World Vision's Atul Tandon Exemplifies Compassion in Action
- Janet Chismar Senior Editor, News & Culture
- 2004 29 Nov
JANET: Talk about how you came from the business world and how you came to World Vision and a little bit about your background, if you don’t mind talking about yourself. This is for crosswalk.com on the faith channel putting a human face behind of the work of World Vision.
JANET: How long have you been at World Vision?
ATUL: Three years.
JANET: And prior to that?
ATUL: Prior to that I was with Citibank Citigroup for as long as I can remember.
JANET: And what made you decide to make the switch from the business world to ministry?
ATUL: It is really a God thing. It was that the latter half of my career with Citi that I came to faith and there was an increasing restlessness that the Lord wanted me to do something else for the Kingdom .I went through a period of time where you have these events happen to you in your life and one such event happened to me. I went into a pretty difficult illness if you will. I came out of that just realizing that it was the grace of God that had brought me out of it at the end. And by golly he was going to have me do something else and I was gonna do it. So I came out and told my wife that we were going to go off and find a Christian ministry to work in and started looking and somehow managed to find World Vision. At that time they were looking for a person to help them in marketing communication organization. It’s interesting, actually you will appreciate it. I found their ad on the web.
ATUL: This is in 1999 when it wasn’t prevalent with all that advertising. A headhunter had put up a little thing on his website – World Vision’s headhunter - and that’s all there was to it. So I tracked the guy down to his home in Florida, vacation home, and through his credit he took the risk to come out and meet me. From then on Brenden MacRich (???) my boss is absolutely a fantastic guy to work for. Very impressive. I really felt after I met him and the team that the Lord is calling me to World Vision. And joined them in 2000 – it’s been a fantastic journey.
JANET: Exciting. How long has it been since you came to faith, has it been pretty recent?
ATUL: Thirteen years.
JANET: Ok, ten for me. And how did that happen for you?
ATUL: That is a wonderful story, I’ll give you the short version. It clearly is an act of God. My wife and I both come from traditional Hindu family and found ourselves when our son was about a year old he fell quite ill, and we both found ourselves at our wits end about what to do and who to turn to. At that time a Christian ministry couple who were Indians stepped into our lives. Their influence, you could see Jesus in their eyes, there’s no other way to describe it. He’s compelling, He’s not gonna let you go. And both of us, praise God, came to faith, and just had a phenomenal time. There’s no other way to describe it; our journey has been a wonderful life.
JANET: Where were you living at the time when you met the missionary couple?
ATUL: In Madras (???) in India.
JANET: Ok, I wondered how long you had been in the United States.
ATUL: We’ve been here now about twelve years.
JANET: So that was pretty recently after you came to the Lord that you moved here.
ATUL: That’s right. Yeah, a little bit after that Citibank transferred me. It’s an absolutely fabulous organization. I love the bank. I love what they do; I still have the credit card.
JANET: And your son is ok?
ATUL: Absolutely, he’s fifteen. He’s a strong young man.
JANET: Do you have other children?
ATUL: We have a ten-year-old daughter. So the two of them, they are enough to keep our hands full I think.
JANET: What skills or what key translate from your work at Citibank to your work that you do at World Vision? What has your been business background gained you? [loosely translated - couldn’t quite make it all out]
ATUL: That’s a great question. In fact, when I was struck by the Lord’s leading to look for a role to play in a ministry, what I felt strongly was that God had trained me in my case for all these years. And that He intended for me to use the skills, the gifts He’s given me, the experiences I’ve had in the ministry work. And that role that I would find would be one that would use all these things. So that was almost the filter that I had as I looked at opportunities. And that truth has proved to be a pretty good one. If you think about essentially what our team at World Vision does, the team that I work with and serve, we’re two roles. Our first role is to present to our target audience of your readers, listeners, viewers, our potential donors, a worldview that is different hopefully than what they have currently. Which engages them in the cause of Christ and serving the poor in a matter that is exciting, that’s engaging. The second half of the job that my team does is that of acquiring donors. Once they come on board to calculate them, meet with their relationship with the poor, with World Vision. That doing so to get them for them to get deepening in their faith walk as well. Clearly, that is our intention. In both those jobs, that in changing worldview is all about communication. And fundraising, getting donors and keeping them. It’s marketing. Essentially, that’s what I did at Citibank also. Except that you strike out the word donor and subjugate the word customer. And you got it, so all the skills that I’ve used and learned and the folks that I worked with there whether they did database management, whether they did brand management, how do you take donors on a journey from the first phase of world vision to a deeper relationship, are all kinds of things that we did at in the bureaucratic world as well.
