Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #10

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 #10 Pay attention to what matters most, not to what others think matters most.

Because nonprofits are typically insecure about the impact they are having – because impact is hard to have and even harder to measure and communicate – they often are seduced into paying attention to what others think is important: press coverage, brand awareness, efficiency ratings of GuideStar and Charity Navigator, etc. And some of these may in fact be important. But ascertain that for yourself rather than assuming it. These may all be nice to have but not necessary to achieving mission. In fact Share Our Strength made many investments that impacted our “overhead to grant making” ratio in ways that hurt us with the ratings organizations, but had almost no negative impact on our donors or reputation, and actually helped our growth.

Donors, partners, foundations, and media all have strong biases about the way nonprofits should work. But they will not have your expertise in solving the specific set of social problems your organization was created to solve. So work to respectfully educate them but don’t let their own interests cause you to detour from your strategy.
Tomorrow: Lesson 12: Create Community Wealth

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