The following is a conversation between Billy Shore, co-founder and Executive Chairman of Share Our Strength, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: When I was with the campaign to restore the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, we conducted the first ever cause-related marketing campaign with American Express. And I remember wondering at that time: What organization AmEx would do this with next? As I recall, it turned out to be a young, new organization, one that I had never heard of before called Share Our Strength. Well, I heard about them then, and I’ve continued to hear about their remarkable work for nearly 35 years now. And it’s a pleasure to have with us tonight someone who’s been there for the entire ride. He is Billy Shore, the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry Campaign. Good evening, Billy, and welcome to The Business of Giving.
Billy: Thanks for having me.
Denver: I think you can tell a lot about an organization by how it started and what was baked into the DNA of it at its founding. You and your sister Debbie started Share Our Strength back in 1984. What was the driving force for you at that time to do this?
Billy: The catalyst at that time was the Ethiopian famine, which was this enormous, catastrophic event in which hundreds of thousands of people perished. Debbie and I had both worked in politics. We’d worked at the center of Gary Hart’s presidential campaign, and I think left politics with a sense of: There’s a lot of talented people who are not in politics, and we’ve got to find a way to get them involved in public issues as well.
Denver: Tell us the difference between hunger and food insecurity. I sometimes see it used interchangeably, but they’re really different, aren’t they?
Billy: They are different, and it’s very confusing for a lot of people. We define hunger as kids who are missing meals and not getting the nutrition and the calories that they need to be successful and to thrive. Food insecurity is more of a socioeconomic measure. Out government measures it once a year through the Census, and it’s based on questions that families get asked about. Are there times of the month where you feel anxious that you might not be able to feed your family everything you’d like to feed them? Or that your grocery money might run out? It’s not the same though as knowing that certain kids are missing, chronically missing, meals.
We realize that when it came to kids who are hungry on a chronic basis in the United States. we could solve that problem. And we made this pivot to be, in effect, putting a stake in the ground saying: We’re going to end childhood hunger in the United States.
Denver: So after you started Share Our Strength, you raised a good deal of money…and essentially all new money for this field, and were granting it out to maybe 300 – 400 organizations. But it was maybe a decade or so ago that you changed course. What did you do to do that?
Billy: As you say, we’ve been a grantmaker to lots of other organizations, and it was very satisfying to everybody, probably except for a handful of us who were at the center of the organization, because we were getting up every day and coming in and hoping that we could actually solve an important problem.
So, we decided that we should just say that. Let’s actually see if there’s a part of the hunger issue that we can solve, and we thought a lot about the words of a writer named Jonathan Kozol who says, “Pick battles that are big enough to matter but small enough to win.” And I love that construct because there’s so many things that all us care about, but so many of them are so daunting. When we thought about in our little space: What is big enough to matter but small enough to win?” we realize that when it came to kids who are hungry on a chronic basis in the United States, we could solve that problem. And we made this pivot to be, in effect, putting a stake in the ground saying: We’re going to end childhood hunger in the United States.
Denver: We love to discuss workplace culture and change of management on this show. And this sounds like that on steroids. Tell us about that shift, how the organization had to change. For God’s sake, you are now accountable for an outcome! And what were the keys you found in doing this successfully?
Billy: It was a big culture and management issue. You really put your finger on it. Because as a grant maker, we were granting out money; everybody was happy; everybody liked that. Everybody said nice things about us. It was very satisfying. But once we said we’re going to solve this problem, then we had to put metrics in place to know how we were doing against it. We had to not only have a dashboard for an organization. Almost every individual who worked at Share Our Strength had to be held accountable to certain specific performance goals. And culturally, that was a big change for people.
We also needed certain skills that we didn’t have. We had skills as a grantmaker. We didn’t have the advocacy skills, the public policy skills, the legislative skills, working with governors. Even the performance measurement skills. So, we had to in effect say to a lot of folks on our team: You need to slide on down the bench a little bit and make room for somebody else. Not that you’re not important, but we need some things that we just haven’t had before. So, it was a big change for the organization.
Somebody once told me that the formula when it came to poor performance: Zero tolerance, but 100% compassion. When somebody was not performing at Share Our Strength, we try to be compassionate, but we explain that our first responsibility is to the children that we aspire to serve.
Denver: As a leader, any keys to doing something like this successfully?
