Alvin Sanders – The Crucible of Life and Leadership

“We had a three-stop shop where people could come get their food, they could get their health checked, and then they can be ministered to spiritually as well.” -Alvin Sanders

[00:00:00] Alvin Sanders: The hardest decision I had to make concerning my own personal level of leadership was the decision that I made in 2007 to leave the pastorate and to work for the denomination.

And the thing that got me was the President who unfortunately has passed away, Bill Hamill, he asked me the question, he said, Alvin, do you want to influence one church or do you want to influence 1500 churches? And honestly, I had to ask to myself, and I said I want to influence 1500 churches.


[00:00:34] Tommy Thomas: Our guest today is Dr. Alvin Sanders. On his LinkedIn Profile it says, President and CEO of World Impact, Adjunct Seminary Professor, Advocate for Redemptive Poverty Work, Husband, Father, Author, Mentor, and Loves Sports. I imagine we could do a podcast episode on all those titles, particularly the one about sports.

But today I want to focus on Alvin’s role as the President and CEO of World Impact, and in particular their work as an advocate for redemptive poverty. Alvin, give us your elevator speech on World Impact. 

[00:01:17] Alvin Sanders: World Impact started about 52 years ago and we’re trying to solve the problem that 95% of the world’s pastors have no formal ministry training.

We believe that we provide effective ministry training that’s affordable and accessible as part of the solution to that problem. And our theory of change is that trained urban pastors lead to healthier churches, which leads to them impacting their community toward flourishing. 

[00:01:45] Tommy Thomas: Good. You got that one down.

[00:01:46] Alvin Sanders: That’s good. I don’t know if that was 30 seconds or not. I got it. 

[00:01:50] Tommy Thomas: To our listeners, Alvin and I met, at least for me, in an unusual way. I was conducting the CEO search for the City Gospel Mission in Cincinnati, and I did my LinkedIn research and I liked Alvin’s background. I thought he might be a good candidate.

So, I called him, and he said, no, he was pretty committed to World Impact, but then he turned the tables on me. He says we need a couple of additional cabinet members. Would you be interested in helping us? And next thing I knew Alvin had recruited me to help him with two searches. I didn’t have to submit a proposal or anything.  So, Alvin, I guess I owe you a big thank you for trusting us with that work.

[00:02:26] Alvin Sanders:  You did an excellent job. I have two awesome team members, and we’re a better organization because of your work. 

[00:02:34] Tommy Thomas: Thank you. Take me into a little bit of your background. I’m always curious how people got their start.  What do you remember about your childhood that maybe has contributed to the man you are today?

[00:02:44] Alvin Sanders: Yeah, so I’m a military brat. My father was in the Air Force for 30 years and we lived globally. For instance, I spent four years in Okinawa, Japan during my formative language years, and I don’t remember this, but I’ve been told that I used to be able to speak fluent Japanese, so I wish that I could conjure that up again, but I can’t.

But that had a big effect on me. Because I grew up what’s called a third culture kid. And you can look that term up, but it’s essentially a person who could see into different cultures while not being in them, I would say you grow up organically, culturally flexible. That’s probably the easiest way to describe it.

And so that led me to ministry. I’ve been in ministry for 32 years. I started in ministry at 21. Worked at a variety of places but they always had a connection to the urban context of making disciples there. And I worked with the Evangelical Free Church of America planting an inner-city church in the city of Cincinnati.

I worked for the aforementioned City Gospel Mission before that under their president who’s no longer with them, Roger Howell. And then I also worked for the Evangelical Free Church of America denomination, running their All-People initiative. And then I came the World Impact as a Senior Vice President in 2015 and then became president in 2017.  And this is where I hang my hat. 

[00:04:06] Tommy Thomas: So, growing up all over the world, what was high school like for you? 

[00:04:10] Alvin Sanders: My dad ended up retiring in Columbus, Ohio, so that’s where I spent most of my time. And that’s where I went to high school.

[00:04:17] Tommy Thomas: And when you got to college, how’d you pick a major?

[00:04:21] Alvin Sanders: The first major that I picked was Physical Therapy, and the first college that I went to was Bowling Green State University near Toledo, Ohio. And while on campus I got very involved with a campus ministry. None of the major ones, but just a small one that was started by a fellow student.

