When Carolyn Miles (MBA ’88), president and CEO of Save the Children, joined the nonprofit in 1998, she never thought she’d stay for so long. “But there is absolutely nothing I would rather be doing than running this organization,” said Miles, who became Save the Children’s first female CEO in 2011.
After graduating from Darden in 1988, Miles worked for American Express, first in New York City and then in Hong Kong. She then teamed up with Darden classmate Tom Neir (MBA ’88) to help develop a successful chain of coffee shops across Asia called the Pacific Coffee Company, which they later sold to a Chinese investor.
The Catalyst: A Mother and Child
During her travels in Asia, Miles was routinely confronted by the endemic deprivation faced by millions of children. She describes a life-changing experience in the Philippines: “My family and I were at a stoplight, and a poor woman came up to the car to beg. She had a baby boy in her arms, and I was sitting with my son Patrick in my arms,” Miles recalled. “Patrick was about six or seven months old. The woman’s baby didn’t look nearly as healthy as mine did, but he was about the same age, and we looked at each other through the window. She never did knock, but at that moment, I had the realization that there are millions of children who are growing up in the world that have absolutely no opportunity for a better life, for no other reason than that they are born into poverty.”
At that moment, Miles knew she wanted to dedicate her life to helping the world’s children and to providing them with hope for a better life.
“Although I knew nothing about nonprofits, I had the sense that, with the training I had, there had to be something of value I could do for a nonprofit organization,” said Miles, who has three children with her husband and fellow Darden graduate Brendan Miles (MBA ’88).
When the family moved back to the United States, to Connecticut, in 1998, a Darden alumnus introduced Miles to a staff member at Save the Children. She took a marketing position with the organization, applying the experience she had gained at American Express and through her Asian startup to help the nonprofit with its direct-response television and direct mail campaigns, bringing in new donors. In 2004, Miles became Save the Children’s COO and executive vice president, and in September 2011, she moved into her current role as president and CEO.
During her tenure, the organization has more than doubled the number of children it reaches with nutrition, health, education and other programs. She has helped grow its budget from $250 million to more than $670 million today.
Making Sure the Story is Told
“Increasing awareness about children in need is a crucial part of my job,” said Miles. “In addition to the support we provide every single day, we are documenting what is happening to kids. For example, 6.3 million kids still die every year of things we can prevent, such as pneumonia, malaria and diarrhea. Part of our work is to make sure people know what the facts are.”
As she travels to refugee camps and impoverished areas in some of the 120 counties where Save the Children works, Miles chronicles her interactions with children in her blog, Logging Miles.
As CEO, she has emphasized the need to use social media and new technology to extend the organization’s reach and fully engage with Save the Children’s employees, volunteers, beneficiaries, donors and partners, as well as others around the world. She has also built partnerships with other organizations — public, private, nonprofit and for-profit — to cooperate and share resources and expertise for the benefit of the world’s children.
For example, in November, Save the Children and Johnson & Johnson hosted the second annual benefit gala to increase awareness of the nonprofit’s national early childhood education programs and child survival work to honor its supporters. Actress Jennifer Garner, one of the organization’s most devoted advocates, co-hosted the event. Garner serves as an Artist Ambassador — along with such other celebrities as Julianne Moore, Rachel Zoe and Cristiano Ronaldo.
In addition to working with Save the Children, Miles serves on numerous boards for non-governmental organizations and entities that support nonprofits. An active and devoted Darden alumni volunteer, she serves on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees and is chair of the Branding, Marketing and Communication Committee.
Leadership Lessons from the Syrian Conflict
In fall 2013, Carolyn Miles addressed students, faculty, staff and visitors at Darden as part of the School’s Leadership Speaker Series. She explained that Save the Children is working to provide humanitarian aid to the 2 million Syrian refugees, 1 million of whom are children. She shared the lessons she has learned while leading her team through this conflict.
- Leaders need to understand the challenges their teams face on the front lines.
Nothing can take the place of you being on the ground with the people you’re trying to help. You must know what the challenges are and work at the highest level possible to make those challenges easier for your team.
- Leaders need a flexible strategy.
In Syria, our strategy has changed quite a bit. We have to supply immediate support, but we also have to make sure people know what’s going on to try and influence the longer-term political solution. There’s a lot more awareness in the United States now about what’s going on, sadly because of the chemical weapons attack on Syrian citizens. This has given us an important opportunity to talk about the humanitarian situation. In addition to the 400+ children who were gassed during the chemical attacks, 15,000 Syrian children have been killed in the past four years during this conflict. Our role is not to say what we want to do politically or militarily. It is to be a witness to what is happening to children and making sure people know the facts.
- Leaders need to forge partnerships.
When you are in a crisis, it is incredibly important to reach out to others who can help you. Who do you work with or know that you could get to support the work you do? For us, it could be the United Nations Human Refugee Council, the UN agency that works with refugees and is on the ground with us in the camps; or it could be our board members, many of whom are corporate leaders. Partnerships are the only way you’re going to move your strategy ahead.