Billy: I think as much transparency as you can possibly bring to it. Just tell people what’s on your mind. Be compassionate, but straightforward, with people. Somebody once told me they had a formula when it came to poor performance: Zero tolerance, but 100% compassion. When somebody was not performing at Share Our Strength, we try to be compassionate, but we explain that our first responsibility is to the children that we aspire to serve. So, we’ve got to build the organization and make sure the organization is set up in a way that it serves that goal.
The impacts of hunger on a child have everything to do with their growth – their physical growth, their intellectual growth, their ability to do well in school… So, there’s a lot of ramifications if kids are not having the health and nutrition they need.
Denver: Now, we’ll focus on No Kid Hungry Campaign. What are the long-term impacts of hunger on a child?
Billy: The impacts of hunger on a child have everything to do with their growth – their physical growth, their intellectual growth, their ability to do well in school. We were at a school in Virginia recently where the principal told us kids were coming to the school – this was in southwest Virginia, the heart of the opioid epidemic – she said, “Our ability to have kids just take one kernel of anything that we’re trying to teach them over the course of six or seven hours, to take that home with them if their primary needs haven’t been met– specifically hunger and nutrition– drops down to zero.” So, we’ve got to make sure… and as you probably know, Denver, the school lunch and the school breakfast program, that started with generals and admirals after World War II coming to Congress saying: Our troops were not strong enough to fight effectively. We need to start feeding kids in school.” So, there’s a lot of ramifications if kids are not having the health and nutrition they need.
Denver: Talking about putting a stake in the ground, you really did that around that school breakfast program. That was created back in 1966, and I guess there were maybe about 22 million kids who are eligible for either free or reduced-price lunch, but it wasn’t maybe being optimized to the extent that it should have been. What were some of the things you did around that to make it more productive?
Billy: That’s exactly right. We saw such an enormous opportunity because 22 million kids were getting a free school lunch, and all 22 million were eligible for breakfast as well, and summer meals. But what we learned was that of the 22 million getting lunch, only 9 million – this was eight years ago – were getting breakfast. When you think about it, it makes sense. At lunch, kids are already there. At breakfast, they need to get there early, so the bus drivers have to change their schedule. The school has to be open. There’s the stigma attached to being the kids who go early. But when we realized that it was in effect bought and paid for for 22 million kids, we started to go to governors around the country. I remember talking to the Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley and the Governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter, saying, “Do you realize that you’ve left maybe $100 million in Washington that can only be used to buy milk from your dairy farmers, and bread from your bakers, and supplies from your vendors to feed your own kids.?”
Denver: You know how to get people’s attention, don’t you?
Billy: It got their attention. They were all–to a person– they were shocked.” Is that possibly true?” So a little bit of an anomalous situation where most of what we argue about in this country politically has to do with: “There’s no money; there’s no money for that. We’re going to have to raise taxes to do it.” Here, this is an entitlement program that’s been around for 50 years, and the money is just sitting there. So, it’s almost morally irresponsible not to find a way to connect it to the kids who need it.
Denver: I was speaking recently to Josh Wright, who is the executive director of Ideas42, and we were talking about how these little changes can really have profound changes in behavior. In this particular case, breakfast was served early in the cafeteria. Tell us what you did to change that and how it impacted this program.
Billy: We learned of a couple of places around the country that were moving breakfast from the cafeteria, where you have to get there early, to the first 10 minutes of first period or a grab-and-go breakfast between first and second period. So, think of it under the category of breakfast after the bell or breakfast in the classroom. What I love about it, and we didn’t invent the change, but I think we invented the notion of scaling the change. When we heard about it, we realized that: here’s a program that’s been operating the same way for over 50 years, and with very little expense involved to move it from the cafeteria to the classroom; you might need some carts on wheels. You might need some insulated trays. You might need some different supplies for the classroom than you need in the cafeteria. But it was such a small change that had such an enormous impact. We’ve added over 3 million kids to the school breakfast program in the last six years, and we’ve seen their Math scores go up. We’ve seen their attendance improve. We’ve seen their tardiness and their visits to the nurse’s office go down. It’s really had a very powerful impact. We’re not done yet. We’ve still got quite a ways to go.
Denver: Absolutely. That’s really profound. Let’s get past the school year. Now it’s summer. Only about 18% of kids who qualify for school meals are getting free summer meals. How do you handle that? What’s been your approach?