And it was during that time I said, man, I think God’s calling me to do this full time. So, I ended up transferring to Cincinnati Christian University and as they say, the rest is history.

[00:04:52] Tommy Thomas: What’s something that people might be surprised to know about you that maybe is not on your LinkedIn profile or not in any writing anywhere?

[00:05:01] Alvin Sanders: Oh, let’s see. That I’m a homebody. Much to my wife’s chagrin. A perfect day for me is doing nothing. It is sitting in my recliner downstairs with food and drink and watching good sports or good news stories or whatever, but I love to do nothing. 

[00:05:27] Tommy Thomas: Now that would come as a surprise just from my working with you because in our relationship, you’ve been out and about and upfront and returning from a speaking engagement or headed to one. 

[00:05:38] Alvin Sanders: Yes, and I’m sure that’s probably what plays into those times when I don’t have anything to do. I cherish them. 

[00:05:43] Tommy Thomas: Take me back to your first management job when you actually had somebody that you were responsible for. What do you remember about that?

[00:05:51] Alvin Sanders: The crazy thing, it was both a blessing and a curse, was the first ministry position I’ve ever held. I had pretty significant responsibilities. And I learned I can be an intense person. 

God bless the first people that I had to supervise and the first volunteers I had to direct because with a military and athletic background and an intense personality – I’m sure those people got fried.

I was probably a marine minister; I would say so to speak. And what I remember is God’s providence and blessing the success of the things that I did. And I also had a lot of learning lessons about what it means to really invest and treat people with respect and dignity. 

[00:06:44] Tommy Thomas:  You’ve had a long career in ministry and I’m sure you’ve had times that have “tested your mettle”. Maybe can you take us into one of those and what you learned or maybe didn’t learn from it? 

[00:06:55] Alvin Sanders:  The biggest, one of those things, Tommy, that tested my mettle was when me and my wife planted at a church in inner-city Cincinnati.

About six months into the church planting experience, there was a police shooting of a young black teenager by a white police officer. This was spring of 2001 and the neighborhood in which we planted a church where the shooting took place exploded in civil disobedience. And you want to talk about the crucible of ministry and trying to figure out what to do.

We were young church planters. Six months in just trying to get a church together and draw people, and then all of a sudden, this thing happens. And we learned to depend upon God and that Proverbs, I think it’s Proverbs 3:5-6, trust in Lord and all that you do and lean not on your own understanding.

In all thy ways, acknowledge him and he shall direct your paths because there’s no strategic plan for planting a church in the middle of a race riot. There just isn’t. So, we really learned what it means to trust the Lord and invest in people deeply, invest in a neighborhood deeply so that we can both improve the lives and hearts of the people as well as the neighborhood and pursue the common good.  And so, that changed the trajectory of my life. 

[00:08:15] Tommy Thomas: So yeah, pursuing the common good. What did that look like, could you take us into how you executed that? 

[00:08:22] Alvin Sanders: Yes. It starts with the philosophical bent of you have to be deeply committed to the people of the neighborhood and the place that it’s in.

There are no walls to the church.  The people who are typically in communities of poverty, folk come in there and they don’t have a deep commitment to them. They come and go as they please. They don’t have a long-term commitment to them. And so, in terms of the people, it’s just a biblical process of, evangelism, discipleship, helping them become better people in Christ.

But in terms of commitment to place we utilized very heavily a concept called asset-based community development, or ABCD, where you map out the assets of a community. Because when it comes to communities of poverty, in a lot of places, people always look at what’s wrong with the community.

Asset-based community development says every community has things that are wrong. What’s right with the community? And look at what’s right with the community and see how you can be. How you can fill the glass up, so to speak. If the glass is half full or half empty is the negative stuff half full? Is the water in the glass?

So how do you raise the level of water, so to speak? And so, when we did our asset-based mapping, we saw that what the community did not have was many services for the working poor. Yeah, because most of the people who are in poverty are working. They’re not the folks standing on the corner saying, please, brother, can you spare a dime?

They’re not those people. Not that those people aren’t in poverty, but that’s not what the face of poverty looks like. The face of poverty in the United States looks like a single mother with kids who’s working a service industry job. And so, we really began a ministry towards that group.