The best example is the introduction of something called the balance score card which I had done at Citi for awhile, which essentially what it does is it sort of giving you one goal to manage to. It enables you to have more than one goal to manage to and so you have multiple goals you are able to weigh between the goals which one you want to reach by when, timelines. It’s a pretty sophisticated way to manage a large organization. And it’s proven very successful, introduced by Harvard Business School, Citi happened to be a part of it while I was there. Coming to World Vision we decided to introduce the balance scorecard and it’s changed how they manage our institution. And the impact has been tremendous just in the case of my own organization. It’s allowed us to, no, it’s one of the instruments that’s enabled us to improve our name recognition, increase our donor guarantee, increase revenues, keep expenses flat, all the marketable objectives that you have to manage a large institution. It’s allowed us to keep a closing balance and progress. So to answer your question, a lot of the skills have transferred. At the same time what the ministry world has that nobody else has is the passion that comes from God’s leading. As you pursue, as a team, the goals and objectives and the heart that you’ve given unto the team as you pursue that, there’s just a tremendous relief of energy and excitement that I cannot dream in other institutions happening. So it’s, when you mix the heart that the people have for ministry with the passion with the strength that comes from structures sort of imported from the bureaucratic world, I think you have a great mix. It’s wonderful to be in it. And at the end of the day when we do this I think you and I both of us we ask ourselves the same question, is God being glorified in what we do? And if the answer is yes, you’re using business techniques and you’ve got the heart and passion for ministry. Hey, by golly, let’s do more of them!
JANET: Exactly, I worked in secular journalism and public relations before I came here and combining that with my passion, it makes everyday a joy.
ATUL: So we do branding research, we do focus groups, we’re currently building a new coffee platform, messaging guidelines, all of the things that would, that any large for profit would do, we do that with the lengths and the passion for Christ and for his cause.
JANET: And you have a new communications tool in this radio program. Could you talk a little about that?
ATUL: Well that’s one of my favorite projects in coming to World Vision. It goes back a couple of years. As we have looked at World Vision and realized our management team together we’ve explored what the Lord’s vision is for our institution. And we went out to all 6,000 of our employees, donors, poor that we serve generally to really go through a process of Scripture search and meditation. To come back and say what is it that the Lord is leading us to do. And what came back was a mission statement that says our vision for every child’s life and all its fullness and a prayer for every heart and a will for make it so. It’s drawn from John 10:10. The reason that Christ tells us He came to give us life abundantly. So that’s we’re doing, whether it is the children that we serve in the field, and our ministry around the world, or it is with our donors right here. And as we realize that we had a ministry right here in the North to raise most of our money, not to the larger American public, specifically the Christians in this country. The ministry that is engaging them in God’s walk with the poor. It is awakening them to the commandments that are clear in the Old Testament and the New Testament as to what God’s intentions for us as we live as brothers and sisters here in James 1:27 “to serve the widows and orphans” is essential. We realize that we have a ministry to Christians in America. To get them to, and I call it the changing hearts ministry, how do you get them to change their hearts in the name of Christ? One of the most effective tools to do that we believe that is radio. So we started putting a team together, to basically put a mandate that we’d like for you to produce the highest quality radio program that brings news of God at work around the world to American listeners. And God at work amongst the poorest of the poor, amongst the oppressed of the world, people who live in difficult circumstances, children who have been abused, how’s God changing their lives. How are people at the front line who are engaged with the poor and the children, what in fact is happening, how have their lives been changed? And bring that back, don’t bring back only the sounds of misery, but bring back the sounds of hope. And tell us what’s happening. And engage thought in a manner that will excite them about what God’s doing. This is a gift to the Christian ministry work. Happy to have all walks of life teaching them that. It’s not a fund raising program at all. I mean, the whole intention is for the listeners of the Christian radio stations to get a glimpse at what God’s doing around the world. And in doing so be able to step out off the shores of America and, to borrow a phrase from one of our old presidents, he used to say, maps exist so that people can march off their edges; and that’s a venture that I believe the Christian life is all about: to march off the edges of the map. And how do we get people to do that? Radio I believe is a fantastic medium. So that’s where we are. We launched the program about in mid-January. I have to thank the noncommercial radio community in this country; we’re all ready on about 700 stations. About 150 stations with a 30-minute weekend program and we hope to continue to expand that.
