Skip to content

Looking Back at ADRA


In a candid and revealing interview, Dr. Ralph S. Watts – the longest-serving president of ADRA – talks to Spectrum about how his experience shaped him for the job, how he tackled ADRA's debt and changed its board, and the advice he would offer new president Jonathan Duffy.

Watts headed the Adventist Development and Relief Agency from 1985 to his retirement in 2002. ADRA underwent many changes during his tenure there, growing from a tiny office under a General Conference department to a large international humanitarian aid and development agency with thousands of employees working in more than a hundred countries around the world. 

Question: What are you spending your time on, now that you are retired?

Answer: I haven’t sat on the porch in a rocking chair with lemonade and watched the world go by – yet.

I am an associate head elder of the Loma Linda University Church. I serve on a number of boards, including the LLBN-TV board, Quiet Hour ministry, Voice of Prophecy, Faith for Today, International Children’s Care (an organization that operates a global network of foster homes), and Help International. These board duties mean I continue to travel quite a bit. I also lead tour groups to many different countries around the world. Then there are the grandkids, family weddings, and those kinds of things.

Question: You might be the busiest retired person I know! You were ADRA’s president for 17 years – longer than anyone else. When did you retire, and why?

Answer: I have been so blessed to spend one-third of my entire professional career with such an outstanding organization.  I started at ADRA in 1985 and served as president until I retired in 2002. 

I retired early. I still had four years to go on my term, but I felt I had pretty much climbed the mountains that were before me. It was a good time to leave; I wanted to leave while I was still needed and appreciated. Timing to leave is critical for leaders. Some overstay. Some perhaps leave sooner than they should. It’s a balancing act. You have to pray about it.

I also felt I owed it to my wife and family. With ADRA, I was probably on the road – mostly abroad – 220 to 240 days a year. That takes a toll.

Question: What qualifications did you hold that made you a suitable candidate to be the president of ADRA?

Answer: I’m not sure anyone was qualified for that position. I wasn’t.

Question: Well, tell us about your background, and the experiences you were later able to draw on at ADRA.

Answer: I was the president of the Southern California Conference in 1985 when I was asked to be ADRA president. I didn’t really know much about ADRA at that time. I had a lot of questions. I was reluctant. But basically, I had two qualifications: 1) Sixteen years as president and CEO in positions of conference and union president. And 2) A number of years working with ADRA’s predecessor, SAWS.

Before ADRA was ADRA, it was SAWS [Seventh-day Adventist Welfare Service], and I don’t think there is anyone today living that was involved with SAWS as far back as I was. That went back to 1964, when I was asked to head up the SAWS program for South Korea, following the Korean War. My wife and family and I had come to South Korea as missionaries in 1963, and I was director of the Sabbath School and lay activities departments. Later, I was asked to head up SAWS Korea. The organization was very different then.

We were mainly involved in emergency assistance related to serious annual flooding and other disasters. In addition, we helped provide clothing, tents, medicines and food to approximately 100 orphanages.

I knew Korea well. I was born there in 1934, and lived in Korea until being evacuated at the start of World War II. My family went back to the US during the war years, then back to Korea.  In 1951, I went to the US for college, then joined an evangelistic team in Nebraska in 1956. I pastored in Nebraska for five years, then went into church administration. In 1962, the call came to Korea. My wife and I traveled by ship from San Francisco to Korea in 1963 – we were the last missionaries to go to Asia by ship.

In 1966, I was elected Sabbath School Secretary for the Far Eastern Division. Then in November of 1969, I was elected president of the Southeast Asia Union, covering Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, East and West Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. I chaired the boards of six hospitals, three publishing house, and a college , along with providing directions to five different missions, or conferences. With all the different languages and currencies and cultures, it was like a mini-United Nations. I had the time of my life!

This was during the height of the Vietnam conflict, and of course Cambodia and Laos were also critical areas. I was still involved with SAWS, though I was then union president. We tried to do as much humanitarian work as we could, taking food, clothing and medical supplies into remote areas, especially in Cambodia before Pol Pot took over in 1975. I traveled extensively through south Vietnam in spite of the war and was evacuated in April of 1975 with over 400 of our employees and their families.

In 1975 we returned to the US for the sake of our family. Our oldest daughter was married by this time, our second daughter was in college, and our youngest two were close to college. We were asked to return to the Midwest, where I served as president of the North Dakota, Minnesota, and Iowa-Missouri Conferences.