Working with my wife to establish a food pantry and health check center in the back part of the church. So, we established a food pantry that people could utilize once a month because that’s really all they needed once we did our surveying. And that helped them stretch their check. They could come in, they could get the groceries, and they maybe had money for three weeks, but then this would be the fourth week.

And then also while they were there, we partnered with Xavier University with their nursing student program, and nursing students would be in the back and they could get they can get diabetes check and things of that nature. And then if they had any health issues, we would refer them down the street to a local health clinic.

And then we also had a person, one of our staff members who would sit in the back and say, hey – anybody have any spiritual concerns or any spiritual or anything, you want us to pray for this, that or the other, or just see general life advice from the Word then they could go stop there. 

So, we had a three-stop shop where people could come get their food, they could get their health checked, and then they can be ministered to spiritually as well.

[00:11:28] Tommy Thomas: Obviously most of my experience with you has been in the hiring mode. And I probably know a little bit of the answer to this next question. But for people who wonder what a CEO looks for in senior leadership, take us into some of the qualities that you’re looking for in leaders.

[00:11:43] Alvin Sanders: Yes. Basically, and I don’t remember which guru I got this from, or what book I read it from, so it’s not original to me. But there are two main characteristics that I always look for in my team. Can they do the job right and can they do the job well? Can they do the job right has to do with their moral character and whether or not they fit into our core values at World Impact.

So we screened for that, and then we hired you all to screen for can they do the job well. That has to do with skillsets and the abilities that people may have in order to do the job description that we have designed for that particular job. 

Can they do the job right? Can they do the job well? Those are the two big things that I look for in my team to contribute to the leading of World Impact.

[00:12:35] Tommy Thomas: I remember, and yours was the first, and I guess so far the only client I’ve had that used this thing, I think you called it a circle of voices. And I thought that was cool.

And every listener may use it in their work. I don’t know. But take us into that.

[00:12:49] Alvin Sanders: When we’re making major decisions, we don’t do it for every decision. We do it only for major decisions. We do a circle of voices and again, I don’t remember where I picked this up from, but what we do is whatever the decision that we have to make, we give to everybody around the table, you have to speak for at least two minutes, but no more than five minutes and give your perspective on what decision we need to make and why, and it’s like you’re in court, you’re a lawyer, make your case for why, what do we, what do you think we need to do and why? And nobody else can speak while that person is speaking. And then I’m literally the timekeeper.

So you only get five minutes. You must speak for at least two minutes, but you only get five. And then after each person has spoken, then we open the floor up for dialogue and debate and come to a collaborative decision. 

[00:13:52] Tommy Thomas: On the flip side of that, and I hadn’t been with you on this, but what goes into how you finally decide somebody’s got to go and what have you seen the best way to do it? 

[00:14:02] Alvin Sanders: We try to err on the side of grace. And we believe in weekly feedback.

So, our supervisors theoretically are coaches. So theoretically, if we say you’re to supervise someone, it’s because we believe that you can coach that person to be a better person who contributes to the mission of our organization. So, if someone is constantly not living up to what we desire for them to do within our organization, then we utilize the tool that everybody else utilizes a Performance Improvement Plan or PIP.

And some people think, once I’ve been PIPPED that’s just the time period that you have for me to work until I have to find another job. But that’s not what we utilize it for. Hopefully, we really want to say, hey, we want you to improve. And there have been people that we have put on Performance Improvement Plans that they actually emerged out of that, and they kept going.

And then after a PIP, if you still aren’t doing what you need to do, then we just have a brutally honest conversation with the person. Just say, hey, it’s not working out here for you. It’s time for you to transition out. We always work hard to get people to self-select out. And 90 – 95% of the time, that’s what happens.

We are long-suffering. We practice the spiritual discipline of patience.

It’s no surprises. The only people who get fired from our organization are people who do egregious violations of our core values. If you do an egregious violation of our core values, then you must go, because we’ve communicated our core values to you.

Core values to us are not just some booklet that sits on a shelf. We actually live them. We do things to catalyze them. So, most people that get fired, they’ve egregiously violated, but the overwhelming majority of people who are World Impact transition out. If they’re not, we help them figure out how to transition out and self-select.

