Cover Story: Vision 20: In love we serve - Datuk KJ Abraham, CEO of World Vision Malaysia

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 8, 2017 - May 14, 2017.
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Serving as the CEO of World Vision Malaysia (WVM) was not a role Datuk KJ Abraham set out to apply for. A retired civil servant whose career in the Department of Irrigation and Drainage included a stint as the project director for the second half of the Smart Tunnel construction, he was transitioning out of the board of trustees overseeing the Malaysian chapter of the Christian humanitarian organisation — a position he had held since 2003 — when he got roped in as its interim CEO when the position was vacated. After six months with no incumbent in sight, it was suggested that KJ apply for the position, which he did after meeting with partnership leaders at an overseas meeting. He was subsequently appointed CEO on June 1, 2015.

Founded in 1947 with US$5 given by the Rev Dr Bob Pierce to help a little girl in China stay in school, World Vision has grown to be one of the largest humanitarian relief and development organisations in the world with partnership offices in almost 100 countries, spanning five continents. This year, WVM is celebrating its 20th anniversary of working with children and families to overcome extreme poverty and injustice that the love of God for all may be demonstrated, regardless of religion, race, ethnicity or gender.

KJ says, “We started as a small office in 1997 in a house in Taman Tun Dr Ismail with three or four staff. Over 20 years, we’ve come to the stage where much of the funding is going to area development programmes (ADP), numbering 31 in 14 countries. For a small support office with the primary role of fundraising here in Malaysia, to actually raise all these funds has been challenging, yet an achievement in some sense as we are now supporting 57,000 children worldwide. Another milestone is the 30-Hour Famine which we started 20 years ago, with 30,000 young people participating now. We’ve seen that grow to become the largest fundraising event in Malaysia for hunger and poverty. Also, what is notable is that we have been able to keep our overheads down to 15%, which we are proud of as an NGO.”

In the course of attending international partnership meetings, KJ had the opportunity to visit ADPs supported by WVM. At the Moradabad ADP located four hours from New Delhi, WVM has been funding the work in communities there for the last five years. Children and their families are being empowered to achieve self-sustainability through access to clean water, education, nutrition, electricity, healthcare and livelihood opportunities.  Other ADPs that KJ has visited include ones in Indonesia and Lebanon.

“The one in Indonesia was phased out after we had finished 13 years with them. Now they are kind of self-sustaining and it’s wonderful that the government has come and given an assurance that they will also contribute to the programme of making sure that these projects go on.”

Through KJ’s patient and detailed explanation, it is clear that what sets World Vision apart is the long-term commitment of its ADPs to transform communities. Funded mainly through the Child Sponsorship Programme — at RM65 per month for a child from Asian countries or RM80 for a child from non-Asian countries — KJ explains how WVM channels the funds raised to the ADPs: “We have child sponsors, and they may be long term like five to 10 years, or shorter term like two years, but our commitment is, say, for 15 years so that’s a promise to the area we have agreed to sponsor. For example, we may start out sponsoring 3,000 children by area and following the phase of development, we have to send a certain amount of money that we have committed to each year. In a slow economy, sponsors may reconsider continuing their sponsorship despite it being less than RM3 a day to sponsor a child. The challenge is to retain existing sponsors as well as convince new ones to come on board.”

Being an organisation funded entirely by sponsors and donors, KJ says that there is no distinction among them as each is valued. He categorises them into five groups, with the biggest being individual child sponsors, be it from soliciting at malls, friends’ recommendations or from corporate institutions like OCBC, which saw over 100 staff sign-ups at its head office. “We have around 43,000 sponsors and some have even sponsored 200 children each, like an architect from Penang. Even staff of WVM sponsors about 1.5 to 2 children each,” with KJ’s encouragement to set an example.

The next group are corporates like HELP University, which has provided space, support manpower and even scholarships for 30-Hour Famine, of which Sin Chew Daily has also been faithful as a founding partner, while companies like V-Soy sponsor drinks for the event. “The Edge,  in conjunction with the Kuala Lumpur Rat Race, has been contributing to us for the last two years through fundraising done from the CEO Race, with funds raised distributed to various groups, of which WVM is one,” KJ adds. “Lately, the banks have come forward by sending out our fliers to their credit card customers, with UOB coming on board last year. This year, OCBC is getting their employees, on top of their customers, to participate.

“Besides that, media partners and celebrities like Wang Leehom, Lee Sinje and Gary Chaw have stepped up as 30-Hour Famine ambassadors over the years, joining Malaysian youths in the fight against hunger and poverty. Francissca Peter has also been a child sponsorship ambassador for the last 10 years, and Deborah Henry, WVM’s child rights advocate, has also travelled to Lebanon and visited Syrian refugee children during more peaceful times.  Then there are the 10,000 volunteers on WVM’s database with 3,000 active ones. Finally, the fifth group are churches to which WVM reaches out, being a Christian NGO. The Chinese Methodist Church and other churches have also contributed through WVM’s Gifts of Hope for specific projects and also child sponsorships by their members.

In October 2016, World Vision launched a new global strategy called “Our Promise 2030”, which according to KJ,  seeks to place more emphasis on the needs of the world’s most vulnerable children.  World Vision hopes to to accomplish this through an increase in funds allocation towards fragile contexts, where World Vision is presently working. A fragile context is an environment with political, economical or social instability,  such as conflict or disaster areas. Moving forward, KJ says they have to find new ways to raise funds to market this proposition by showing donors how they can support this cause and to convince them that it is worthwhile.

As such, he stresses the importance of making a donor promise to show donors where and how the money they have given will be used, whether it is for ADP,  education and so on. This is to ensure that the organisation remains accountable and is able to maintain its integrity to win the trust of its donors and supporters. World Vision has a mechanism in place to show impact from their programmes via measurements and reporting once a year for individual sponsors, plus an annual progress report and an annual report for the whole of the Malaysian region that is posted on the WVM website.

His parting remarks are not only revelatory wisdom but great practical advice: “Integrity is a big issue, and we have to hold on to that if we want to be distinctive and to be consistent between what we say and what we do. I want to set WVM on a firm footing to be an agile organisation to go through all the challenges in a dynamic world.”