Billy: Summer’s even harder to solve. When the Summer Meals Program was created, I think the creators thought it was going to be implemented during Summer School in the public schools. And a lot of public schools have basically reduced their summer school programs for budgetary reasons. So now, we have to create this patchwork quilt of Boys and Girls Clubs, Parks & Recreation Department, church basements that will sign up and be sponsors for the Summer Meals Program. But that’s a hard thing for them to do. They have to suffer through all the federal paperwork and the reimbursement rate and the time lag. But we’ve added tens of thousands of summer meals sites, and we’re working on some legislative changes to try and improve the program as well.
Denver: And you also have a text, don’t you?
Billy: Yeah, we have a texting program where if you text a certain number – I don’t have it on the top of my head – but when you text it, what comes straight to your phone or your mobile device is the summer meal site closest to you. It’s really worked fabulously well.
Denver: That is fantastic. As part of the No Kid Hungry Campaign, you have a program called Cooking Matters. What is that about?
Billy: The idea behind Cooking Matters is that if you’re of low-income and on a fixed budget, it’s really important to know how to use the foods that you get in ways that are going to be affordable, economic, tasty for your kids. So, we actually take moms on a six-week course and teach them the best things to do with different food products. We take them into supermarkets so that they can understand the nutrition label and how to read it, unit pricing, how to make the best decisions for their family. Sometimes, that education can be just as powerful as any grant that we could make to them, and it’s empowering; they actually know how to do the things that they want to do, which is make healthy meals for their kids.
Denver: Looking at your annual report, I saw some of your numbers. Billy. You have some very impressive numbers of what you’ve been able to do since you started this program. Why don’t you share some of those with us?
Billy: I think the key things for us have been to add kids to the school breakfast program in the numbers that we have. That’s, as I say, about 3 million kids. We’re operating in all 50 states. We’ve got 900 and some community partners. We’ve helped serve over 775 million meals. I think the important thing to understand though is where that puts us against the goal. I’d say honestly, we’re about halfway there. We’ve added 3 million kids to school breakfast. The number one priority for everybody who’s affiliated with our organization in any way is to add that last 3 million. We’ve got 3 million more to go. Not every kid should have school breakfast at school. Some kids are going to eat at home with their mom and dad which is great. But about 3 million kids more need to be added to the program, and we’ll get that done in the next five years.
Denver: If your goal is to end childhood hunger, how do you define it?
Billy: We’re going to measure it in the most simple, common sense way that I can think of, which is kids having three meals a day. And one of the things that we’re finding now is that the number of kids who were food insecure, whose families present and say: we’re struggling to get all the food that we need for our kids… the number of kids who personally experience that is now less than one in 10. So, that’s a big drop. But about one in six kids live in homes where there’s food insecurity – so, mom or dad might be sacrificing or skipping a meal to make sure that the kids are getting it. That’s not good for kids either. So, we’ve got to get to that. And one of the hardest things that we’re going to have to figure out is how to build the public will, not just to feed kids, but to support the families that they’re in, so the kids can be prevented from being hungry in the first place.
Denver: Fantastic! You know I mentioned in the opening you did that cause-related marketing campaign with American Express, and that was really the first sign that you were going to be incredibly entrepreneurial in the way you go about raising money. What are some of the other things that Share Our Strength has done?
Billy: We’ve tried lots of ways to engage different partners in what we think of as win-win partnerships that in effect create wealth. One of the first things that struck as I got more familiar with the nonprofit sector was that, even if we were the best at what we did, there just aren’t enough charitable dollars to go around to solve the problem. We didn’t want to think of ourselves competing for a share of a finite pie. We wanted to see if we could see that pie grow. So, we literally started to create partnerships with companies, particular corporate partners, that would be good for them and be good for us.
I’ll give you a great current example. We’ve got a campaign, a partnership with Williams-Sonoma. We’ve had different celebrities around the country, from Jeff Bridges to Kristen Bell to Gwen Stefani to Hunter Pence of the San Francisco Giants. We’ve had them design spatulas. They do artwork on the spatulas. Williams-Sonoma sells those in all of their stores in over a 60-75 day period. The proceeds come to Share Our Strength. There’s been a tremendous amount of publicity, both conventional press and social media around it. People are being driven into the Williams-Sonoma stores. They’re seeing this good publicity. Williams-Sonoma employees feel good about it, as they should, and Share Our Strength will end up generating literally several million dollars, all of which will go towards this effort to engage kids in school breakfast. When we find those types of win-win partnerships, we think of ourselves as not just redistributing wealth, but creating it. We call it community wealth because it goes back into the community.
