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Q and A

"We are all connected": President George Rupp reflects on his leadership of the IRC

George Rupp will step down at the end of August after 11 years as president of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). “Periodic change is essential for the long-term vitality of institutions and the individuals who lead them,” Rupp wrote last year in a letter to the IRC Board of Directors explaining his decision to leave. 

In their response, Board Co-Chairs Sarah O’Hagan and Thomas Schick said, “We are saddened by the thought of George’s departure, but we understand his desire to write a new chapter in his life after providing the IRC with outstanding leadership and building a superb record of accomplishment as our CEO.” 

In a recent interview with the IRC’s publications director Steven Manning, Rupp reflected on his tenure.

 

Q: What were the major challenges you faced as president?

A: One was to raise the IRC’s public profile. Although it had been doing terrific work for decades, the IRC was not well known. Today, the IRC is widely known and respected and is recognized as a major relief and development organization. One reason for this change is the greater emphasis we place on advocacy in combination with our increasingly professional media relations and web-based communications. For example, our recent report on the crisis in Syria had a significant impact on policymakers and the public.

Q: There are more people donating to the IRC than ever before. Is this because the IRC is better known?

A: Yes. The number of private donors has grown—they are the rudder on the IRC’s ship, allowing us to set our own course and to respond to crises quickly. We’ve also diversified our public donors and are no longer as dependent on U.S. government support. It’s important for an organization like the IRC to be independent and not have to follow the priorities of a government. Through this expansion in the number of our private donors and diversification of our public funders, the IRC’s budget has tripled in the last decade: It’s expected to be $448 million this fiscal year.

 

Q: What would you consider a major accomplishment of your tenure?

A: The IRC has forged an identity that is true to our history and truly reflects the work we carry out around the world. When I first came to the IRC we were known as an agency that did “rescue” and “resettlement.” But 998 out of every thousand displaced persons will never be resettled in the U.S. After an emergency, people need help getting back on their feet and rebuilding their lives—which is what the IRC does. It’s reflected in our tag line: “From Harm to Home.” “Home” may mean resettlement in a third country, but it may also mean returning to one’s community when it is safe to do so and rebuild for the future or becoming integrated into the place to which one has fled.

Q: What was your most difficult moment as president?

A:  August 13, 2008, the day that four of our colleagues were horrifically murdered in Afghanistan. That was a shock, even though we are all aware that we work in dangerous and insecure places. I also recall how the entire IRC pulled together after the tragedy. When I traveled to Afghanistan, our staff there was concerned that we not pull out of the country because they felt they were making a real difference. We didn’t pull out, and we continue to make a difference. Today, the IRC is working in over 2,000 Afghan villages with an almost all Afghan staff.

George Rupp talks with Dr. Carol Mwangi at the IRC's Hagadera Hospital in the Dadaab refugee complex in Kenya. Photo: Joanne Offer/IRC

Q: How many staff members does the IRC have?

A: Over 13,000—and I am proud of every one of them, certainly including our colleagues at headquarters and in our 22 U.S. resettlement offices. Of the staff outside the U.S., 97 percent are nationals of the countries in which they work. They know the language and culture, they continue to work in a country when an emergency ends, and they are developing skills and becoming future leaders of the IRC.

Q: What do you say to someone who asks why they should care about a refugee displaced by a faraway war? 

A: Globalization means these crises aren’t far away. We are connected economically. We are connected by such threats as terrorism and global warming. But the most fundamental argument for why we should care, and for what the IRC does, is a moral one. In the end we are all connected as fellow human beings.

Q: What are your plans after you step down as president?  Will you remain involved with the IRC and the issues it works on? 

A:  I’m pleased to say that I will engage in a diverse set of activities that will draw on both my academic and IRC experience. I will continue to be an adjunct professor of religion, public health, and international affairs at Columbia University and also will continue my membership on the three not-for-profit boards on which I currently serve. In addition, I will take on two new sets of responsibilities: I will be a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, which is based here in New York; and I will be a founding principal at NEXT: Network for Executive Transition, a consulting partnership for academic, cultural, and social service organizations.

As loyal donors and proud members of the IRC family, my wife Nancy and I will also maintain our interest in the work of the IRC. From the sidelines we will be cheering the organization on, and we will also provide our moral and financial support.  We look forward to keeping in touch and to seeing friends, colleagues, and donors at IRC events in the years to come.