[00:16:15] Tommy Thomas:  You mentioned you were in senior leadership fairly early on. Who were some of the mentors in your life and how did that play out?

[00:16:23] Alvin Sanders: Yeah, I’ve had several mentors the aforementioned City Gospel Mission and Roger Howell. He was my first boss who really helped shape and mold me into the person I am today.

When I worked in Chicago for two years and I worked at a place called Circle Urban Ministry, Glen Kayron was someone who invested in me deeply. When I did my PhD studies Dr. Michael Dantley, who’s a prominent African American pastor in the city of Cincinnati, as well as he was a professor at Miami University, and I studied under him. He played a key role in my development as well. 

[00:16:59] Tommy Thomas:   Did these people see something in you, and of course I guess your bosses, they can understand that. But did mentors see something in you and seek you out, or did you see something in them and figured you’d be better if you could sit under their tutelage?

[00:17:16] Alvin Sanders: Well, it’s a combination of both. And I actually left one out that he’s probably the person who saw the most in me at the beginning, and that’s a gentleman ny name of Dr. Jonathan Burnham, who his church, Hope Evangelical Free Church, was the parent church of my church, River of Life church.

And he saw me as a tremendous leader. Way more than I did. I had leadership characteristics, but I was extremely raw and rough around the edges, and Jonathan Burnham really invested in me and my family and helped us when we planted River of Life Church. And those seven, eight years I spent under his tutelage were tremendous.

[00:17:56] Tommy Thomas: I never phrased this question exactly right, but I guess I’m looking for when you recognized, and maybe you acknowledged that you did have leadership potential and some of those rough edges began to smooth and you felt more comfortable moving.  Do you remember that? 

[00:18:11] Alvin Sanders: 

I’m arrogant enough to have never thought I wasn’t a leader.  It was never about that for me. What it was about for me was getting more polished.

If I was in the room, I was going to lead, that’s just the way it was going to go because that’s the way my personality type I’m told, so the old Myers Briggs, I am an ENTJ, and I’m told that’s a characteristic of that personality type that we either lead or we influence.

The head leaders, we take our ball, and we go home. That’s basically our personality type. Okay. So, for me, it was a matter of how to be a good godly leader. How to get polished to be able to do that instead of just leading rough shot and wild. 

[00:18:56] Tommy Thomas: Thinking about your team do y’all have any team-building exercises that you use that you found effective as you try to bring this group together?

[00:19:05] Alvin Sanders: We have a meeting rhythm as a team. We get together for 90 minutes every four or five weeks, and then once a quarter we do a two-and-a-half day offsite. And the offsite is a combination of relationship building as well as business items. During our 90-minute time together, we always start our meetings off by sharing one good thing. What’s one good thing professionally or personally that’s happened to us since our last time together? We also always have prayer time together. And during our offsites, we have extended sharing, and extended prayer because I have a saying that I care much more about who you are as a person than what you do.

And we live that. And we live that out. And that’s the biggest thing that we do as an executive team in order to, for us to be glued to one another. 

[00:20:03] Tommy Thomas: So y’all have operated as a virtual organization from a long time ago. And obviously, it’s worked, or you wouldn’t be doing it.  Tell us a little bit about that. 

[00:20:13] Alvin Sanders: Yes. We were virtual before it was cool to be virtual. And the prior president to me, Efrem Smith, he’s the one who implemented that. And then when I came in being virtual can be done, but you have to be very intentional about relationship building, like the things that I just talked about.

Operating a virtual ministry can be done but you must be VERY intentional about relationship building.

We have monthly prayer times where we have all staff get on Zoom for an hour, and half that hour we spend in prayer, both large group and small group. And in the other half, we highlight two staff members where we just do some lighthearted questions and answers and let everybody get to know one another.

Once a year we gather all staff together for one day of team meetings, and then two and a half days of really just fun. And investing in one another and encouraging one another around one of our core values. Because we have five core values. So, we do a theme each year. 

So, we do a lot of intentional relationship-building. And we just experimented with something that we’re probably going to keep and that it’s in the spring. We’ve had regional gatherings, so we have staff spread off all across the country and we gather staff for a day in Cincinnati, a day in Wichita, Kansas, and a day in Long Beach.

