Up Close: Charles MacCormack
The outgoing CEO of Save the Children looks at a lifetime of worldwide change
Photo By Mark Schomer
For Charles F. MacCormack, it is not enough to be a glass-is-half-full kind of guy. He tends to see the glass as “more than half full.” Ask the outgoing head of Save the Children U.S. if he ever grows angry at the sights he has witnessed in his travels to some of the most desperate places on Earth, and he will tell you of all the progress that’s been made these past forty years. Ask him if he ever becomes disheartened as new threats emerge, from HIV/AIDS to global warming, and he’ll tell you that we’re solving problems quicker than they’re being added. Then ask him of the dangers he’s skirted in countries where wars have been raging, and he’ll tell you of the threats close to home. “Two or three people were hit by fallen trees on the Merritt Parkway in the last month,” he says. “When your time comes, it comes.”
“Charlie,” as he is known to heads of state, celebrities, and everyday people the world over, is closing out an eighteen-year career as president and chief executive officer of the far-reaching humanitarian organization. On September 1, Carolyn Miles, the Westport-based charity’s chief operating officer and a trusted lieutenant, takes over the top job.
From the outset, MacCormack’s goal was to reach more kids, or in the vernacular of his trade, “increase the scale of our impact.” At the same time, he wanted to make sure that the changes Save the Children implemented would last, and that they were delivered within a broad framework rather than at random. “We were doing a lot of good work,” he remembers. “But it was not strategic enough in terms of changing conditions around the world.”
Given his success, it is understandable that MacCormack is sanguine. From health and education programs to disaster relief, the organization is helping children in 100 countries. Revenues have gone from $86 million when he started in 1993 to $550 million last year. Likewise, the number of worldwide employees rose from 2,500 back then to 6,000, including 700 around the United States, today. All that translates into a lot of good work for youngsters and their families, some 73 million of whom were served by the organization last year.
“Charlie basically wakes up every morning thinking, ‘How can I help children?’ ” says board member Cokie Roberts, the ABC political commentator. “There’s just one metric and that is, ‘Does it help children?’ If the answer is yes, then the next thing is, ‘All right, how do we make it happen?’ ”
Looking back over his tenure, MacCormack says he is proudest of the organization’s contribution to reducing newborn and child mortality, from 14 million child deaths in 1993 to 8 million today.
The toughest part of his job, on the other hand, has been convincing donors, including governments, that though their funding for specific projects, like building schools, is appreciated, long-term success demands that time, attention, and dollars be devoted to the less tangible bigger picture. “Take an issue like reducing newborn mortality,” MacCormack says. “Four million newborns die within the first month, and that happens in thirty or forty different countries. You’ve got to work with each one of them, and work with the ministry of health and the ministry of finance and the schools of midwifery. And you have to do that over the whole range of different countries. That definitely takes time.”
Board member Bill Haber, president of Ostar Enterprises, describes MacCormack as a visionary who easily connects with everyone he meets. “You know who he communicates with best?” he asks. “Seven year olds. He can go from a meeting with [UN Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon to be in Gaza with a seven year old who knows he cares about them. To connect with children on that level is very unusual.”
More than once, MacCormack has found himself at risk as hostilities have broken out in places like Lebanon, Sarajevo, and Albania. “He has no fear about doing whatever he has to do for children,” says Haber. “He has no fear for his own personal life when it comes to children.”
Carolyn Miles, for her part, intends to build on his legacy. Like MacCormack, she’ll be traveling extensively, seeing firsthand the work that’s been done and what is needed. Among other goals, she wants to boost the effectiveness of the group’s efforts. Getting kids into the classroom is an ongoing challenge, for example, but the next step is finding innovative ways to help them learn. Miles, who has a background in business, also wants to update the Save the Children brand, using social media to introduce the public to frontline staffers who are changing and saving lives every day. “That can really change people’s understanding of what the organization does and makes them feel more closely linked to the work,” she says.
MacCormack’s parting advice to his successor is direct: “This is a team sport,” he says. “Get great players. Provide them with lots of support and tools to get the job done. Then let them go out and do what they do so well.”