Denver: Another wonderful thing about that kind of wealth is that so much of that money is unrestricted and comes to the organization that really lets you leverage it in creative ways instead of having your hands tied with a program grant.
Billy: That’s right. I think the two advantages are – there’s no strings attached to it. So, we can use it as strategically as possible. Sometimes, as you know, organizations that have to depend on traditional philanthropy end up sometimes being pushed into what I think of as mission creep. The grantmaker will say, “We really want you to work not just on hunger, but on obesity, and we’ll say, “That’s great, but there are organizations that work on obesity, and we’re a hunger organization,” although, in fact, the two are related. The point is grant makers can be overly influential. These types of dollars have no strings attached, and they’re not competing with brother and sister organizations for finite charitable dollars. So, we never want to be in the position of: if we were applying for a grant, that the Food Bank of the City of New York was one of the others; we just want to be actually increasing the amount of money available to the food bank, not dividing it with them.
When we first started the organization, we asked ourselves: Who understands the importance of feeding people, and who would have an interest in feeding people that can’t afford meals? And we thought about chefs and restaurateurs. Some of them got that right away; some of them didn’t. But we decided that we would really try to create a symbol, a market around chefs and their connection to feeding people.
Denver: Speaking of celebrities, you almost pioneered the idea of the celebrity chef. Tell us a little bit of the work you’ve done with chefs.
Billy: When we first started the organization, we asked ourselves: Who understands the importance of feeding people, and who would have an interest in feeding people that can’t afford meals? And we thought about chefs and restaurateurs. Some of them got that right away; some of them didn’t. But we decided that we would really try to create a symbol, a market around chefs and their connection to feeding people.
So, today we’ve ended up… it was a little bit hard rock mining at first, cold calling, and so forth. But today, we’ve ended up with about 20.000 chefs and restaurateurs who are involved in lots of community things, but many of them feel their first connection is to the issue of hunger. And we started doing this right at the time– this was luck more than anything else– at which chefs started to become celebrities, and there started to be the Food Network, the cooking channel and TV shows and books.
Now, Jose Andres who’s doing work on hurricane relief as we speak and did the great work in Puerto Rico, he actually, when he first came to Washington, Denver, the first thing that he got involved in was our Cooking Matters program. He was looking for a way to get involved in the community, and he talked about that all the time as the window through which he got connected to philanthropy. But everybody from Jose Andres to Alice Waters at Chez Panisse California, Danny Meyer in New York City and the Shake Shacks… they’ve all become the superstars of our end to hunger effort.
Denver: Now you’ve got them on bicycles too, right?
Billy: And now we’ve got a program for chefs to ride called Chef Cycle. This was a program which chefs came up with it actually. They said to us, “We want to really challenge ourselves to do something physically transformative that will have an impact on other people.” So we created a 300-mile ride. We do it out at Santa Rosa, California once a year. It is a real push, but we’ve got hundreds of riders, and it’s raised I’m going to say probably about $4 million so far.
There’s a whole community of foodies who just want to know what the greatest new restaurant is… or the best new recipe. But food is also connected to not just as we talked about – issues like hunger and poverty and our health and our educational achievement. It’s connected to our environment in very big ways, to sustainability, to climate change, the way we harvest, the way we grow, our agricultural practices. All this is connected to food.
Denver: Speaking of chefs, you host a podcast called Add Passion and Stir: Big Chefs, Big Ideas. Tell us about your podcast.
Billy: Thanks. I’m glad you brought it up because it’s been a lot of fun. The idea is to have a conversation every week with somebody from the food world and somebody from the social justice or public policy world. The idea is that food is connected to so many issues that we care about. There’s a whole community of foodies who just want to know what the greatest new restaurant is… or the best new recipe. But food is also connected to not just as we talked about – issues like hunger and poverty and our health and our educational achievement. It’s connected to our environment in very big ways, to sustainability, to climate change, the way we harvest, the way we grow, our agricultural practices. All this is connected to food.
So, we’ve got some really great conversations. Last week for example, we had former Senate Majority Leader, George Mitchell and Danny Meyer talking about a whole set of issues, in many cases focusing in that conversation on immigration. The restaurant industry deals with these immigration issues almost more than any other industry. So, we look for these commonalities or intersections. Later this week, we’ll have a podcast with Will Guidera, who is from Eleven Madison Park which is a Michelin-starred and New York Times four-star restaurant in New York, and a woman named Kat Kinsman who started an organization and a website called Chefs with Issues, and it’s about chefs needing to be healthier. So, we talk about lots of issues related to food. It’s on iTunes– Add Passion and Stir.