And based on where you lived, you went to one of those locations and we had some training and team-building time. So really to sum it all up, it’s intentional relationship building. 

[00:21:45] Tommy Thomas: What was the biggest lesson on the positive front that your team took out of Covid relative to management and leadership?

[00:21:54] Alvin Sanders: Wow. The biggest lesson.

[00:22:00] Tommy Thomas: Something that you might take forward. You might think COVID is gone, but we’re still going to probably do that. 

[00:22:04] Alvin Sanders: Actually, you know what? It’s what we just talked about because we weren’t doing all that before covid. We were virtual, but we weren’t gathering, we were not utilizing the tool of technology like we do now, and we were not gathering like we do now.

[00:22:21] Tommy Thomas: I thought early on that Covid was bound to have some kind of silver lining and usually everybody that I talked to, there’s some kind of silver lining for it.

[00:22:32] Alvin Sanders: And that’s what it was because we weren’t we started praying online together because this is a serious time.

We want to pray for our country and pray for each other. Let’s get online once a month and all pray together. And it was like, you know what? This is pretty awesome. Let’s keep doing it. 

[00:22:47] Tommy Thomas: What’s the most dangerous behavior or trait that you’ve seen derail a leader’s career?

[00:22:53] Alvin Sanders: The number one thing I think that either makes or derails a leader’s career is emotional intelligence. Having self-awareness of your strengths and your weaknesses and adjusting accordingly. Being able to look at others and not see them as an object in your way or just, not as human beings and people actually caring about them and their work and their contribution.

The number one thing I think that either makes or derails a leader’s career is emotional intelligence. Having self-awareness of your strengths and your weaknesses and adjusting accordingly.

As well as them as people, individually, people who do not have good emotional intelligence. Eventually, the house burns down. That’s what I’ve seen. 

[00:23:39] Tommy Thomas:   It’s been said that we learn the most from our failures or our mistakes. If that’s true, why is it that most of us are so afraid to fail?

[00:23:48] Alvin Sanders: I don’t think you can learn, Tommy, unless you do fail. I have a weird goal and that’s to fail every day. Because if I’m not making mistakes, that means I’m not pushing myself to be the best person I could be.  Because no one knows everything. The way you get to learn things is you have to fail at it first.

It’s impossible to know something until you have some failures.

It’s impossible to know something until you have some failures, and then in those failures, you say, okay, what can I pick up and learn from this? And then you move forward. 

[00:24:19] Tommy Thomas:  I was talking to Alec Hill, the President Emeritus of InterVarsity, or maybe it was Rich Stearns.  I forget which one. But anyway, they said, “Never trust a leader who doesn’t have a limp”. 

[00:24:31] Alvin Sanders: Yeah – Amen on that. 

[00:24:33] Tommy Thomas:  I know you’re a busy man and yet you’ve talked about how you like to rest and enjoy. How do you and your wife handle work-life balance in your leadership role? 

You know what, I’m contrarian on that. I think it’s impossible to have work-life balance.

[00:24:45] Alvin Sanders: You know what, I’m contrarian on that. I think it’s impossible to have work-life balance. I don’t like to look at it that way. I like to look at it as seasons. There are seasons of busyness and then there are seasons of Sabbath and rest. And that’s how I view my life and that’s how my wife and I do that now.

We’re empty nesters now. Yeah, we’re much less busy than we used to be. We’re still busy. But I think like I said I’m a contrarian and I believe that it’s impossible to have a work-life balance or I just never figured out how to do it. It’s just,  look, I live my life in 90 days sprints, right?

And I go, okay, honey, this is what my 90 days is going to look like. The month of July, not going to see you much. But look here, in mid-August, I’m taking 10 days off. We’ll be together. So it’s quarter-like to me, it’s seasons. And it’s seasons of super busyness and then seasons where you’re not so busy and when you’re not so busy, you make sure to take time to connect relationally with the people who are most important to you.

[00:25:52] Tommy Thomas: What’s the hardest decision you’ve had to make in leadership? 

[00:26:03] Alvin Sanders: There’s been a ton. The hardest decision I had to make concerning my own personal level of leadership was the decision that I made in 2007 to leave the pastorate and work for the denomination.

