Neal Keny-Guyer '76

Spearheading global solutions
August 1, 2007
Neal Keny-Guyer '76

Cassandra Nelson/Mercy Corps

Unlike your average CEO, Mercy Corps chief Neal Keny-Guyer is ambivalent about his organization's rapid growth over the past years.

"I had someone ask me do I foresee us growing in the same way, and if it's predicated on disasters, I certainly hope not!" Keny-Guyer says with a laugh. "If it's predicated on people thinking we've got some interesting ideas, solutions, and partnerships to offer to complex, perplexing international problems, then that would be a great way to grow."

The humanitarian NGO Keny-Guyer runs is one of the main players in hotspots such as Afghanistan, Darfur, and hurricane-wracked New Orleans. He has helped make it one of the world's leading relief and development organizations. Mercy Corps has an annual operating budget of some $230 million and sponsors operations in nearly forty countries.

In the three decades since he graduated from Duke with a joint major in public policy and religion, Keny-Guyer's passion for social justice has taken him from the front lines of the nonprofit world to meetings at the White House. Straight out of college, he worked at a special academy in Atlanta designed to connect academically underperforming black teenagers with the leaders of the civil-rights movement. After working at a similar school in the District of Columbia, Keny-Guyer moved to Thailand to coordinate relief efforts for Cambodian refugees.

Frustration with managerial inexperience in the nonprofit sector led him to pursue an M.B.A. "I met a lot of people who were working on social change whose hearts were in the right place, who wanted to make a difference but just didn't have the organizational skills to translate their commitments into real impact," he says. After graduating from the Yale School of Management in 1982—a business school that early on encouraged its graduates to apply their financial savvy to charitable work—he spent a decade at Save the Children. By 1990 he was managing a staff of 900 and a budget of $44 million as the director of Save the Children's operations for the Middle East, Europe, and North Africa.

Keny-Guyer left Save the Children in 1990 to form Keny-Guyer Associates, a consulting firm that offered strategic guidance to companies, nonprofits, and charitable foundations. He was appointed CEO of Mercy Corps in 1994. Since then his life has been a whirlwind of international flights, media appearances, and high-level consultations. Mercy Corps' international profile was heightened by its lightning-fast response to the tsunami that struck Southeast Asia in December 2004; within twenty-four hours, a team had been dispatched to the western coast of Sumatra to survey the devastation.

The centerpiece of Mercy Corps' response in Southeast Asia has been its Cash for Work program, which sped the recovery effort by hiring poor laborers to clear roads and rebuild schools, improving the region's infrastructure while putting cash in the pockets of its poorest residents. This businesslike approach earned plaudits from former President Bill Clinton and The Wall Street Journal, which described Mercy Corps as "one of the most innovative of the 50-plus charities working on Sumatra."

Two weeks after the tsunami struck, Keny-Guyer was summoned to the White House to discuss relief efforts with President George W. Bush. "We have a reputation in Washington as being the international NGO that pushes above its organizational weight, that has a bias for action, and also that works with others in very creative ways," Keny-Guyer says.

He spends the little free time he has with his wife, Alissa Keny-Guyer, and their three children. "One of the biggest challenges for me is balancing the demands and requirements of my job and my family," Neil Keny-Guyer says. "I want to be a good dad and a good spouse."