JANET: Describe the things on this program, is it news features, is it one thirty-minute segment on a particular story, or is it shorter stories cut together?
ATUL: It’s news and news and events that are happening. It’s not real time news so we’re not doing updates like CNN is doing, but a feature runs five to six minutes. So we had just before, to give you a few examples, an interview that we recorded with Mike Appenelli (???), the founder of Youth Specialties who passed away. We were fortunate to get that interview a couple of weeks before his accident and we aired that. We had an interview with a lady who is in Iran right now and has literally set up a small orphanage in her tent that she’s living in with these kids who’ve lost their parents; we had an interview with her. We’ve had interviews with young boys in the Dominican Republic who had been abused and to bring their story to life and how little has been done to protect them, and to give them the light that God promises them fulfillness of life. So we’ll have real fascinating – we’re off to a pretty good start.
JANET: It sounds interesting. What would you say is the largest need that World Vision has right now?
ATUL: The greatest need of the world today and our largest focus is on the greatest need. The greatest need in the world today is widows and orphans with the HIV epidemic. I think the numbers are so large that they are beyond comprehension. Documented deaths because of HIV and AIDS are somewhere in the 27 to 35 million all ready. The number of children who have lost one or both parents is somewhere in the region of 10 to 12 million. About 2010 which is not so far, six years from now, the estimates are 40 million kids around the world will have lost one or both parents. So we have not as a community of people I believe seen the living like this. And there are, to be very honest with you, there are no institutions in the world that are capable of managing a crisis of this magnitude. And that leads you to the next question obviously is, who is capable of managing, and I’m delighted to tell you that I know the answer to that one. It is God who’s capable of managing it. And God works through people. And it’s God’s people that have the abilities that God’s going to use over the centuries of how He’s going to respond to this crisis. So it really is, I think, incumbent on the Christian community both here and everywhere around the world to respond to the needs of the widows and orphans. Earlier on with Moses in the Old Testament again talking about what God’s commandment is to the people of Israel and how they are to conduct themselves with the widows. It’s so clear that we are called to a ministry of compassion, to a ministry of pursuit of reaching out to those who have nothing.
And that’s the crisis that World Vision’s involved in. We have programs currently that are focused on orphans, wonderful children, in eight sub-Saharan countries which are highest hit by AIDS. Essentially we are doing three things. Number one: prevention. Children who are five to fifteen years old need to be taught their Biblical values, they need to be taught how they’re going to protect themselves from possibility of infection. Clearly that relates to what choices they’re going to make and how they live their lives. So we are rolling out educational programs in these countries. The second is care. You have to care for both those who are infected and those that are inflicted.
