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Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #8

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 #8

Most failures are failure of imagination. As far back as the 1500’s Michel De Montaigne “Fortis imagination generat casum”: a powerful imagination generates the event. Imagination makes it possible to envision and create a world which does not yet exist but is within our grasp. No one thought it realistic that college graduates without teaching degrees could succeed in underserved schools until Wendy Kopp and Teach For America imagined it. No one assumed that a pharmaceutical devoted to developing medicines for neglected diseases like malaria could operate as a nonprofit until Victoria Hale imagined it and created the Institute for One World health. At Share Our Strength our initial failure of imagination was to focus on feeding people not ending hunger. Once we made that leap everything changed, as described in greater detail, and with plenty of other examples, in my new book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men.

Tomorrow: lesson #9: Margaret Mead was wrong. It takes more than a small group!

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