Then came a call to the Southern California Conference. In the late 1970s, Los Angeles and the conference were going through cultural shifts. Administrators were needed who could work in a multicultural environment. We saw the challenge and opportunity and felt I could be useful, so we accepted.

We had some of our best years there in southern California. When the call to lead ADRA came, we found it hard to uproot. I felt uneasy about leaving southern California to work in this small agency.

But to answer your question, yes, I did have significant experience I could draw on in my work at ADRA.

Question: Can you describe what ADRA was like when you took the helm in 1985?

Answer: Adventist church members in North America knew very little about ADRA in the mid-1980s. I would visit churches around the country, and very few would have heard of ADRA.

Internationally, the fundraising challenges were perplexing. Various Adventist church organizations and institutions around the world were contacting the same European donors – all saying they were representing the Seventh-day Adventist Church. Donors were becoming confused.

Church leaders felt the time was ripe to develop ADRA – the Adventist Development and Relief Agency – with an emphasis on development. One purpose would be to coordinate fundraising efforts and communication with donors. Because donor governments were a major source of funding, and they did not like to fund proselytizing religious organizations, Adventist administrators wanted an agency that would be separate from the church – yet with church leaders sitting on its board.

Now, in my generation and my father’s, we responded to church leaders when it came to taking assignments. Both of my grandfathers, as well as my father, were church administrators, and church leadership is in my DNA. I was raised that we do what the church asks us to do, even if we have qualms.

Now it’s different, and we realize many other factors also need to be considered.

But when I was asked to head up ADRA, I felt I needed a lot more information than what I had. The financial situation of ADRA was very unclear. Mario Ochoa, senior vice president at ADRA and very knowledgeable, gave me the best information – he had worked in Chile and at the General Conference. But a considerable amount of information just did not seem to be available.

Finally, after praying and talking with my wife about it, I committed three years to ADRA, but said I then wanted to go back to mainstream church administration. And that’s how it began.

It was not until December of 1985, a few weeks after I had been elected president, that ADRA’s true financial situation became apparent. It was a shocker. We were $2.7 million in debt. We had no reserves. We were basically bankrupt.

I found that ADRA had signed a $1.7 million contract with a Los Angeles public relations firm to produce a one-hour television fundraising special. We tried hard, but found we could not legally get out of the contract.

I knew it was going to be really tough to cut back and get on a stable financial footing, while still working to expand operations internationally and endeavoring to create greater awareness domestically. We would certainly need guidance from the Lord.

One day the controller, Elwyn David, came to me and told me we were not able to meet payroll.

I told Elwyn that as long as I was heading up the organization we were going to meet payroll, whatever it took. We got in the car and drove to the local bank in Laurel, Maryland, and applied for a line of credit. We met payroll, and have ever since.

By the time I left ADRA in 2002 we had approximately $25 million in reserves.

Why this amount? ADRA needs this. Should there be two or three major disasters striking at the same time, such as Haiti and the tsunami, those reserves would be depleted very, very quickly.

And I was never sorry that I stayed at ADRA until my retirement. I love church administration, but my work with ADRA changed my life. Because of the impact we made, I could put my head on the pillow at night and know we had helped to save the lives of thousands around the world.

Question: What were your priorities as ADRA president?


1)    Cast a vision

2)    Develop a strong administrative team and staff

3)    Deal with the financial crisis

4)    Strengthen marketing and fundraising

5)    Build a worldwide network

6)    Develop a highly regarded development and relief agency

One of the first things I did at ADRA was to develop a strong team, which included Mario Ochoa as my senior vice president, Romie Gainer (who I had worked with for many years in Asia) as vice president for finance, Ray Tetz as vice president for marketing and public relations, along with Byron Scheuneman in finance (now retired but still doing some work for ADRA), and Teresa Byrne in marketing and PR.

Let me illustrate how we worked, with Ray Tetz as an example. He had worked with me in southern California. I knew him well. I hired him to be our marketing and public relations leader.

His first day in the office I gave him two assignments: “I want you to make ADRA a household word in the Adventist church.” I wanted every church member in North America to know the ADRA story.

And number two: “Build a donor list that is deep and wide.” I felt it was better to have a thousand people giving us a hundred dollars a year than the other way around. And ADRA had a very modest list of donors in 1985.