I was talking to a mother of a daughter in an African village awhile back. She’s HIV positive, her husband’s passed away. I asked her, I said, “What is it that I can pray for you?” You know I didn’t know what she was going to respond and she said pray for my children pray for, well her heart was broken down but we have food and so on. Her response shocked me in hindsight that is the whole prayer she said, “Pray for that God gives me long to life so I can look after my children and bring them up.” And she had four kids, the oldest is ten the youngest is two. Absolutely that’s the care you have to care for all of those infected. As well we have to care for the caregivers, the grandmothers and the aunts and the uncles that are looking after these kids. I’ve sat across a mud floor staring into their eyes holding hands of a 97-year-old great grandmother who got seventeen great grandchildren that she’s looking after. She’s the only surviving adult. So you know, what are we called to do. All these people look after the kids, but we also have care for the great grandmother and figure out how we’re going to give her help in that situation. And the answer is it’s not World Vision that’s going to give her help, but the community that she’s part of. So how do we get the community engaged, how do we get them the resources so they can look after her, the kids, and so on. So that’s the second part the care.
The third is what we call advocacy. Which has got to do with the raising, the ability of the poor, of the people that we serve, raising their voice in their own country so they can fight for their rights. Why do I say that? If you’re gonna pause and say oh here’s Atul talking about fighting for their rights, he’s an activist. Sure, I’m an activist. And you would be one too if you realized when these children’s parents die, in most cases what happens is their relatives or their neighbors come in and occupy the family home and family land. That’s the only asset these kids have. Perhaps they have nothing. They have no material possessions they have no social security, they have no medical, they have no running water, they have no electricity. All that they have is the little plot of land and the little mud hut they live in and they till the land to grow the food they use to survive. And when their parents die that land gets occupied illegally. So we have to figure out a way to stop that from happening.
The same thing happens in many cases when the husband dies is that the relatives would come and throw the mother and kids out. Or even worse in some countries the practice is the wife of the person who passed away she becomes the property, if you will, of his relatives. How could you let that happen? Did God intend for His creation to be cheated and abused like that; absolutely not did God intend for His children whether they are in Africa or here in the United States to live a life that is surrounded by badness. Absolutely not. So that’s where, how do you get these children, the moms, to recognize that they have rights, they have that society has a duty towards them to get them to a point where they can fight for that and stop this from happening. So that’s the third part of it. Those are essentially the three things that we do: Prevention, let’s stop the infection from spreading, Care, let’s make sure we are taking care of the folks who are there. And then the third one Advocacy.
In all these three if you think about it, the problem with HIV and why it is spreading so rapidly is in poor countries is it is linked to poverty. It is that the poor who have very little money because of the poverty chose to act, are exposed to lifestyles that spread the infection. And once it happens when the breadwinner falls ill, what little possessions they have go towards the needs of the person who’s ill at home. The children who might have been going to school no longer have the money to go to school. And slowly the deterioration starts and when in the poverty it becomes even worse off because of the illness. And by the time all this has ended and the mother or father has passed away, the family has gone from having something to having nothing. And so we have to address and when we address HIV/AIDS the root causes of poverty, we have to make sure that the family have the ability to own a decent wage. That they have the ability to get a good education, they have access to clean water, they have access to basic health, they can grow up to lead fulfilling lives right there in their own community.
And that’s the work that we do and it’s work that can only be done when you’re engaged with the community over the long-term. This is not where World Vision is not a parachute brigade. We go in and parachute our folks in, we parachute the supplies in, we take care of the problem, and the truck comes and picks us up and off we go. We are absolutely the opposite in many senses. We are a nursing brigade, if you will. We show up, we’re here to serve you, we’re here because God loves you and He compels us, His love for us compel us. So we’re here to love you and to tell you that He loves you, and we are here in servitude as long as it takes. We engage with the communities that we serve for five, ten, fifteen, twenty years. The objective is that sometime we are going to leave the community but our whole purpose is to get the community to realize that they have tremendous amounts of strengths and assets and the gifts, the talents, and skills that God’s given them, we bring something from the outside, but really the folks that are there do. And we’re gonna be on a journey together where they can lead good, solid, fulfilling lives and our hope and our prayer is that all the people of God all around the world just can lead those lives to the fullness that He promises. And our hope and our prayer is that we as Christians will get to witness that and be able to sing, “Hallelujah!”
JANET: Wonderful, I thank you so much for your time and really appreciate the chance to hear your heart and see the compassion that you have.