Bearing Witness

by Billy Shore

Share Our Strength’s unprecedented growth: secrets of success, lesson #2

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Share

             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 #2
The most importance audience for your new strategy is sitting next to you.   You will likely identify many potential external stakeholders whose support is essential to your success, but those who will be most important are those you sit next to.  This is often taken for granted or overlooked but it is absolutely indispensible. Organizations invest great effort in trying to persuade external stakeholders like donors, press, corporate partners, etc. of the merits of their idea, usually more than they invest in persuading their most important constituency: each other!   
Don’t expect that this can be accomplished by e-mail. Serious strategies to solve previously unsolved problems are almost by definition likely to be complex.  As the physicist Richard Feyman said to reporters who asked him to explain his Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics in ways they average person could understand: “If I could explain it to the average person, it probably would not have won a Nobel Prize.”
After all of the hard work that goes into developing a strategy, it is often assumed that everyone understands and agrees with it, or more important, understands it the same way. But that is rarely the case.
Such unity and alignment does not just happen by itself.  We invested a tremendous amount of time in ensuring that the same words meant the same things to our executive leadership team and then to other layers of our staff.  Did we all mean the same thing when using the words “end”,  and “childhood”  and “hunger”.  It turns out that we didn’t.  And how were we going to measure our success?  By government statistics, our own field reports, internal or independent evaluators?  Turns out we all had different ideas about that too.  How would we resource and pay for our efforts?
How can you convince others of the credibility and criticality of your strategy – others who will not spend a fraction of the time on it that you have spent – if you haven’t convinced each other?   No one is more invested in your success than the colleagues who sit alongside you.
Tomorrow: Lesson #3: Talent Trumps All Else