Ray was very effective on both fronts. Articles about ADRA were published in the church papers, he produced a TV program called ADRA’s World, and in 1990 Ray and I took the NAD union presidents on a trip to see ADRA projects being implemented. We continued planning activities to show church leaders our projects for the rest of my tenure. Seeing, touching and experiencing the projects – and meeting the people – really made a difference.

We developed the term “global village.” And we created one, right in front of the US Capitol, on the Mall. We got huge press coverage as we built a miniature global village – complete with different kinds of habitats that people live in around the world – for tens of thousands of visitors to walk through. Schoolkids went into our huge tent of supplies where they packed a box that we then sealed and sent to somewhere in need. We got our name out there!

Taking care of ADRA’s debt was a priority, but it made relations with the church difficult sometimes. It seemed that the subject of ADRA’s debt often arose during the meetings of the GC committee that dealt with finances. I heard comments like: “Let’s shut ADRA down.” Or “We need to take it over.” The debt was a real liability. We had to get it taken care of.

Finally, one day I told [GC President Neal] Wilson: “My biggest headache comes from a group that should be supporting me and ADRA!”

Slowly things changed.

Question: How closely did you work with the ADRA board? Did the board change during your tenure?

Answer: First, let me say that I had a good working relationship with my board chairs, beginning with Ken Mittleider, then Leo Ranzolin, Jan Paulson, and finally Lowell Cooper. However, after a number of years, we were convinced that we needed to make some major changes in the board. But how to do that?

When I became president, the board was loaded with church leadership. It included the GC president, two vice presidents, the treasurer, the secretary, the assistant secretary, two or three department heads, and the world division presidents. There were only two laypeople: a retired medical doctor, and a woman CPA, both of whom lived in the area.

So I came to one of the meetings with an item on the agenda to make some changes – I did not talk about major shifts on the board, but emphasized the importance of ADRA’s ministry to women, which is a pre-eminent part of ADRA’s portfolio, particularly in the developing world. I talked about how women are the bedrock of society, and that they should have greater representation on our board. Then I mentioned that there were only two women on ADRA’s board.

There was a hot debate at that meeting. But we voted to reduce the board to 36 people (taking out a number of the ex officio positions), and make sure there was a woman from each division serving as a board member. Now we had 15 women on the board, nominated by their divisions; some were healthcare professionals or professionals in other areas.

We also brought Dr. Gil Burnham from Johns Hopkins – one of the world’s foremost experts in international health and humanitarian work – to the ADRA board. In my judgment, he is the Adventist Albert Schweitzer. [Burnham still serves on the ADRA board.] I believe the board needs more leaders like Dr. Burnham.

What ADRA needs is professionals who can make a contribution – not only working for ADRA, but serving on the board as well.

I also pushed hard to include ADRA’s vice presidents as members of the board – not just attendees, but actual voting members.

Basically, I never worried much about the board – they were solidly behind ADRA and me. When I first came in, meetings of the ADRA board were held on almost a weekly basis because of the financial crisis. Then as things improved, they were monthly. Finally they were called two to three times a year, as they are now.

Question: In 1998 the Los Angeles Times published a very critical article about ADRA and its work, alleging misappropriated funds, poor oversight, and inappropriate proselytizing, among other things. ADRA refuted the article, but it garnered a lot of attention. Were you put under pressure as a result of the expose? Did you make changes at the agency? Did the criticism have any bearing on your eventual decision to retire early?

Answer: There was no pressure on me at all – none. I was affirmed, if anything. Here is one little anecdote that I remember: Someone showed me an envelope that had come in the mail from southern California, containing a clipping of the article, and no note, but a check for $1,000. I said: “It just goes to show, you don’t know how individuals will respond to something like this.”

I don’t have a great recollection of the article. At the time I was kept informed as to what was going on, but I did not have to deal with it from an administrative standpoint. Vice president Mario Ochoa, who had a legal background, was the spokesperson for ADRA whenever there was a legal issue or when an article appeared in a publication.

We had too many other fish to fry, and needed to keep our eye on our mission and move forward.

The article didn’t have any impact on our decision-making process. The changes we made in the following years were based on other factors.

Anyone involved with multinational operations will have comments or observations made from time to time that are not what they want to hear, but that is the way the world works. And sometimes with the media, accuracy can be lacking.

The article had no impact on my decision to retire – which wasn’t for another four years.

Question: Can you tell us about one of the agency’s accomplishments during your time there?

