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Jeff Whisenant of ReSurge International: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit…

Jeff Whisenant of ReSurge International: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit Organization

If you are thinking about starting a nonprofit, understand what nonprofits already exist that are working on a similar topic or in a similar geographic area. Establishing a nonprofit is a costly and time-consuming process, and there is a lot of groundwork required before you can ever begin to deliver programs. If there is another nonprofit that you could partner with, that will save you time and money. Sometimes when I see a new nonprofit, I think about the economies of scale the founders could have achieved by partnering with an existing one.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Whisenant.

Jeff Whisenant is the President and CEO of ReSurge International, and is an experienced leader in the nonprofit sector, with more than 30 years of global experience in international development and relief. He previously held high-level executive positions at Lutheran World Relief in Baltimore, Pact Inc. in Washington, D.C., and Orbis International in New York, as well as serving on the boards of ActionAid, InspirAction and InterAction. Jeff is an experienced traveler who has worked assignments in 29 countries in Latin America, Africa and Asia.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

As a child, I thought I wanted to become a doctor. When I was an undergraduate, both of my parents experienced significant health problems and I became more interested in public health as a way to prevent the health problems they faced. From there, it was a short leap to international nonprofits, where I focused my career. I’ve worked with various organizations that tackled areas such as blindness prevention, agricultural development, humanitarian response; as well as in each of the key functions of a nonprofit: programs, fundraising, strategy, and HR.

Now, I am the President and CEO of ReSurge International, whose mission is to inspire, train, fund, and scale reconstructive surgical teams in low-income countries to provide life-changing care to patients with the greatest need. This work is not always easy, but every morning I wake up feeling like I am making an impact in this world. I think my childhood self would be proud of the work we’re doing to transform lives through surgical care.

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start or join your nonprofit?

I was at a point in my career where I had led all of the functions of an international nonprofit, and I was looking for the opportunity to bring all those threads together. Thankfully, ReSurge International was looking for someone with that profile! Moreover, at that time, global surgery was coming into its own as a field of study and a priority for global health. Up until that point, surgery in low-income countries was pretty much seen as a luxury. I recall my early days as a Peace Corps volunteer in Gabon, where the only surgery that was offered was an appendectomy and in simple cases, a Caesarean section; beyond that, if you needed surgery, you were out of luck. But in 2015, several publications documented the magnitude of the problem and determined that access to surgery is an essential part of universal health care. The World Bank also identified essential surgical care as one of the most cost-effective health interventions available and a health priority that is within reach for countries around the world. The opportunity to contribute to such a critical and growing movement was compelling to me.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Worldwide there are 5 billion people without access to surgical care. That’s 5 billion people who are suffering needless deaths, disabilities, and related financial catastrophe because of treatable surgical conditions. In fact, these conditions represent approximately 30% of the global disease burden — three times more than malaria, TB, and HIV/AIDS combined. Access to surgery not only transform lives; it also transforms economies. One surgery can mean that a child or an adult in a low-income country can now go to school, get a job, and contribute to their community. When we are talking about 5 billion people, the implications are huge.

At ReSurge International, we inspire, train, fund, and scale reconstructive surgical teams in low-income countries. I often get questions about what reconstructive surgery actually entails. Reconstructive surgery treats congenital abnormalities (cleft lips, birth defects), traumatic injuries (like burns and road traffic accidents), and malignant conditions (like breast cancer and tumor removals). Our ultimate beneficiary is a patient, whether it’s a child or adult, in a low-income country who does not have access to, or cannot afford, this kind of life-changing reconstructive surgery. In some of the countries we work the obstacles to care are great, sometimes a family has to get the help of their entire community to afford transportation to a hospital with the capability to perform the care that they need. To help eliminate the barriers, we connect some of the brightest surgical teams from partner institutions like Stanford and Johns Hopkins with the next generation of reconstructive surgical teams in Africa, Latin America and Asia to offer comprehensive, world-class training. Once those teams are trained and qualified, we create a humanitarian funding model, where we underwrite the surgery for people who would otherwise not be able to afford and therefore access the life-changing surgical treatment.

When we train just one surgeon in a low-income country, an average of 9,000 patients gain access to surgical care over that local surgeon’s lifetime. The cycle is then repeated when these ReSurge surgeons train others — resulting in a multiplier effect of impact and long-term sustainability.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

One ReSurge International patient that I’ll always remember was a 17-year-old girl from rural Zimbabwe whose face was crushed by an oxcart accident in her village. Her case was extremely complex, she had multiple fractures in the facial region, and no one thought she would survive. Her injuries were so severe that her brother fainted when he discovered her body.

Luckily for this young girl, at the time of her accident, a ReSurge Visiting Educator team was in a nearby city. We were able to work with her local surgeon to perform this complex surgery, and the transformation was incredible. She was now able to eat, see, and live a full life. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. And as for her surgeon, the training ReSurge gave him has had a ripple effect that will enable him to treat similar patients for the rest of his working life, even when ReSurge isn’t physically there.

