Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #7

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

Social entrepreneurship without public policy is like a garage band without amps. It may be fun, cool, and trendy, but it won’t reach very far. If your mission is ambitious and impactful the odds are it cannot be achieved without a public policy component. At its most basic building political will simply means that you’ve succeeded in getting a broader base of people to care about your mission than just those immediately affected by it.

There are many things nonprofits can do that government cannot. They can innovate and take risks and be closer to the people they serve. But once they’ve built a better mousetrap, it requires public support to get it to scale. Otherwise you are pushing a boulder up a hill and it will slide down again.

This need not necessarily mean lobbying. But it does mean building some capacity to engage in policy development at both the federal and local level, share and advance ideas with policy makers and ultimately bring some political pressure to bear on behalf of your ideas. Political will is the fuel that brings effective ideas to scale through the enactment and execution of policy.

Tonmorrow: Lesson #8. Most failures are failures of imagination

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