A few words from Charlie…
Mid-1970s: Stuck in Beirut for a few days, before I was CEO
“It turned out to be the last flight in or out in two or three years. The airport was in the Shiite part of the city but it was blocked off. The office was going to send someone to get me, but when I got off the plane, there was no one there to greet me. I had to beg some people to take me into the city.
“At the hotel where I was supposed to stay at, there was a Save the Children consultant, Fred Cuny (he was murdered ten years later). He and I were the only two people in the hotel. We went over to the office, and it was completely locked up—no one was there. We decided to go down to the basement, because all the windows of the hotel were blown out. This was before cell phones—so we were stuck. We eventually walked over to the Red Cross office and they said the U.N. was going to organize an evacuation by sea. The Swedish navy ended up taking us to Larnaca in Cyprus.”
Mid-1990s: Najeeb Halaby
“King Hussein [of Jordan] presented me with the Medal of Honour. Save the Children Board Chair Najeeb Halaby, former chairman of Pan-Am airlines, accompanied me. We were in the palace for a big ceremony. Another trip with Najeeb was to this very high mountain in Nepal. It was impossible to get to, so we went by helicopter. As we were flying up a valley, a huge fog bank rolled in—we found ourselves about four feet from this sheer mountain wall.”
Late 1990s: Youth in Bosnia
“I remember going back to Bosnia and the city was cut off. Young teenage guys would go off at night and try to get food and medicine and supplies to bring back.”
2004: Malaria in South Sudan, right on the border
“Malaria is endemic in South Sudan, yet the elders in the town Kadugli wanted to have an evening meeting from 7-9:30. I knew that would not be a good idea with all the mosquitos flying around.
“The malaria parasite incubates for several days before it breaks into the bloodstream, so it took four or five days before I knew I had it. I had kind of forgotten about it. I was stopping in London for a Save the Children meeting on the way back, and I woke up around 11 a.m. at the hotel. I was shaking and sweating and parched. I went to get a glass of water and fell on the floor. I could not get up… It took four or five weeks to fully recover. You just have no strength, and there is no mental toughness about malaria. It feels as though you have been starved for a month. It is a really grim disease, and it makes you think about the millions of children dying from it.”
2005: G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland
“Sir Richard Branson of the Virgin Group volunteered to fly me over with [actors] George Clooney and Djimon Hounsou and the ONE Campaign. We flew all night and stayed up all night. They are all very down-to-earth people who are really fun to be with. We held three press conferences in a span of twenty-four hours during that trip.”
“My family and I went down to volunteer over Christmas and New Year’s and lived with all the displaced people from Katrina. There were a couple hundred of us in these old army tents. On Christmas Eve, this man showed up in the camps with a big trunk. He had taken a bus down from Minnesota. He played songs on glasses filled with water. He serenaded us for a couple of hours with Christmas carols. The next day a couple showed up from North Carolina with turkeys and gravy—they made dinner for everyone. I can tell you that the volunteer spirit of America is alive and well.”
“We visited a school to support the children in Japan. There are warning horns for when the waves come, and the children are trained to run up to the roof when they sound. It was a big school, about five stories high with about 1,000 kids. They all rushed to the roof. The water came in at around ten or fifteen feet. Everything went down—the cell phones and all the connections. For two or three days, nobody came for these children. At night they were in complete darkness. The kids decided that the youngest would get the milk and food and they would make do.”
A Career of Change
On a gorgeous evening, friends and family close to Dr. Charles MacCormack gathered at the Inn at Longshore for a moment of celebration. The cocktail reception and dinner was held in honor of “Charlie,” who recently stepped down from his position as CEO of the Westport-based Save the Children. Master of Ceremony duties were handled by journalist Cokie Roberts and trustee Bill Haber. Other speakers included First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, Connecticut First Lady Cathy Malloy, Save the Children Board Chair Anne Mulcahy, Chair Emeritus Thomas S. Murphy, and former Connecticut Representative Christopher Shays. The Fairfield County Children’s Choir performed. In his time with the organization, “the Children’s Champion” worked to provide support, shelter, food, counseling, medical care and more to children, newborns to teens, affected by natural disasters, armed conflict, poverty, and other traumas. “Charlie’s commitment to lifting families out of deep-rooted poverty has inspired all of us,” noted Mulcahy. “Humbly, I am grateful to have been part of his amazing journey.”