Kathy Bushkin Calvin / UN Foundation

Peer to Pier: Conversations with fellow travelers

Kathy Bushkin Calvin, 60, is the Chief Executive Officer of the United Nations Foundation. The UN Foundation, a public charity, was created in 1998 with entrepreneur and philanthropist Ted Turner’s historic $1 billion gift to support UN causes and activities. Among the UN Foundation’s priorities are decreasing child mortality, empowering women and girls, and protecting diverse cultures and environments. Prior to joining the UN Foundation, Kathy served as President of the AOL Time Warner Foundation. She joined America Online in 1997 as Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer.

I worked for Kathy during part of her 12-year tenure as the Director of Editorial Administration for U.S. News & World Report. She had joined the magazine’s staff after serving as Senator Gary Hart’s press secretary in his Senate office from 1976 through his 1984 Presidential campaign. I was only a couple of years out of college at the time, and Kathy wasn’t a whole lot older than me. Her energy, enthusiasm, sense of humor, and can-do attitude made a great impression on me.

It was a treat to re-connect with Kathy and I think you’ll enjoy her views on the power of collaboration, the desire to make a difference, the gifts of curiosity and timing, and the importance of listening.


Meg: The UN Foundation is described as a platform for connecting people, ideas and resources to help the United Nations solve global problems. Can you give me a couple of concrete examples of how such connections successfully solved specific problems, on both an organizational and individual level?

Kathy Bushkin Calvin with bannerKathy: A favorite example is from our “Nothing but Nets” campaign to help end malaria. It started with the power of one person, a Sports Illustrated columnist, who saw a documentary about how malaria kills 300,000 children a year—yet it has been eradicated in the U.S. He challenged his readers to join him in helping end malaria by sending $10 to send a net and save a life. He turned to us because we had a successful program of delivering bed nets along with measles vaccinations. When he raised $75,000 overnight, we knew there had to be lots of people waiting to be given a chance to help, so we created the campaign, using the name of his column. It has since raised more than $30 million from over 120,000 people—mostly in small donations and many from young people. Our star performer is an eight-year-old girl from Pennsylvania who has raised more than $100,000 at her school and church, but the campaign also connects Lutherans and Methodists, fans of the National Basketball Assn. and Major League Soccer, the Boy Scouts and others.

Uniting GirlsAnother example is going to be our campaign to connect “tween” girls in this country with their counterparts around the world. Called “Girl Up: Uniting Girls to Change the World,” it will give them the chance to learn, get involved and give, and funds will support UN programs for adolescent girls in four countries to start with and eventually more.

Meg: The U N Foundation identifies its primary goals as advocacy, partnerships, constituency building and fund-raising. These are forms of “connecting.” How do you personally define the term “connecting”?

Kathy: I really believe in the power of collaboration: two heads are better than one, we can all do more than any of us can, etc. Almost every organization I am part of works because of collaboration. I will only take a board chair if it shared with someone else as co-chair. I believe in sharing and giving away credit, and I always say yes when someone asks for help. It all comes back in multiples. And all the partnerships the UN Foundation does are based on collaboration—sharing what each party has to offer to add up to a greater whole.

Meg: You have spent more than a decade working in philanthropy. Some people struggle with the concept of doing well by doing good, or the notion of “sacred livelihood.” Your thoughts?

Kathy Calvin with localsKathy: I have never been a fan of the term “doing well by doing good” although it is a proven truism and reflects the Rotary motto that “he who serves best, profits most.” What I don’t like about it is that it misses the point that doing good has other benefits and values besides helping you do well—it helps others, our planet, our own growth as individuals. But it does work to convince some people that doing good doesn’t pose a choice against doing well—you will likely benefit because in fact it will get to the core of what you do. I think the future will not have such fine lines between philanthropy and business or doing well and doing good. More companies will incorporate into their core business connection to their communities and world; more philanthropies will take on a bottom line approach to their work. We’ll live in a hybrid world instead of either/or.

Meg: You must travel extensively in your work for the U N Foundation —could you describe two or three trips that were particularly eye-opening, and share what the “lesson” was, either about others, or yourself?

Kathy Calvin at eventKathy: I am fortunate that I have been able to see the UN’s work on the ground. I was in Haiti in mid-February, just a month after the massive earthquake leveled most of Port au Prince. It was heartbreaking to see the devastation, the loss of life, the living conditions, and the desperation. But there was hope among the heartbreak. The Haitians have a remarkable resilience. The market was already up and running, shoes were being shined, and food was being sold. The UN people were remarkable as well: their building was demolished and more than 100 of their colleagues and families died, but they were working around the clock, sleeping between the fax machine and the computer, helping deliver food, tents, latrines, and peace.

Three years ago, at the beginning of our malaria work, I visited Senegal, a country where the death toll has been quite high. But the Senegalese were taking charge of educating themselves about how malaria is spread, demanding bed nets and teaching others how to use them. We visited several villages where there was no school or health facility, but the nets were getting delivered and used.

I learned that poor people are by and large smarter than most of us. They have to be resourceful, persistent and collaborative to survive. I found that I was not sure I could do half as well.

Meg: I find that expectations —of myself or others —can sometimes create misunderstandings. One of the reasons I love to travel is that it causes me to challenge my expectations. You must find yourself in all kinds of different situations. Can you speak to your experience with “expectations?”

Kathy in ChinaKathy: I found my recent trip to China challenged just about everything I thought I knew. We took the UN Foundation Board there in the fall of 2009, and I took some private vacation time as well. I was amazed how China is both the past and the future simultaneously and that it is absolutely charting a course ahead without regard to the US as a major super power. The people were friendly, ambitious, complex and numerous! I thought this was going to be my one and only trip to China in my lifetime, but after two weeks, I was convinced I’d need to return many times to understand it and our own future.

I was intrigued how the Cultural Revolution thirty years ago is shaping the next generation of Chinese leadership. Although Mao is still revered in ways that surprise us in the West —even though most of his views have been rejected —the experience left people in their 40’s to 60’s with experiences not unlike the effect of the Great Depression in this country. We also learned the next generation of leaders will be lawyers and the like —not technocrats and engineers. Their modernism and ability to see the future —and their role in it —was astonishing. America needs to pay attention.

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