Michelle Nunn returns to her nonprofit roots as head of CARE USA

How did running a nationally scrutinized state Senate race prepare her for the new job?
Michelle Nunn
Photograph by Mike Colletta

After a shellacking by David Perdue in the 2014 Georgia U.S. Senate race, Michelle Nunn wanted to take her time deciding what to do next. Her son, Vinson, was less patient. “He seemed to have a need to give me career counseling and job advice,” she says. “He wanted me to move more quickly in finding a new job.” The middle schooler sat his mom down and suggested she review her skill set. “You’re good at basketball—but too old to do something in that,” Vinson pointed out. “You’re good at reading. And you’re good at helping people.”

Indeed. For seven years, before she resigned to campaign full time to succeed Saxby Chambliss, Nunn was president and CEO of Points of Light, an organization that marshals large-scale projects by matching volunteers and donors with nonprofits and service projects. Points of Light merged in 2007 with the Hands On Network, which grew out of Hands On Atlanta, founded by Nunn and her friends in 1989 with a similar mission of promoting volunteerism. That experience as a nonprofit executive, combined with her elevated national profile from the political campaign, put her on the shortlist of potential candidates to replace Helene Gayle—the medical doctor and onetime CDC staffer who since 2006 has led Atlanta-based CARE USA, the largest division of the international humanitarian organization. Nunn starts her new job this month.

For decades CARE was known for disaster assistance—its workers were early on the scene following April’s deadly earthquake in Nepal—and poverty relief; the organization has provided food, healthcare, and other services to more than 600,000 people in South Sudan since 2013. For the past decade, CARE has focused efforts on aid to women and girls.

Although Nunn’s nonprofit management bona fides are obvious, how did running a nationally scrutinized Senate race prepare her for the new job? “The mobilization dimension of the campaign, getting people involved and talking them into the spirit of citizen engagement, I think that ties into CARE’s work and its mission to galvanize global citizenship,” she says. More pragmatically, “grassroots organization, fundraising, and the policy issues of the campaign relate to the work of CARE,” Nunn adds.

Fundraising will be a major task for Nunn. CARE’s revenues dropped from $679 million in the fiscal year that ended in 2009 to $471 million in 2013, largely due to U.S. government grants being slashed by more than $100 million. Although she ran as a Democrat (and is the daughter of former U.S. senator and Democratic stalwart Sam Nunn), Nunn is known for an ability to cultivate relationships—and raise cash—across political lines; Points of Light was founded by former president George H.W. Bush.

During the Senate race, Nunn stressed her Georgia roots and decades of work in Atlanta. Her international experience includes a six-month stay in Rishikesh, India, while in the divinity program at the University of Virginia (“studying everything from Hinduism to Gandhi”), and a three-year fellowship with the Kellogg Foundation studying social change and traveling—with CARE—to Zimbabwe and Zambia.

Gayle advised her successor to value “being a good listener and spending the appropriate amount of time out in the field and visiting sites, which is the heart of the work.” Nunn plans to bring Vinson and his younger sister, Elizabeth, on some of those trips. “It is life-changing to have a perspective of the global community in your formative years,” she says. “Hopefully they will also thank me—in 10 or 20 years—for providing them with that.”

Care Package

Number of countries where CARE operated in 2014

Projects supported by CARE in 2014

72 million
People served by those projects

Workers at the Atlanta offices of CARE USA, which employs 5,000 worldwide, making it the largest of 14 national members under the umbrella of Geneva-based CARE International.

$471 million
Total contributions and grants for CARE USA declared on 2013 tax documents

Compensation for Nunn’s predecessor in the fiscal year ending June 2013. Nunn’s salary has not been disclosed.

What’s in a name?
A U.S. consortium founded in 1945 as the “Cooperative for American Remittances to Europe” shipped food and supplies—the now culturally ubiquitous “CARE packages”—to post-war Europe. CARE grew to include chapters in countries ranging from Norway to Thailand and to provide services such as disaster relief and human rights advocacy in addition to anti-poverty programs. The name was changed to “Cooperative for Assistance and Relief Everywhere” in 1993.

This article originally appeared in our July 2015 issue.