The Legacy of Charity: Leadership Lessons from a Mexican Orphanage


All purpose-driven leaders have charities they are committed to and charitable works they do. It’s the right thing to do and a practice you naturally gravitate toward. But have you ever stepped back to consider the long-range impact of these efforts and the reach they can have over decades – even a hundred years?

"It’s surprising what you can do in a lifetime if you do it just a little at a time."

—Father William B. Wasson, Founder of Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos™

As a young priest assigned to Cuernavaca, Mexico, Father William Wasson rescued a boy from a harsh prison sentence for stealing from the church poor box "because he was hungry." Fr. Wasson won custody of the boy and eight others in the cell with the boy. Thus began Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos™ (NPH), which means Our Little Brothers and Sisters. 

Fr. Wasson dedicated 50 years of his life to serving as a father, provider, and teacher to more than 18,000 orphaned, abandoned and poor children. NPH now operates homes in nine countries: Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Peru, and Bolivia. 

Always interested in making things better, in the 1960’s Fr. Wasson invited leadership expert Michael Maccoby to come and study NPH and the children. Michael observed and talked with them over time and saw that children arrived depressed and traumatized, but within two years they were happy. What started to happen was Fr. Wasson teaching Dr. Maccoby about the power of organizing principles in shaping lives and shaping a community.  

First, Fr. Wasson saw his purpose as not just to save the lives of these children, but to develop them into productive and caring people. To do that, NPH focused on four key principles developed over time and experience:  

  1. Security – Children know they are not going to be “thrown out.” They are part of a family. They are educated and trained so they have a skill when they leave. Fr. Wasson used the term “unconditional love,” to express the commitment to each child.  
  2. Work – If the children are just given things, they will be passive. Everyone works, even the youngest kids.  This teaches children how they too can grow up to be contributors of love and caring, not just receivers.
  3. Sharing with Others – They all think about others. Christianity in Fr. Wasson’s view was sharing and caring for others. This means having a deep understanding of people and seeing the best in them.
  4. Responsibility and Co-responsibility – He didn’t want bureaucracy, or a long list of rules children and their care takers had to follow.  Instead he wanted them acting from the heart, doing what’s right. “Have a humanistic conscience, not an authoritarian conscience,” was his message.  

Here is a link to a wonderful video that brings these principles to life.

The reach and impact of NPH has been and is today far-reaching. The lives of tens of thousands of children have been transformed. One testament to the power of this family experience is the current leadership of NPH. In the nine countries where they are based, five of them are headed by former orphans who grew up in the orphanage, went to university, and came back to leadership roles. 

Michael Maccoby has continued to work with NPH for more than 50 years. His contribution to the organization’s lasting success and its growth has been significant, as has his own learning. He has tracked and interviewed children over time, he has studied how the NPH family principles are carried over into new countries, and he has brought other leaders along to help.

I was lucky enough to be one of those he invited to join him on a visit to Nicaragua.  Father Wasson was an elderly person by then but still engaged fully in the work.  When I came face to face with smiling, healthy children and thought about their alternative of being abandoned in the street as children, it was both inspiring and heart breaking.  What most impressed me was the long-term commitment the orphanage had to each child.  As they say to every child, “you are family and you will always be family.”  

Michael’s long-range work with Fr. Wasson and the NPH Team illustrates the exponential impact charitable efforts can make when you focus your efforts and commit for the long-term. This kind of lasting commitment creates a true legacy.

As one of the former Pequeños says, “If we know how to live life following the principles of the NPH family, following what they taught us here, we will go through life leaving footprints. And that transcends to our homes, to our own families in the future, and to our own children. It’s something that will always be there, and no one will be able to erase it.”