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Talking Leadership with Dr. Wess Stafford

CLA President and CEO Tami Heim recently interviewed Dr. Wess Stafford, president and CEO of Compassion International.

Stafford, an internationally recognized advocate for impoverished children, is the author of Too Small to Ignore and Just a Minute. He has announced his upcoming retirement after 35 years of service at Compassion, including the past 19 as president. He joined the staff of Compassion in 1977 and has served as president since 1993. At the time of this Outcomes interview, Compassion was in the process of selecting Stafford’s successor as president.

Founded in 1952, Compassion International is one of the world’s largest Christian child development agencies, partnering with more than 60 denominations and thousands of local churches to serve more than one million children in 26 countries  (

Could you reflect a bit on your leadership as Compassion’s president?

My earliest role at Compassion was as our representative in Haiti, probably the poorest country in our hemisphere. It allowed me to see what poverty does to children. I saw the strategic importance of the church. I felt the spiritual battle over each child. I saw the hope that a sponsor from across the world could bring into a little Haitian slum by letters and words of encouragement. In retrospect, that experience started me at the “top” of the organization.

I held many other positions before becoming president in 1993. I was associate director of this and assistant manager of that, occupying little cubicles along the way. I didn’t seek leadership. I fought for organizational excellence, and to my surprise, leadership found me. If it had required political savvy or manipulating relationships, I doubt I ever would have become president.

My path to becoming Compassion’s president leads back to the Ivory Coast, where I grew up in a little village, the son of missionary parents. I was raised by a village of poverty-stricken — but remarkably courageous, loving, and joyful — people. They shaped my heart, values, and worldview. I often say that I learned everything I needed to know to lead this worldwide ministry from the poor in that little village in Africa.

I have led Compassion with vision, passion, and energy because of God’s calling. It’s the sweet spot of what God created me to do. If Compassion hadn’t existed when I came here 35 years ago, I would have needed to start it because it aligns with my life experience and understanding of God and his kingdom priorities. My passion and calling are to minister to the poor, to speak for those who can’t speak for themselves, to be a champion for children, and to servant to serve the church. Compassion brought all that together.

That God would entrust me with leadership of Compassion is humbling. I don’t take it for granted. Even after 19 years as president, I often feel like a little boy sitting in his daddy’s pickup truck, waiting for someone to poke his head in the door and say, “Hey, what are you doing in there?” I have been successful because of God’s calling, faithfulness, and grace.

How do you equip Compassion’s next leader to serve well?

My job is to commit to the success of my successor. I have lived with succession on my mind for the last five to six years, including mentoring candidates who might succeed me. From the minute our Board selects my successor, I will do anything necessary to help them to succeed.

For Compassion, my leadership chapter has been one of growth, respect, and influence in the broader kingdom of God. The Chronicle of Philanthropy came out with a report just last October of America’s 100 largest nonprofit organizations. They pointed out that Compassion made that list in 2004 at number 86, and today, just eight years later, we’re at number 23. That kind of growth makes an organization visible. We have grown to 1.4 million sponsored children. The budget has grown to more than $600 million. That’s an exciting chapter, but it’s only one chapter.

A leader who does not replace himself with someone better suited for the next chapter has not properly served the organization. You don’t have to look very far to see how succession, when poorly done, derails organizations. Succession, even done well, dominates the psyche of an organization for as long as a decade.

Compassion had only done this three times before I came along.

But in our 60 years, God has always brought us the right person for the next chapter, even though we didn’t know fully what the next chapter would require.


 The article was featured in Outcomes Magazine Spring 2013. Since this interview was published, Compassion International has announced its new president, Santiago (Jim) Mellado.


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Christian Leadership Alliance equips and unites leaders to transform the world for Christ. We are the leaders of Christ-centered organizations who are dedicated to faithful stewardship for greater kingdom impact.

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