Experts say that a country should have one reconstructive surgeon for every 100,000 inhabitants. Zimbabwe is a country of 14.6 million, so in theory, it should have 146 reconstructive surgeons. Instead, there are three. We are proud to have provided training to all of those surgeons, two of whom are women that are a part of our Pioneering Women in Reconstructive Surgery (PWRS) program which we started in partnership with SkinCeuticals to advance the next generation of women surgeons. Now these three surgeons in Zimbabwe are able to provide care for more local patients like this incredible young girl.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

There are always ways to support our mission! Here are a few:

  • Support us: More than 90% of the population in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to safe and affordable surgical and anesthesia care. When faced with the sheer volume of the surgical need, it is easy to give up and do nothing. But with just one ReSurge surgery costing $350, a young child could regain his or her mobility and re-enter society. If you would like to sponsor a full or partial surgery, please visit our website (resurge.org/donate).
  • Partner with us: Corporations and foundations can help us grow by sponsoring new programs or scholarships, as well as increasing sustainability through unrestricted giving. To attack the root of the issue, we train local surgeons and medical professionals in order for them to then serve their communities for the rest of their careers. If you are interested in partnering with us, send an email to info@resurge.org.
  • Advocate for global surgery: Increasing access to surgical care will raise the health status in low-income countries in a broad way. We recently had a big win with our advocacy work in securing recommendations to the US Agency for International Development to address neglected surgical conditions in the State, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Subcommittee (SFOPS) Appropriations Bill. We are requesting that Congress add $100m of funding to this critical line item, as global surgery investments support universal healthcare coverage. You can reach out to your US Senator and let them know you support this global surgery initiative and would request that he or she consider supporting and voting for the $100m ask.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

For me, nonprofit leadership is a combination of finding your moral compass and effectively communicating that direction and vision to your team. As a good leader, you must know how to advocate for your mission, inspire others, and find allies who are invested in driving impact. You need to set your vision in the stars while keeping your feet grounded on earth. This is especially important for social change leadership, particularly when working in communities other than our own. To do ethical and impactful work as a nonprofit leader, you must be aware of how systems of power and privilege play out in all that you do. A good leader is humble, knows how to listen, and is attuned to the local people, leaders and systems that they are serving.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start or lead a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

If you are thinking about starting a nonprofit, understand what nonprofits already exist that are working on a similar topic or in a similar geographic area. Establishing a nonprofit is a costly and time-consuming process, and there is a lot of groundwork required before you can ever begin to deliver programs. If there is another nonprofit that you could partner with, that will save you time and money. Sometimes when I see a new nonprofit, I think about the economies of scale the founders could have achieved by partnering with an existing one.

Be clear about your mission. What will you focus on, and equally important, what will you NOT focus on? In my experience, once you get agreement on that, many other things flow much more smoothly. Recently, when ReSurge clarified that our primary means of extending reconstructive surgical care was via training reconstructive surgical teams, this opened up other opportunities for us — for example, partnering with Ohana One (more on that below) to use technology to strengthen training and mentorship in real-time anywhere in the world.

It also means that you have to make painful decisions about what not to do. For example, the most recent earthquake in Haiti. We know that earthquakes generate many crush injuries, some of which would respond to reconstructive surgery. But because we don’t have the partnerships or the infrastructure there (and because surgical training is a long process), we have decided not to participate in the emergency response.

Make sure you have the right people with you. And unfortunately, this is a continually changing task; a person who is right to lead a function today, may not be the right person to lead that function tomorrow. This topic is also related to being clear about your mission. As you gain greater clarity, you may find that you need to make changes to the team.

For example, in March 2020 when Covid was dramatically expanding in the US, we shut our office. This meant that our colleagues who worked in our surgical warehouse were unable to perform their jobs. In one case, we terminated the service of a colleague. In another case, we found alternative work for a different colleague (the kind of work that is described as “important but not urgent”). That colleague did the important but not urgent work for the last 16 months, and now that we are reopening (slowly, cautiously) our office, that colleague is returning to her former position in the surgical warehouse.

Be prepared for ups and downs. No strategic plan has ever been implemented as it was first written. Things change.

A prime example of this is Covid. When the pandemic first hit, we had to cancel all our in-person trainings and programs. Instead of getting stuck in the challenges of the present, we quickly pivoted to remote training with creativity and a lot of hard work. We were soon averaging one virtual lecture every 2.5 days and reaching many more surgeons, anesthesiologists, physical therapists, and nurses in more than 30 low- and middle-income countries than we ever could have with an in-person only approach. We started new mentorship programs, established online communities where international colleagues could collaborate, and we even partnered with fellow nonprofit, Ohana One, to pilot a program using surgical smart glass technology. All of these teaching tools and technologies were available to us prior to the pandemic, but it took recognizing the possibilities of the present, and finding the silver lining, for us to fully adopt them.

Find your inner resources to keep you going for the long haul. Leadership can be fun, and is frequently rewarding. It is rarely easy. If you are setting out to be a leader, study yourself first. In what ways are you resilient? What gives you energy and how do you tap into that inner strength? Not only will this help you become a better leader, it will also help you be better for yourself and everyone around you.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a conversation with Orin Levine and Tracey McNeill of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to discuss the role of surgery in global health.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and challenges offered by the present moment, and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.” — Thomas Merton, an American theologian.

I love this quote because it is relevant in every situation — personal, and professional. I think this is also a life lesson we’ve all had to come to terms with after the COVID-19 pandemic turned our world upside down.

How can our readers follow you online?

Please follow @ResurgeInternational on Instagram and @ReSurge on Twitter. You can also find us online at www.resurge.org where you can sign up for our newsletter.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success in your mission.


Jeff Whisenant of ReSurge International: 5 Things You Need To Know To Successfully Lead A Nonprofit… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.