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Sharing Our Growth: A Look Back at Getting Unstuck

From 2004 to 2008, Share Our Strength was stuck. Our revenues hovered around $13 million annually. We were a classic case of the nonprofit whose growth had reached a plateau.

Like many nonprofits we face the task of solving the toughest problems of all: those that affect people so vulnerable and voiceless that there are no markets – no economic markets or political markets – available or dedicated to solving them. Nonprofits exist to bridge that gap – to step in as a response to market failures. When those markets fail, we are first responders.

Even leaving the hardships of the recent economic downturn aside, there is a challenging natural trajectory for many organizations – whether traditional or social entrepreneur – characterized, after a few years of initial growth, by reaching a plateau from which it is hard to break free.

Share Our Strength was stuck in just such a spot in the early part of last decade.

Then we sharpened our strategy and made investments in capacity – including a few we could not afford – and we are now enjoying accelerated growth.

Our revenues grew

  • to about $19 million in 2009,
    • $26 million in 2010, and
      • they will be $34 million this year.

We added 30 staff to a base of 65 in 2010 and we are hiring for 20 more now.

Though improbable this growth was not accidental or coincidental. Unfortunately, growth often leaves intellectual capital in its wake. If you keep speeding ahead without looking back it dissipates as surely as the ripples fanning out behind a speed boat. I want to capture and preserve some of that intellectual capital so that we continue to remain cognizant of its importance and utilize it going forward.

I’ve recently been striving to tease out and understand the key ingredients of our growth, hoping the lessons might combine into a valuable learning opportunity that could help others, whether within or outside the hunger field.

This is a unique moment in our 25 year history. And our recent experience is all but unique across the broader nonprofit sector.

I doubt that there are many organizations that would not trade their growth curve over the past 24 months for ours if they could. Given the reversals most nonprofits suffered during the recession and its’ aftermath, a careful analysis of what worked for us might have great practical utility to others.

By using Share Our Strength as a kind of case study I don’t mean to imply we’ve done everything right – in fact just the opposite. What may be most telling and instructive is how long we went along without the ingredients for growth in place, and what it took to reverse that. And of course we are continuing to learn as we go. Perhaps our track record – good and bad – can provide some short cuts for other organizations – and save them a few years of being marooned on that no-growth plateau.

Over the next few months, I will post a number of lessons that I’ve teased out from the growth of Share Our Strength. The Community Wealth Partners team will also post responses, bringing in their own unique experiences, lessons learned and client examples. I look forward to jointly examining this topic, and I hope other individuals and organizations are inspired to also engage in this process of discussion and learning.

Note: This is the first in a series of post that will examine the growth of Share Our Strength.

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About Billy Shore

Billy Shore is the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. Shore is also the chairman of Community Wealth Partners, a Share Our Strength organization that helps change agents solve social problems at the magnitude they exist.

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