This is a big week for Idealist! We’re launching a new network for action and change that will allow people, online and on the ground, to come together and take action on causes they care about.
In honor of this new network, we’re sharing the stories and advice of people who are tackling social problems by focusing on bringing people together. Learn more about our network here. This interview originally appeared here and has been edited.
Billy Shore, Chief Executive Officer, together with his sister, Debbie Shore, co-founded Share Our Strength, a national nonprofit that is ending childhood hunger in America. The Shores founded Share Our Strength in 1984 with a $2,000 cash advance on a credit card. Since then, Share Our Strength has raised and invested more than $376 million in the fight against hunger, and has won the support of national leaders in business, government, health and education, sports and entertainment. However, Billy and Debbie aren’t just interested in fighting hunger; they’re invested in ending childhood hunger in America. I reached out to Billy and Debbie to learn about their recipe for success, what they wish they knew when they were just getting started 30 years ago, and what each of them does to keep the passion alive. Today, the focus is on Billy. Check in tomorrow for part two and hear from Debbie Shore.
No Kid Hungry and the programs of Share Our Strength have been successful in creating long-term social change and connecting kids with food where they live, learn and play. What has been your recipe for success?
Billy (B): For No Kid Hungry, wow, that’s a tall order. The number one ingredient in the recipe would be setting a goal that was bold, but achievable. In the mode of Jonathan Kozol, “Pick battles big enough to matter, small enough to win.” Setting a goal that really inspired people to think that they could achieve something really momentous, but at the same time it not being so out of reach. It’s important to strike a balance. Almost everything flowed from that and from having a really clear definition of what success looks like.
Most organizations, somehow never ask or answer this very basic, but telling and decisive question – what does success look like? In other words, how do you know when you’re done? We will know when we are done with the No Kid Hungry campaign because there will be no kids who are hungry. What comes with that, is a not only a bold goal, but also accountability. This is No Kid Hungry in action. Since summer 2011, No Kid Hungry efforts have helped bring more than 34 million additional meals to kids who need them. And we’ve found ways to replicate that success across the country. As a national campaign with a local approach, we’re seeing incredible results – in many places, as little as $1 invested can help a child access 10 meals. In other locations, just $46 connects a child to meals all year long, including a year of school breakfast and a summer of lunches.
Share Our Strength has a keen ability to bring people from all walks of life around the table – business and nonprofit leaders, policy makers, volunteers, and so on. How do you get everyone to work together to ensure you have an impact?
B: Part of the answer is embedded in the question – diversity of interests around the table. No one group, no one issue can, by itself, solve the problem. We need people from business, government and policy, advocacy, nonprofit and so on to come together. One of the things that we have brought to this notion is the need to look beyond the usual suspects. Chefs are a great example in our case. Early on, when we first started doing this work, Chefs would say “I never knew that I could make a difference just by being a chef or why are you coming to me…why me?” We would say, “Well because you are connected to the food industry and you make your livelihood from feeding people. We thought you would feel a connection to the issue of hunger.” Now it’s almost taken for granted that that [chef involvement in hunger] is the case. At the end of the day, you need to build a really broad coalition [to reach your goals].
Given all of these stakeholders, how do you make sure you have the right incentives so that everyone has an equal stake in the outcomes?
B: The key is not to guess, but to ask. We try to develop a culture with all of our stakeholders and corporate partners where we ask them, “What it is that you need in order for this to work? What is your definition of success and what value are you looking for?” Understanding that yes, they do want to do the right thing and yes, they want to help hungry kids, all of that, but what else do they need to accomplish from the business point of view or if they are a foundation, from foundation goals? Typically with corporate partners, nonprofits have a tendency to guess what the partner thinks is going to be good for it and usually the guess is wrong. You don’t have to guess, you can ask. It’s more labor intensive and they don’t always expect you to initiate the conversation, but when we go to a corporate partner and ask, what are your product roll-outs, employee morale issues, demographic marketing objectives, you know they are not used to being asked that by a nonprofit.
Switching gears a little bit…I’m going to take you back to when you were new to the field. What do wish someone would have told you early on when you decided to do this work?
B: You know this definition of the simple question – what does success look like? This wasn’t a question we asked ourselves early on. We had this notion that we were going to raise a lot of money and had a lot of entrepreneurial ideas about how to do that. We were not as entrepreneurial or as focused on what we were going to do with the money once we raised it. So we granted it out to a lot of organizations, all of whom did good things with it, but probably not as impactful as the coordinated strategy we have now, where we try to get them to pool in a certain direction around a specific direction the like No Kid Hungry campaign. But there some things that we knew, which is that it does take a long time. For some reason Debbie and I had in our heads that we are going to have to do this for quite a while until we have the impact that we want; the notion that most of the problems worth solving are big problems and by definition you can’t solve them overnight. In the cathedral building sense, how do you marshal the resources to work on something that is potentially going to take a lifetime or longer [to solve]?
What’s the one thing that you have been able to do for yourself so that you can stay in it for the long-haul?
B: The most important thing for me – it’s getting out into the community and going to see things – the idea of bearing witness. Showing up in places like New Orleans after Katrina, Haiti after the earthquake or Anacostia on any day of the week, so you stay connected to that impulse that brought you to the work. Because the work is not really about staff meetings, developing budgets and business plans. All that is critical, but it’s not what brings you to this issue in the first place. Staying connected in a personal sense of going to a place and feeling things about them, that is what keeps you fresh and motivated to do it. Billy Shore is the author of The Cathedral Within: Transforming Your Life by Giving Something Back. To purchase your own copy, click here. To get involved in the fight against hunger, visit NoKidHungry.org.