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Sharing Our Growth: Go Big or Go Home

This is the third in a series of posts that will tease out key ingredients from the exponential growth of Share Our Strength over the past few years.

As I mentioned in my post earlier this week, Share Our Strength’s initial failure of imagination was to focus on feeding people not ending hunger. We had no specific goal and therefore no way of knowing whether we were moving towards it.

The linchpin of our growth was a commitment to shift away from this short-term incremental progress in favor of long-term transformational change.

  • The former is easy and comfortable. It is the norm, the natural order of things. You know how to get there. But so does everyone else.
  • The latter is risky and hard to achieve.  But it provides the inspiration that generates motivation, resources and a new sense of what is possible.

Chicago architect Daniel Burnham, who designed Washington D.C.’s Union Station once said “Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood and probably themselves will not be realized. Think big.”   Establishing the bold goal of ending childhood hunger – not reducing, reversing, or redressing, but ending it – represented transformational change and more than any other factor has been responsible for our growth.

This was a complete departure from the way we’d done business for two decades.It required a different strategy as well as different staff, skills and experience than we possessed at the time:

  • We already had a highly skilled staff but they weren’t necessarily skilled in some of the new directions in which we were moving.
  • We had been a grant maker to other organizations, an intermediary, whose dollars were doing good things, but not necessarily moving the needle in a measurable way, or getting to the root causes of why children were hungry.
  • We had priorities; we had well defined buckets of activities, but not a vision for ending hunger or a plan for achieving it.

Our strategy was premised on the fact that kids in America are not hungry because of lack of food or because of lack of food and nutrition programs, but because they lack access to those programs.  Programs like school breakfast and summer feeding and food stamps, whose funds have been already authorized and appropriated with bipartisan support.

So our strategy was to coordinate and resource the community organizing needed at the local level to knock down whatever barriers were preventing kids from enrolling in these programs.  It meant leveraging OPM (other people’s money, mostly federal funds) and so naturally it yielded a great return on investment.

Devising a more compelling strategy is the nonprofit equivalent of product development.  As any successful business leader will tell you, getting the product right is first among equals.  Les Wexner, the founder of The Limited (Victoria’s Secret, Bath and Body Works) says: “Until you get the product right, nothing else matters. Once you get the product right, everything else matters.”

In the nonprofit world your product is your strategy or “theory of change” or, more simply, the outcomes you promise to deliver. Until you get it right, nothing else matters.

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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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