Laser vision

At the child-focused global charity World Vision, Larry Probus’ finance team is helping colleagues with fact-based decision making.

Larry ProbusLarry Probus, CPA, CGMA, came to his role as CFO of World Vision from an international consumer products company, after he met Mother Teresa in Calcutta and became convinced of the ability of individuals to make a real difference.

Through its development and disaster recovery programmes, World Vision partners with communities all over the world to tackle poverty and improve the lives of children. All of this is underpinned by the work of Probus’ finance team, whose insight and robust processes ensure that World Vision’s people on the ground have access to data that allows them to make decisions that could save lives.

Probus shared with CGMA Magazine his views on planning for the unplannable and the challenge of measuring and quantifying the effectiveness of World Vision’s programs both within the organisation and to donors.

Q. What are the objectives of World Vision?

A. World Vision is a child-centred organisation founded 60 years ago, with a vision of bringing life in all its fullness to every child. To do so, we attack the root causes of extreme poverty, working in partnership with communities of around 30,000 to 40,000 people for 15 to 20 years on issues such as access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, nutrition, education, and health. One of the final things we can provide is microfinance, providing loans to individuals so they can be self-sustaining in the long term.

Q. What is the scope of your role as CFO?

A. World Vision has global revenues of about $2.8 billion, with $1.1 billion coming from the US. Our biggest financial challenge is allocating funds to the 90-plus countries we work in and, within that, to roughly 2,500 communities affecting 100 million people. Donors designate where they want their donations to go, so another hurdle is matching this up with the needs of the communities. This is the biggest difference between working in a not-for-profit, compared with a for-profit. Every dollar we get is being given by people who are entrusting us to use it correctly. This means every spending decision, no matter how small, is of equal importance. And of course, the needs always outstrip the resources we have available, so we must often make hard decisions around what not to do.

Q. What else comes under the remit of you and your team?

A. Decision-making is key. World Vision has 45,000 employees around the world, so making decisions in that global environment is quite a challenge, working with different cultures, languages and priorities. We need to find out what the right facts are to put on the table and then who are the right people to put around that table to look at them and make wise decisions.

Q. What is your planning process?

A. It is broken into two broad segments: development, which represents the long-term, 15-20 years working with a community; and disaster relief. Here, we have a team of people who are ready to be deployed when a disaster happens, backed up with multiple, staged warehouses around the world from which we can send aid. We have protocols with respect to financial funding, so even if it is too early to have raised funds from donors, the moment something happens, we assess what we think we will be able to raise from donors and release money accordingly. Our years of experience allow us to reliably determine how much we will be able to raise, which means we can release money to the community prior to securing the actual funds.

Q. This is a volatile world. How do you prepare your finance team to cope with unpredictability?

A. I tell them that their role is to serve as bridge builders for our colleagues. I look for them to be good communicators with a 360-degree understanding of what we do, which can help our colleagues across the world to make effective, fact-based decisions.

Doing so requires us to distil down to the essence of what is needed to make a decision. By nature, finance people can home in with laser vision on the most relevant facts. We assign people with financial expertise to our operating groups, so they are an integral part of the team and not on the outside looking in.

We also try to shift people from our team around so they can experience different work in different locations. At the moment, for instance, we have placed several US-based finance people on a one-year secondment to Africa, to gain an understanding of the environment on the ground where we do our work.

Q. How do you measure the effectiveness of your programmes?

A. Broadly, we want to know that the children in the communities in which we work are better off than they would have been otherwise. Our vision is that every child would have life in all its fullness. We are in the process of commissioning an independent study of communities we have worked in over the years, comparing the well-being of these children to those from other communities.

In the last four years, we have increased our efforts in compiling objective data on our website. This is something that, increasingly, donors are looking for — and they should be. We have donors who are interested in supporting one specific child and want to be able to make a direct connection between their donation and that child. We are launching an online tool to provide regular updates on the health, education and welfare of individual children, including pictures of improvements to their communities. That is one of the big data-management challenges we are facing.

Q. What is your main objective for the coming year?

A. World Vision is rapidly expanding its capacity for providing water, sanitation and hygiene. If you don’t have clean water, it is difficult to have any quality of life. It is the most important component of addressing severe poverty. Three years ago, we were providing clean water to about 200,000 people in Africa per year; last year, we were up to one million, and the goal in  coming years will be to increase this to two million.


My career in numbers:
Larry Probus, CFO, World Vision

2003 joined World Vision
22 years at Brown-Forman, a US publicly traded consumer products company

100 million people helped annually by World Vision

$2.8 billion in donations to World Vision in 2011

20 countries visited in role as World Vision CFO