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Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #9

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 # 9 Margaret Mead Was Wrong.

Randomly visit the headquarters of any ten nonprofits and you’ll find that at least nine have a poster somewhere on their wall with the iconic and reassuring words of Margaret Mead to “never doubt that a small group of people can change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” The words are reassuring and inspiring but would be more accurate if amended to read “can begin to change the world.” Actually changing the world takes a lot more than a small group. In fact it takes more people than you can know, speak with, meet with, and a commitment to reaching out to circle after circle of potential allies in ways that are accessible to them and empowering them.

Whenever we stopped to think about what it would really take to leverage (as opposed to raise) the billions of dollars necessary to change the lives of millions kids across thousands of miles and numerous cultures, it became obvious that no matter how committed our staff of 50 or 100 or 150 might be, that was just a fraction of the people that would be necessary.

One of the critical operating principles of an organization should be to relentlessly increase the number of shareholders that has genuine ownership for creating change. This not only means collaborating, partnering, forging coalitions, etc., but also giving real ownership to others so that they are working with you or even independently of you, toward a shared objective. Whenever you think your ambitious mission is the sole province of your own small dedicated team, you are thinking too small and destined to fall short.

Tomorrow: Lesson #10 Pay Attention to What Matter Most, Not to What Others Think Matters Most

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