Surita Sandosham has always been an advocate for the world’s most marginalized people, and now she’s bringing that mission to Little Rock.
Singapore born and trained as a barrister, Sandosham has worked for humanitarian nonprofits for three decades.
Her work will continue as Heifer International’s president and CEO, her job since Oct. 1.
Sandosham replaced Pierre Ferrari, who retired after 12 years leading the Little Rock nonprofit, which fights hunger and poverty while caring for the Earth. Heifer provides animals, training and services to small-scale farmers and communities in 21 countries.
Sandosham joins Heifer, founded in 1944, as the nonprofit is reducing its footprint in Little Rock.
Heifer agreed in May to sell its campus downtown but plans to remain in the top two floors of the four-story, 94,000-SF building under a long-term lease that will keep the organization in place for 20 years.
OneHealth Education Group of Little Rock is buying the campus for a price that wasn’t disclosed. OneHealth is working with Lyon College of Batesville to create Arkansas’ first dental and veterinary schools. A Lyon spokesman said last week that the school is working through the approval process with accreditors.
Sandosham said the sale hasn’t closed. “We’re not going anywhere,” she in an interview. “We’re staying in Little Rock.”
She’s moving from Chicago to Little Rock to be near the staff that’s “the backbone to the work that we’re doing in 21 countries around the world.”
She said Heifer is weighing whether to continue its urban farm at the Little Rock campus, but “the idea is not to lose any of what Heifer stands for in Arkansas, but recognizing that we’re consolidating so that we can be a more nimble and agile organization.”
For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2021, Heifer had 924,633 participant households in its programs.
One appeal Heifer had for Sandosham was its approach to poverty: helping entire communities.
“And when you’re thinking about whole communities, you’re thinking about more people getting out of poverty,” she said. “And they’re talking about a sustainable living income, which is more than just getting a paycheck that gets you from one pay period to the next. It’s helping you provide nutrition to your family, health care, education, and then some.”
The challenges are immense, including conflicts around the world and climate change. “The invasion of Ukraine has an impact on food systems, … so there’s a ripple effect,” she said.
Smallholder farmers, those with less than five acres, also might not have markets for their crops, she said.
“There’s been a slow understanding in some countries that agriculture is the economic growth for the country.”
Heifer is selective, choosing to work in countries where success is likely. “We don’t believe we can fix everything, but it’s great to have an enabling governmental environment that supports us in that work and supports the smallholder farmers,” she said.
Randi Hedin, Heifer board chair, said Sandosham brings a fresh perspective, along with deep knowledge of sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, the Middle East and the U.S., according to a news release from Heifer.
“Under her leadership, we are excited to build on what we have already accomplished to support smallholder farmers around the world,” Hedin said in the release.
“I am not coming in with any preconceived notions about a structure or eliminating staff or any of that,” Sandosham said.
With 881 employees, Heifer’s revenue for its fiscal year ended June 30 was $140.9 million, up 13% from the previous year. Its net income was $13.1 million compared with $540,000 for its fiscal year that ended midyear in 2020. She said she couldn’t release the most recent numbers yet because they hadn’t gone before Heifer’s board. “But I will say we’re looking healthy.”
Fiscal year ended June 30 (dollars in millions)
(Recent IRS Form 990s available from propublica.org)
Sandosham said she has no immediate plans to make changes. “I want to understand our strategic goals, which are already set. “And I want to figure out how I can, as part of a global team, support them to get to those goals.”
She said she will be traveling to Heifer’s operations in the U.S. and in other countries on a listening tour.
Becoming an Advocate
Sandosham grew up under an authoritarian government in Singapore. “You couldn’t really speak out on issues that might be jarring against government policies,” she said.
Her grandfather, a vice chancellor of a university in Singapore who spoke out against government policies, was exiled. “So every time I visited him it was in Malaysia or some other place. So I grew up with this feeling that I couldn’t actually be an advocate or an activist for issues of deep concern to me, human rights issues.”
She graduated from City University London and the School of Oriental & African Studies at London University.
While in England, she met her future husband, who was also studying abroad. “He didn’t want to live in Singapore because there’s no baseball,” Sandosham said. “So we compromised and we decided I would come to the U.S.”
About 35 years ago she became a licensed attorney in New York, where her practice included contractual and real estate issues. She soon realized that the law wasn’t all she could do.
About 1990, she joined Amnesty International as a legal policy adviser and later became deputy executive director. Amnesty’s “focus was on human rights, and that was the turning point for me,” Sandosham said.
Another job was working for the Rockefeller Foundation of New York as an associate director. The position “gave me an understanding of philanthropy, and also thinking about how you build partnerships across different sectors to address poverty and look at the well-being of humankind,” she said.
In 2004, she took a job with Synergos of New York, a global nonprofit that brings together government and nongovernmental groups to solve poverty.
“The thought was, if you could create the enabling environment for governments to learn to work with corporations, who had certain solutions, and to listen to communities about what they needed, you could come up with multisectoral approaches” she said. “And so that’s where I cut my teeth on these multisectoral approaches to addressing poverty and totally believe in collaboration and co-creation to solve poverty.”
Before joining Heifer, Sandosham was executive director of the Heartland Alliance of Chicago, the humanitarian and human rights nonprofit.
“And so I ended up in Heifer, because I now had all of this diverse experience in terms of working on human rights, humanitarian issues, understanding philanthropy, understanding organizational development,” Sandosham said. “Heifer proved to be the place where I could bring all of these things together.”