It’s been an amazing year for Share Our Strength, and worth reflecting on any learning’s to be taken from our growth and experience. Here’s my list of the top 10 lessons learned in 2010 – based on nothing more than my own personal opinion. There aren’t many “aha” surprises, just some common sense that merits reinforcement. It is by no means all inclusive. But some of what we learned may be applicable to your favorite nonprofit! Feel free to add your own two cents!
1. Talent tops all. Our investment in ensuring that the right people are in the right positions has strengthened every facet of our work from strategy to development to communications, etc.
2. Surpluses are more fun than debt. After years of debilitating and distracting discussions about whether we would be able to make our budget, the discipline to deliver a surplus created a liberating result: our ability to focus on strategy and substance, rather than shifting around small pots of money to cover bets gone bad.
3. Speed makes up for size. Our early and decisive action on matters ranging from Haiti to support for the Child Nutrition Bill when others waivered, enabled us to “punch above our weight” and have disproportionate influence and impact on important issues.
4. Celebrity counts, and if authentic, counts a lot. The fact that Jeff Bridges had a 25 year record of activism on hunger issues, and really does care, made him an asset worth waiting for over all of these years that we have otherwise eschewed celebrity involvement.
5. Simplicity and accountability are an inspiring combination. The No Kid Hungry campaign and the state strategy offer a promise nearly unique in the social change world, which is a commitment to actually measure progress based on increases or decreased in participation among children who are eligible but not yet enrolled in food and nutrition programs.
6. Entrepreneurship and policy are a powerful combination. Most of the organizations started by social entrepreneurs – whether Teach For America, Venture Philanthropy Partners, City Year, College Summit, et al – have innovated in ways government never could, but also embraced a role in advocating for improved public policy to scale their innovations – just as we more recently have done.
7. Blue oceans offer smoother sailing that red oceans. Our state strategy is an affirmation of the business strategy book of 2005 called Blue Ocean Strategy which makes the case for “the high growth and profits an organization can generate by creating new demand in an uncontested marketplace.” We have found ourselves virtually along in focusing on the role of governors and state governments in ending childhood hunger.
8. Most failures are failures of imagination. I’ve beat this one to death – mostly via my new book, The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men, so enough for now but suffice it to say that I hope our culture remains one in which we always challenge the conventional wisdom, remain undeterred by the difficult and impractical, and committed to achieving the best possible version of ourselves. As Chuck Scofield shared with me over the weekend, from the HBO special on legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi “We are going to relentlessly chase perfection, knowing full well we will not catch it, because nothing is perfect. But we are going to relentlessly chase it, because in the process we will catch excellence.”
9. Capacity equals impact. Investing in building and strengthening internal capacity, while often mis-interpreted as increasing overhead, and disparaged by formula-based ratings systems, can be the most direct and effective way of increasing impact against mission.
10. Even our best year is not sufficient in an economy that keeps 44 million Americans below the poverty line. 2010 was a great year but we have to make 2011 an even better one. Too many Americans are hurting – especially kids. We probably can’t work much harder but we have to work smarter and continue to bring new allies, new resources, and new partners into the battle.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to get to do this work, and especially to do it with the amazing team at Share Our Strength. My best for the holidays and for a happy New Year.