Answer: One of the achievements I was most proud of was the opportunity we provided to our management staff globally, both nationals and expatriates, to obtain a masters degree in international development administration from Andrews University. We started it in the early 1990s, and spent a considerable amount on that enterprise. 700 or 800 of our staff worldwide availed of this masters degree at one time. Two-week sessions were offered twice a year at four sites around the world: Kenya, Costa Rica, Peru, and Thailand. Students completed the rest of their coursework from wherever they lived.

We funded the program for about five years until we had accomplished what we wanted to. It was expensive, as it meant paying transportation, hotels, per diem, and bringing in the instructors from Andrews and elsewhere. (Andrews has continued the program – just in a different format.)

I attended one commencement at Andrews where over a hundred of our students from around the world had come to Andrews (paying for the trip themselves) to pick up the diploma they were so proud of earning.

This was one of the highlights of my time at ADRA, along with turning the financial situation around.

Question: What role are you playing in ADRA now? Did you advise the search committee as they looked for a new president?

Answer: I have no role, other than as a cheerleader and advocate. I do whatever I am asked, but have no official position.

I was not involved with the search committee.

Question: What advice would you give to ADRA’s new president Jonathan Duffy?

Answer: First, get on your knees and pray – a lot. Ask for wisdom, discernment and strength.

And then listen. Listen not only to your board members, but to your staff. Not only at headquarters, but worldwide. Get a feel for their concerns and where they may be hurting.

Third, cast a vision for where you feel ADRA should go. I wouldn’t advise on the direction of the vision, but to have one, and to make it clear to others. And then focus like a laser on what you see to be your primary goals and objectives.

Realize that you cannot be everywhere at one time. The demands for your attention and time will be overwhelming.

Surround yourself with top-quality staff who are competent and qualified.

If you have good staff, then you can delegate. You can’t do it by yourself. You can’t do it all.

And finally, communicate.

I first met Duffy at a meeting a year ago. Our relationship is good. I have confidence he will do well.

Question: Any specific changes you would recommend?

Answer: Every president has to make his own assessment of where the priorities lie. He has to be comfortable. He has to make those priorities his own.

Question: Employees have complained there is a lack of focus and direction at the agency. How would you suggest the board clarify this?

Answer: There have been significant changes at ADRA recently, and the board will have to reassess.

Question: Do you feel that the reputation of ADRA suffered under the leadership of Rudi Maier? How long do you think it will take the agency to recover from the loss of staff, and thus funding, etc, that happened over the last two years?

Answer: You have to give Rudi Maier credit for doing some good things. I have read Rudi’s position papers, and think there are a lot of good concepts there. Some of the staff he brought in were very capable.

Yes, mistakes were made, but I also made my share in my time.

ADRA was dealing with a lot of shifts in the NGO community in both Rudi and Chuck’s [Sandefur] time. Some of the issues Rudi had to deal with were issues that had spun over from problems that had developed previously. There were issues with the board and its responsibility, leadership, and staffing. ADRA HQ has gone through a traumatic time, and that has resulted in concerns within the NGO community to some extent, both nationally and internationally.

But let me emphasize that the strength of ADRA is not just what happens at the headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland.

It is important to remember that ADRA has built up a relatively strong organization in 120 countries including many donor and implementing countries, and they are continuing their work. On the whole, from what I hear, many of the projects are being well-managed.

I believe ADRA will bounce back, and I have confidence in Jonathan Duffy – he will give it his best. Obviously there are changes that need to be made, and in due time I am confident the administration and the board will make the appropriate adjustments. This is the time for all of us in the church to get behind ADRA and make sure it is successful. Humanitarian work is very important and what the church and ADRA need to do in these last days.

Matthew 25 makes it clear that this is what we will be judged on. We need to be sensitive to those who are hurting and in need, and this is the responsibility not only of ADRA, but for the church and for each of us individually.

I have seen so many people around the world in dire situations: refugees, victims of earthquakes and tsunamis, survivors of civil war and genocide. But as I reminded my staff over and over again: despite seeing so much horror we must never allow ourselves to become insensitive to the plight of those we are involved with. If we do, we have lost something integral to being an ADRA worker.

Great days lie ahead for ADRA – there is no question of that. Nothing excites young adults in the church like the work of ADRA. I just wish I were 25 years younger.

Read an excerpt of Alita Byrd's summer 2013 article about the turmoil at ADRA over the past few years here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.