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5 Questions for...Michael Nyenhuis, President and CEO, UNICEF USA

October 22, 2020

UNICEF — the United Nations Children's Fund — is probably best known to Americans of a certain age for the orange trick-or-treat boxes it has been distributing to young trick-or-treaters since the 1950s. The successor to the International Children's Emergency Fund, which was created in 1946 to address the needs of children and mothers affected by the far-reaching devastation of World War II, the social welfare organization today works to improve the lives and defend the rights of children in a hundred and ninety-two countries and territories. 

Recently, PND spoke with Michael Nyenhuis, president and CEO of UNICEF USA, a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization established in 1947 to support UNICEF's work on behalf of the world's children, about the organization's historic decision to allocate funding and resources to help a handful of cities in the United States become more child-friendly, what it is doing to adapt its Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF campaign to our new COVID reality, and his advice to nonprofits trying to make their message heard in a very noisy world.

Headshot_michael_nyenhuisPhilanthropy News Digest: You joined UNICEF USA as president in March, after the World Health Organization had declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Given your experience in the humanitarian aid and development field, what were your immediate concerns for the organization?

Michael Nyenhuis: There were two. One was our ability to respond to COVID effectively around the world. UNICEF has done a terrific job of delivering personal protective equipment to forty million healthcare workers in some of the neediest countries and providing critical wash and sanitation supplies for seven and a half million people in countries that don't have the infrastructure we have here in the United States. We've all seen how challenged our response in the U.S. was, so you can imagine how much more difficult it is in far less resourced places, but, as I say, UNICEF did a terrific job of responding to the crisis in the short term.

My other concern was the impact of the pandemic on the critical health and education and nutrition programs that UNICEF operates around the world. We provide basic vaccines for 45 percent of the world's children, and yet our ability to deliver those vaccines and get kids vaccinations when they need them was compromised by the shutdowns and disruptions to supply chains. We're still seeing the impacts. There are a billion and a half kids out of school around the globe, and most of them lack the technology to access a curriculum. It's those kinds of basic programs for children, which UNICEF, under normal circumstances, provides so effectively, that were interrupted by the virus. And the question was, and is, "How do you to take meaningful measures to stem the spread of COVID and at the same time keep those programs going?"

PND: Clearly, there are COVID-related needs everywhere. In August, your organization announced that, for the first time in its history, it would allocate funding and resources to help cities in the United States become more child-friendly. The initial cohort of cities includes Houston, Minneapolis, and San Francisco. What was the reasoning behind the decision to devote resources to the U.S, and was the inclusion of Minneapolis in the initial cohort connected to the killing of George Floyd and the protests sparked by his killing?

MN: Actually, the idea of UNICEF USA working more directly on children's issues here in the United States has been simmering for some time, and the decision to go ahead wasn’t just a response to recent events. Our tagline at UNICEF is "for every child," and for some time now we've been thinking about the needs of vulnerable kids in some of the wealthier countries that typically provide a large portion of the resources for UNICEF programs globally.

UNICEF also has a framework called "Child-Friendly Cities" that it has used effectively in communities around the world, over three thousand of them to date, where we work with municipalities to help them develop child-friendly policies and programs and think about how they're using their budgets and resources to positively impact children. We started to see that as an opportunity here in the U.S. as well.

So, all that had been going on behind the scenes, and then more recent events, COVID in particular, really ended up shining a light on the needs of kids in underprivileged communities and communities of color here in the U.S. that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID. The racial justice issues that came to the fore after the killing of George Floyd simply accelerated our plan to move forward with the Child Friendly Cities Initiative, and that's what we've been doing.

We actually had a meeting last year with officials from cities that were interested in the initiative, and Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Houston were among those cities. They also happen to be cities we were already in conversation with, so the fact that Minneapolis is one of the first cities to work with us is more coincidental than anything, but I think the timing is fortuitous.

PND: With whom will you be working in those cities?

MN: Well, typically we work with the department in the mayor's office or city government that is responsible for child-focused programs in the community. Sometimes that's the health department, sometimes it's the education department, sometimes it’s a combination. And our work with them is based on looking at the policies they’ve developed that impact children and making sure they are child-friendly. If we feel they aren't, we have templates they can use and different ways for them to think about modifying, adding, or adopting those policies to more effectively promote healthy, productive, and safe environments for children in their communities.

Beyond that, our efforts to convene public-sector agencies and child-serving not-for-profits focused on improving conditions for kids — especially vulnerable kids — and get them talking about how they can work together to make sure kids have the things they need to thrive often serves as a catalyst for more effective programming. I'm talking about things like equitable access to health care and a more equitable distribution of parks and playgrounds where kids can play safely. We're in conversation with dozens of cities that have expressed interest in the initiative, and our aspirational goal is for every community across the country to develop child-friendly programs aligned with our framework, because, again, it's a tested and proven approach to making communities more safe, secure, and healthy for children.

PND: Most Americans know UNICEF from its orange Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF boxes. Obviously, Halloween is going to look different this year. What percentage of your annual fundraising revenue is tied to Halloween, and what are you doing to adapt to our new COVID reality?

MN: Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF is an iconic part of the fall fundraising season here in the United States, and millions of kids have been involved in it over the seventy years we've run the program. Over that time, we've raised $180 million for programs that impact kids around the world. But beyond the money, it is a program that engages kids when they're young and helps them think about the globe in a different way and recognize that they are global citizens who can do something to make a difference for other children in other places who may not be as fortunate.

I Trick-or-Treated for UNICEF when I was a kid, and it really made me understand that the world was bigger than my neighborhood and that there were children in faraway places who didn't have the things I was lucky to have and had needs I could hardly imagine. No doubt, it’s one of the things that led me to humanitarian and development work. And, you know, I speak all the time to supporters of UNICEF who had their first exposure to the organization through our Trick-or-Treat boxes. So, the program is bigger than just what we're able to raise every year, although it is an important part of our budget. It's really about creating global citizens who are going to be interested in other people, other countries, and global causes the rest of their lives.

You won't be surprised to hear that this year we're pivoting because of the COVID crisis to a virtual trick-or-treat experience. And what we've cooked up is really pretty amazing and is going to be fun for kids to participate in. Kids who sign up will get to track how much they raise through their own virtual trick-or-treat box and decide where they want their money to go — we'll give them several options for how the money they raise can be invested to help other kids around the world. To learn more and register, just go to trickortreatforunicef.org.

PND: Excellent. As a former journalist, do you have any advice for nonprofit communications professionals who may be struggling to get their message heard at this very, very noisy time?

MN: I don't know that it's advice, but what I would tell people is that the challenges we are experiencing here in the U.S., whether it's COVID or racial injustice or a dysfunctional political system, are challenges that people in other countries are also experiencing. Take South Sudan, for instance. I was having a conversation with our team there a couple of weeks ago, and all the pre­cautions we are taking here to prevent and slow the spread of COVID — masking and social distancing and delaying the start of schools — all those things are happening in South Sudan, too. But even though there are similarities, the depth of the need and the capacity needed to recover from something like COVID in a place like South Sudan is very, very different. So, while it can be useful to draw parallels, let's not lose sight of the reality in really resource-poor countries, and let's not forget that people in those countries need our help as much as they ever did.

— Mitch Nauffts

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