Taking nothing for granted

Story by : Susan Fotovich McCabe

Jim Cook
CEO, Children International
Company Profile: Children International is a nonprofit humanitarian organization that works to help impoverished children around the world through sponsorships providing health and educational materials and emotional aid.

Born and raised in the agricultural town of Sabetha, Kansas, and then educated as an accountant at the University of Kansas, local businessman Jim Cook takes pride in putting both his early life and education to work for Children International as its CEO.

Based in Kansas City and established in 1936, Children International is a nonprofit humanitarian organization whose programs benefit nearly 340,000 children and families in 11 countries: Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Mexico, Zambia, Honduras, India, the Philippines and the United States.

Cook, who says his accounting background prepared him to run the organization like a business, got primed for his executive position with Children International by serving on its board of directors. What he wasn’t prepared for, he says, was the poverty he would witness firsthand when traveling to the Philippines to meet the children the organization serves.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Cook says. “I saw things I had never seen before. It’s a slice of life most people never see.”

The best insight Cook says he can give as to the conditions of these poor communities is to think about living without the things we take for granted—like running water from the kitchen faucet, gas or electric stoves for cooking and even school supplies.

Cook travels about six times a year to the countries served by Children International. Each time, his wife pulls together products from Kansas City, like Zum Bar soaps from Indigo Wild, Gates Bar-B-Q sauce and Andre’s chocolates to distribute to the kids and staff.

Children International employs fundraising strategies that include face-to-face and direct mail efforts to seek individual sponsorships of children at $25 per month, as well as larger appeals to individuals who have funded the construction of entire community centers in impoverished communities.

And though fundraising was impacted by the down U.S. economy three years ago, Cook says people in the Midwest and throughout the country represent giving at its best. Of every dollar Children International raises, 83 percent goes to help children of poverty.

“My favorite quote from my predecessor, Joseph Gripkey, is, ‘It’s hard to raise money, but even harder to give it away effectively,’” Cook says. “This is a business, and our product is helping people. We have an obligation to be good stewards of the money we raise.”

Cook’s time in Sabetha is no comparison to the plight of children in the countries Children International serves. But the strenuous physical labor of farming and the sense of community he shared early in his life were a perfect backdrop to what he sees when he travels, he says.

“In Sabetha, my dream when I was putting up hay was to sit under a shade tree and sip lemonade. That’s still on my bucket list,” he says. “Despite the awful conditions of these communities, the people have the same work ethic and positive outlook as do the people right here in the Midwest.”

It’s all in business
Children International CEO Jim Cook says the nonprofit organization’s success rests on its philosophy of operating like a for-profit business. Strategies he says contribute to the company’s success include:
• Children International puts everything to a test to determine the most effective way of doing things. “If a fundraising letter is successful, we’ll measure the impact and repeat the strategy,” Cook says. “I’ve been accused of having an all-confusing tendency to measure everything.”
• “We strive to reduce expenses whenever and wherever we can,” he says. “For example, we print everything in-house with our own printing equipment. It saves us 20 percent.”
• “When the economy challenges efforts to gain new sponsors, stay very engaged with existing sponsors,” he says. “They’ll never let you down.”