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Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #6

I recently used a Community Wealth Ventures convening of leading nonprofits in Cincinnati, and then a lecture at the Kennedy School in Boston, as an opportunity to discuss Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth over the past two years. Specifically I sought to tease out and understand the key ingredients of that growth, almost as if presenting a case study. This is a unique moment in our 25 year history. And our recent experience is all but unique across the broader nonprofit sector. That makes it a valuable learning opportunity that could help others, whether within or outside the hunger field.

At Share Our Strength our revenues hovered around $13 million annually in the years between 2004-2008. We were a classic case of the nonprofit whose growth had reached a plateau. We were stuck. Then we sharpened our strategy and made investments in capacity – including a few we could not afford. 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 it was not accidental or coincidental. The specific reasons follow below.

Lesson #7 Accountability is a powerful differentiator in a crowded, competitive marketplace.

Accountability is a powerful differentiator in a crowded, competitive marketplace. Good intentions have long been the Achilles heel of the nonprofit universe because they are often the rationale for not being rigorous about measurement. But as the philanthropic marketplace gradually becomes more responsive and begins to reward high performance and superior strategy and execution and penalize low performance, stakeholders look for accountability.

Support for rigorous accountability is found in inverse proximity to geography. Those inside and closest to you will be the least comfortable with it. When we first gathered about 60 of our closest allies in the anti-hunger community to share our vision for ending childhood hunger, about 59 of them were against it, for a variety of predictable reasons: “How would we measure? What if we failed?” Mostly the culture of our sector was one of discomfort with accountability. When we presented the same notion to our business partners their response was the mirror image opposite: “If you are telling us that you have a goal line, and you know how far you are from it, and what it takes to get across, we are in.”

For most donors and partners in the nonprofit sector, there are no apples-to-apples measurement for return on investment. How do you know if you get more impact putting your dollars into Share Our Strength or Feeding America? In Teach For America or College Summit? In City Year or Experience Corps? But if one of the choices holds itself accountable to specific outcomes and the others only to aspirations, that is at least a clear and powerful differentiator.
But accountability doesn’t come cheap. It costs money to measure and to communicate what you’ve measured. That is money that might have gone instead into providing even more service or benefits to the population you serve. In the short-term. But the bet is that in the longer term accountability will eventually yield ever more resources so that you can serve more than you otherwise would have.
Tomorrow: lesson #7 Social Entrepreneurship and Public Policy

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