Building a national nonprofit organization with a vision to end childhood hunger in America combines urgency, flexibility and patience. “We started thirty years ago in response to the famine in Ethiopia,” says Share Our Strength co-founder Debbie Shore. “There was a hunger problem and we thought restaurants would be the obvious partner because they feed people for a living,” says Ms. Shore, who formed Share Our Strength with her brother, Bill Shore.
Soon after they broached the idea, Debbie and Bill visited restaurants in the Washington, D.C. area to mobilize local chefs and restaurateurs. Instinct propelled them, not market research. “We just started talking,” says Ms. Shore. Financial support earned window stickers that advertised a restaurant’s commitment to rescuing Ethiopian families from starvation.
Hunger was a problem here in the US too and the restaurant owners and chefs raised that issue. Share Our Strength adapted. It channeled financial support to food banks and direct service programs that fight hunger in the U.S. “Taste of the Nation” added visibility to the cause. Dozens of chefs in the Los Angeles area signed on to prepare food for hundreds of invited guests to sample. Replicated around the U.S., these celebrated events bring in donations worth hundreds of thousands of dollars a year — and tons of welcome press coverage. Share Our Strength was the first in the marketplace to develop a national food and wine event.
Their most pivotal moment was the launch of the No Kid Hungry campaign, a plan to eradicate childhood hunger in the U.S. once and for all. Nearly one in five children in America today lives in a household that struggles to put food on the table. That’s 13 million hungry children, equivalent to the entire population of Illinois, the fifth most populated state in the U.S.
Hunger hampers physical and intellectual development. Just try getting through one day with your stomach empty. Then imagine hunger every day.
“When you’re hungry, everything hurts,” says Alyssa Saunders. Raised in homeless shelters, Alyssa often went days with nothing to eat. “Your body hurts, your heart hurts, you start to get that blood taste in your mouth.”
The No Kid Hungry campaign sets a high bar: “Childhood hunger is a problem that threatens our children and our future,” the website reports. “We’re in danger of losing an entire generation of leaders, innovators and problem-solvers.”
Ambitious as it sounds, the goal is within reach. Ample food exists and guaranteed government reimbursements defray costs. “We believe we can end hunger nationally because we are doing it every day in cities and states all across America,” says Ms Shore.
Government alone cannot get the job done. It’s a matter of reaching children deprived of meals they cannot afford. That’s where No Kid Hungry steps in to help connect kids with meals where they live, learn and play.
Donors and partners have embraced No Kid Hungry — thanks in part to actor Jeff Bridges, the national spokesman. The vigorous commitment to ending childhood hunger transformed everything, says Ms. Shore: the message, grant making, logo, corporate partners, donors, talent and staff. A clear, compelling vision accompanied by the means to measure impact soon tripled financial support.
Ms. Shore warns anyone mulling a nonprofit initiative that fresh ideas are scarce.
“An idea is a very powerful thing,” she warns. “Listen to that voice.” But powerful ideas are often fragile. “Surround yourself with all the tender loving care you can until it gets traction for the world to see.” To be successful, every nonprofit needs a clear vision. PowerPoint presentations won’t sell the vision, says Ms. Shore. Passion sells it. Like being in love, expect to check messages at 3 a.m. to see who else embraces your vision.
Sustaining a nonprofit organization hinges on knowing what partners seek. “From the day we decided to start Share Our Strength, the very concept was to appeal to the self-interest of partners,” says Ms. Shore. “Each restaurant defined self-interest in its own way, by driving business, telling a story, demonstrating civic responsibility or sometimes as a way to meet like-minded peers. Without self-interest, nonprofits rely on charity. Charity is fine, says Ms. Shore, but it’s just not sustainable.
“You may see the long term but not how to get there,” says Ms Shore. So remember that launching a humanitarian initiative is like any meaningful journey. It must start with a single step.