On Food: Bill Shore of Share Our Strength is now aiming at childhood hunger in the U.S.
In our Risk-taking series, Tulane University and Ashoka U students Katie Smalley and Laura White interview social innovators, inquiring about the bold steps they’ve taken to advance their work. Today, we feature an interview with Bill Shore, the founder of Share Our Strength, an organization established after the 1984 Ethiopian famine, which supports hunger relief efforts around the globe. Through marketing partnerships with major companies in the food industry, Share Our Strength has raised more than $300 million for anti-hunger efforts. Now the organization is focusing on ending childhood hunger in the U.S.
Dowser: What is the biggest risk you took that paid off?
Shore: Just a few years ago, we made the decision to revamp our core mission to focus on eradicating childhood hunger in America by 2020. We wanted to set a really specific goal for ourselves by addressing a problem that would be big enough to matter, and yet small enough to solve. We thought that childhood hunger in America fit the bill: this is a problem that results not from a lack of food or a lack of food welfare programs, but an inconsistent access to those programs. When we talked to our allies in other anti-hunger organizations, we were surprised to be met with resistance; we were taking a huge risk by setting such a specific metric and a definitive timeline. However, we thought that by holding ourselves accountable to something like this, we would not only be able to recognize when we had achieved what we set out to accomplish, but at the same time build credibility among our for-profit partners. Eventually, other groups began to buy into our vision, and with the support and involvement of President Obama, our deadline to achieve this goal has been pushed up to 2015.
What is the biggest risk you took that didn’t pay off, or at least seemed that way at the time?
We do an annual event called ‘Taste of the Nation,’ a fine dining experience to raise funds to support our projects. It has been such a success that we decided to test the waters and put on a ‘Taste of the Game’ event one year. The idea was that parents would contribute to Share Our Strength, and their children would be able to go to a sports workshop with college-level coaches. Unfortunately, it was not as successful as we had hoped. We realized that we had built our brand around cuisine, and we had no real credibility in the sports arena. From that experience we learned where our market limits were, and the importance of staying true to our own strengths as an organization.
What do you think is the most important factor in taking intelligent risks in social enterprise?
From the outset, it was important to me that Share Our Strength would not be a re-grantor to other organizations; we would only be able to really make an impact if we could expand the ‘charitable pie,’ rather than fight for our own share of it. We built our model around the idea that instead of entering into a charitable relationship with a corporation, we would somehow find a way to add value to their organization as well. Our model may not work for every social enterprise, but I think it is imperative, even as a nonprofit, to listen to the market and see where your niche is. Be willing to use your imagination in charting the path your organization will take in solving the problem you hope to solve.
This interview has been edited and condensed.