by Rebekah Rombom '08
“Essentially everyone who works here could be making more money somewhere else,” Curt Welling ’71 says of the organization he now runs.
Welling, who in addition to his Bachelor’s degree from Dartmouth has a law degree and an MBA, is now the President and CEO of AmeriCares, a nonprofit organization that provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid within the United States and abroad.
“You have this extraordinarily high level of alignment in terms of goals and reason for being here, from top to bottom in the organization.”
Welling joined AmeriCares in 2002 after a long career in securities and investment banking, but the English major’s career aspirations – which have morphed into and melded with his life aspirations – were far from concrete when he graduated from Dartmouth. After a year in military training, Welling decided the army wasn’t for him and went to Vanderbilt Law. He then returned to Hanover and spent two years earning his MBA at the Tuck School of Business before embarking upon a career in corporate finance.
“I’ve been fortunate in my life that I’ve been in places where there’s been a dramatic dynamic of change,” he says, “and change creates opportunities for young people. There was nobody who’d been in the business 20 years who could walk into a meeting and pretend they knew more than you did.”
During his more than two decades in the private sector, Welling was President and CEO of SG Cowen Securities and Princeton eCom Corporation, an electronic billing and payment company. Welling also held top positions at Credit Suisse First Boston and Bear Stearns.
While he says working for a nonprofit is a different experience, Welling maintains that the leadership skills are transferable.
"There are some things that are generic to being a chief executive," he says. "Those things, conceptually, don't change. They change in application."
In implementation and goal-setting, though, AmeriCares represents a new kind of job for Welling.
"What's quite different about the nonprofit world is how you define and measure success; the task of measuring success is a more sophisticated and subtle one," he says, that deals with much more than quarterly earnings reports.
At AmeriCares, Welling divides his time roughly into thirds: a third goes to strategy and planning, another third to the companies and individuals who supply AmeriCares with resources, and a third to management of the organization itself.
"Everybody who walks in the door here every day comes here primarily because they believe in the mission and they want to do what they can to help people," Welling says. "That has a way of centering the organization. Whenever you get into a debate with anybody, you can at least agree on your core objective...it eliminates a lot of difficult dynamics of power and politics."
Welling stresses the importance of communication in his field – “you can’t overcommunicate the mission,” he says – along with realistic assessments of situations, especially in third world countries that lack on-the-ground infrastructures so common in the U.S. Wherever possible, AmeriCares partners with local organizations to implement aid programs and distribute supplies.
While AmeriCares provides disaster relief, Welling says that the organization has been allocating significant resources to aid in manmade crises like the Darfur genocide.
“Increasingly in the last five years we’ve been spending more and more time thinking about what’s involved in responding to these crises. Sadly, we think we’re in a world where there are likely to be more and more of them.”
With almost infinite demand for the types of services AmeriCares provides, Welling has found himself amid an operating model different from those in the finance industry.
“We know that as much of our ‘product’ as we can create we can distribute, because our product is humanitarian systems. That’s the biggest difference for me, is operating in a world where demand is infinite and supply is the constraint.”
Because AmeriCares relies on donors for supplies, the organization expends significant energy courting those donors. Welling uses some of the same sales strategies that proved successful in the for-profit world, such as “solution-oriented selling,” to encourage donations.
In addition to the practical, day-to-day problems involved with running any business, Welling and his employees contend with the much more nebulous problem of working in a field where the need for their products and services is so large and so fundamental.
“It’s intellectually and emotionally quite challenging,” he says. “You have to keep reminding yourself that one person can only do what one person can do.”
“The reason I’m here is that I thought I could help this organization institutionally, so that the organization could help more people…so one of the ways I get satisfaction is when I look back and say, we now have the capability to do something we couldn’t do two years ago.”
Welling has been an active volunteer in nonprofit organizations throughout his entire career, and now says that he can see himself working at AmeriCares indefinitely; the prospect of retirement just doesn’t appeal to him.
“I’m personally comfortable with change, so it’s never been a problem for me to think about moving from one organization to another or taking on a task,” he says.
Becoming more involved in the nonprofit sector had been one of Welling’s goals for some time.
“You have a life list of things, and you get to a point in your life where you either have to do them or cross them off. I’m pretty much reconciled to the fact that I’m not going to be a concert pianist, but I still have on my list the ability to learn how to play the Moonlight Sonata,” he says. “There was this moment of clarity when I realized that I needed to take some time and do this.”
And his current job has its rewards.
“There isn’t anything with more impact than, ‘Thank you Mr. AmeriCares, you saved my child.’ You don’t get that every day, in fact you get it only a few times a year, but it’s got a long half-life.”
Last Updated: 6/21/12