And the thing that got me was the President who unfortunately has passed away, Bill Hamill, he asked me the question, he said, Alvin, do you want to influence one church or do you want to influence 1500 churches? And honestly, I had to ask myself and I said, “I want to influence 1500 churches”.

And that was a super tough decision because our church, the Church River of Life. We still go there, by the way, even though we don’t pastor there. Me and my wife says that’s our third child. We have two wonderful daughters and River of Life. We basically feel like that’s our third child.

So, it was literally like leaving your child to someone else’s care when we left that. 

[00:27:03] Tommy Thomas: You worked for a great guy in Bill Hamill. I had the privilege of knowing him over the years and it was always good. I always loved my time with Bill.

[00:27:11] Alvin Sanders: Great man. A great man of God.

[00:27:14] Tommy Thomas:  Changing up maybe on a little bit lighter note, if you were a judge on a nonprofit version of Shark Tank and you had deep pockets, what questions would you have to have solid answers for before you would back one of these startups? 

[00:27:33] Alvin Sanders: I don’t know about specific questions, but I know the things that I would screen for.

I would screen for the person – do they know who they are and what they want to do? Essentially, that’s where my big questions would be about. Do they know who are they solidly? Can they solidly define who they are as a person and as an individual? And can they solidly describe where they think they want to go?  And take then, therefore, take the organization that they’re leading. 

[00:28:06] Tommy Thomas:  On the same line of thought, if you were developing a dashboard for a nonprofit to get a look at their health, what are some of your dials going to be? 

[00:28:19] Alvin Sanders: I would want to look at how they do with staff development and stability.

What kind of people are they hiring? What kind of things are these people doing? Are they organized correctly? The org chart, things of that nature. I would also want to look at their systems and how they do things and what are their processes and how do they get things done. What are the tools that they use?

Are they correctly dialed into technology and things of that nature to help them achieve their mission? And as well as the obvious one is financially, how are they doing financially? What’s their revenue generation look like? Are they built? Really, if you take those things together, then you can make a determination.  Are they built for sustainability for the long haul? 

[00:29:07] Tommy Thomas: If you could go back to a time and tell your younger self one thing, what would that be?

[00:29:12] Alvin Sanders: Relax. Relax. Not that serious. Slow down. Why are you running so hard? Where are you trying to go? Stop and smell the roses.

[00:29:26] Tommy Thomas: If you had a do-over in your career, what would it be?

[00:29:30] Alvin Sanders: I would say in the generality, there were probably opportunities. Here let me give a little bit of context. Okay. God is very merciful to me in that there are opportunities that I turned down, which for whatever reason, circle back to me. And then the second or third time, I recognized it for the opportunity that it was, and I took it.

So, the one do over, I would say just speaking in generalities, is being able to recognize opportunities for what they are right off the bat. And not having God have to circle back for me. 

[00:30:24] Tommy Thomas: I’m thankful to Alvin for taking time from his schedule to join us today. After we stopped recording. I told him that we could have talked for another hour. I really enjoyed the time with him. I’ll post links to Alvin’s work with world impact in the show notes. As well as links to some of the books that he has written. 

[00:30:24] Tommy Thomas: Thank you for joining us today. If you are a first-time listener, I hope you will subscribe and become a regular. You can find links to all the episodes at our website –

If there are topics you’d like for me to explore my email address is [email protected].   Word of mouth has been identified as the most valuable form of marketing.   Surveys tell us that consumers believe recommendations from friends and family over all other forms of advertising. 

If you’ve heard something today that’s worth passing on, please share it with others. You’re already helping me make something special for the next generation of nonprofit leaders. I’ll be back next week with a new episode until then stay the course on our journey to help make the nonprofit sector more effective and sustainable. 

“If you are going to operate a virtual organization, you must be VERY INTENTIONAL about relationship building.” -Alvin Sanders

Links and Resources

JobfitMatters Website

Next Gen Nonprofit Leadership with Tommy Thomas

Alvin Sanders – World Impact

Uncommon Church: Community Transformation for the Common Good by Alvin Sanders

Redemptive Poverty Work by Alvin Sanders

Bridging the Diversity Gap: Leading Toward God’s Multi-Ethnic Kingdom by Alvin Sanders


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