Rick Leach | Crain's Denver

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Rick Leach


World Food Program USA is a 501 (c)(3) charity based out of Washington, D.C. It operates independently of the UN's World Food Program. The nonprofit supports the mission of the World Food Program. Unlike the UN agency, it can fundraise and advocate for global movement to end hunger. The WFP USA also works with lawmakers and businesses to enhance understanding of the WFP and builds coalitions and policy campaigns to improve access to nutritious food. 

The Mistake:

My mistake was not realizing you have to build a sustainable system, not a short-term campaign, to address an issue. 

I had been appointed by the Clinton administration in 1992 to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

There was a realization that the American immunization coverage rate among birth to age 2 was about 50 percent. That’s when they’re most vulnerable. The problem I was confronting was, how do we increase immunization cover rates?

I wanted to get it done immediately. I thought we should be able to [quickly] immunize kids aged 12 to 18 months. But I realized that was the first step.

What do you do [after that cohort is immunized]? There are kids born right afterward. It’s not a short-term campaign. There’s a need to put a system in place, so you can sustain it.

We needed to build systems to ensure whatever increases we achieved [were] sustained over long periods of time.

What we needed to do is create doubt in parents' minds. Did you realize they needed all these shots? The tagline developed for us was,  “At least 11 shots by 2. How sure are you? Call this 1-800 number.”

We set up a system to help [parents] find a clinic where they lived. We made it easy and partnered with places that helped us direct assistance to families.

With the understanding of what the basic facts were and what we needed to do, and by involving sectors of the community, immunization rates went from 50 to 80 percent over three years.

There is an African proverb: 'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.'

The Lesson:

One of the things that I learned is that you need to have more patience and build systems if you truly want to sustainably address a problem.

I’m still impatient. My impatience is tempered by understanding that if you want something to continue, you need to build a system to maintain what that objective may be.

There is an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go with others.”

It was a shift in thinking. While not decreasing the sense of urgency, it’s an understanding that you need to look at building systems.

Going back to immunizations, it’s not about today, but building a whole system so kids born tomorrow are receiving proper vaccinations.

That tempers how we look at efforts to end hunger. It’s not about bringing in food to feed someone today, but building systems in governance, creating the capacity of people to care for themselves—making sure that hunger doesn’t arise the day after your feeding operation ends.

Follow World Food Program USA on Twitter at @WFPUSA.

Photo credit: WFP