important, but at the time it seemed like a great punishment directly from the hand of God! ;-)

    Then, around 1986, I became the Executive Director of Development. Back in those days Compassion was a small enough place that all of our marketing efforts were combined into one department, and as Executive Director I oversaw all the media efforts, donor services and planning for future fundraising. I think we were dealing with numbers around $25 million in annual income back then, which seemed like a lot. Now, when I think about the $400 million that we’re accountable for today, I’m amazed and thrilled to see how God has continued to bless Compassion’s ministry!

    A few years later, in 1990, I became the Executive Vice President of Compassion. That position was really a high-level combination of everything I had done in the ministry before with some added responsibilities thrown in, like overseeing the Program Division (the folks who manage the child development efforts that really impact the kids out in the field) and the Finance area. As Executive VP I again represented the President and his office to various groups and I was also part of the executive team that was responsible for all the planning and decision-making that went on around here.

    Back in those days we used to spend a lot of time making “five-year plans.” We didn’t keep that practice up too long, since things started growing and changing so quickly that we realized there was no way we could predict as far as five years out! We still take planning for the future seriously, but the pace is so much faster these days.

    Then in 1993 I was chosen as Compassion’s president when Wally Erickson decided it was time to retire. I remember wishing there was something I could do to change his mind… not about choosing me for the job, but I just couldn’t imagine this place without Wally. He was such a wise leader and a wonderful friend to me! But, Wally assured me that he had done what God had called him to do here and that it was time to turn it over to the next generation. I was very humbled by his faith in me. Now, I’m thrilled to also have a great group of senior leadership who help guide and direct the management activities of Compassion. I spend most of my time as president speaking to groups and trying to find ways to share Compassion’s vision for releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name in a way that motivates people to become advocates for children.

    It would be great if after really grasping the importance of children, people also see Compassion as a wonderful way to meet children’s needs, but often my goal is simply to inspire people to think about children—the kids in their own neighborhoods as well as the kids we minister to around the world—and to value, love and invest in them.

    I often say that my job when I’m traveling in the developing world is comfort the afflicted, but my job when I’m in the US or Europe is to afflict the comfortable—to motivate them to reach out to the less fortunate. I think that little saying pretty well sums up my duties today as president of Compassion.

  5. Mike Stephens
    Mar 28, 2009
    at 11:06 am

    Wess,

    Thanks for the encouragement (affliction) I often need a little help to get moving in the right direction!!! If not a lot of help!!!

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