Denver: Very entertaining and very informative. Well, food is also attached and associated with government and politics. You’ve got a lot of thoughts about that, I’m sure. Let’s start with this. Taxes and nonprofits, they can’t be partisan. I think as a result, many of them just sit on the sidelines because they’re afraid to do anything, and that includes right before the midterm elections. You believe they need to get off those sidelines and a little bit more into the game. What would you like to see them do?
Billy: Whatever the nonprofit might be, whatever the issue they’re involved in– whether it’s hunger or the environment or education or the arts– that issue is going to be impacted by public policy and by who is elected, and by who controls Congress. They can’t be partisan, but they can be political. For example at Share Our Strength, we work with lots of governors and members of Congress of both parties, and we’re hoping that our supporters will understand the need to at a minimum get out and vote. As you know, only about half of eligible Americans actually vote. I was with Governor Steve Bullock from Montana, and he was saying that if young people… millennials voted at the same proportion that seniors did, millennials would decide every election. So, I think that if we can increase the turnout, we’ll certainly have a more engaged citizenry; we’ll probably have better political leaders as well.
Denver: I think you’re right. You collect beautiful note cards, Billy, and you like to use them for personal letters. Those are the kind of things you send with a stamp.
Billy: You have to tell me how you know that.
…breaking through the clutter of modern-day communications and email and all the other things, and having some personal touch, I just think to me, it not only gets people’s attention, but it forces me to be more personal in my outreach. I guess I’m like anybody else. I’m eager to connect with people on a personal level, and I feel like so much of what we want to do at Share Our Strength, if it’s transactional, it’s not sustainable. If there’s a relationship that’s built, a genuine authentic relationship, then you’re going to be in it together for the long haul.
Denver: Not because you sent me a letter, I’ll tell you that. How do people respond to receiving these letters? And are there any other personal touches you’re very fond of?
Billy: For me, breaking through the clutter of modern-day communications and email and all the other things, and having some personal touch, I just think to me, it not only gets people’s attention, but it forces me to be more personal in my outreach. I guess I’m like anybody else. I’m eager to connect with people on a personal level, and I feel like so much of what we want to do at Share Our Strength, if it’s transactional, it’s not sustainable. If there’s a relationship that’s built, a genuine authentic relationship, then you’re going to be in it together for the long haul.
Fundamentally though, I think the sector still needs to be more bold. I always feel like the greatest failures are not the failures that we think of where we don’t have enough money, or we didn’t have enough time, or we didn’t have the right strategy. They’re usually failures of imagination…
Denver: Let me close with this Billy. You’ve been a very astute observer and commentator on the social good and nonprofit sector for several decades now. As you assess it, and in the context of a very fast changing world, what do you believe the sector is doing well? And what do you think it really needs to improve upon?
Billy: I think the nonprofit sector does a good job of attracting impressive people to it, people who really want to make a difference. Increasingly, it’s been a place where you can actually have a career in the nonprofit sector. I think the sector is building capacity. Fundamentally though, I think the sector still needs to be more bold. I always feel like the greatest failures are not the failures that we think of where we don’t have enough money, or we didn’t have enough time, or we didn’t have the right strategy. They’re usually failures of imagination.
And if we don’t aim high enough… For example right now, in the end-to-hunger community, we’re engaged in a number of defensive battles to make sure the SNAP Food Stamp Program doesn’t get cut and to make sure that the Summer Meals Program doesn’t go away. We need to be thinking beyond that. We should have an agenda. For example, a new Congress might be sworn in, and it might be a Congress controlled by the Democratic Party. We should have an agenda of big ideas for them about how to deal with some of these issues, and I think we’ve all gotten a little just too timid, and that to me is the greatest failing of the nonprofit sector and, to some extent, the progressive community that tends to populate it.
Denver: I think it’s also a failure of society. We’re all captivated by what’s happening at the moment, not what happened before, and not what’s going to happen, but what’s absolutely taken up all the oxygen at this very second.
Billy Shore, the co-founder and Executive Chairman of Share Our Strength and the No Kid Hungry Campaign, thank you so much for being here. I know it’s going to take everyone to solve childhood hunger. How can people get involved? How can they financially help out? And how can they learn more about your organization?
Billy: The thing I love about the issue of hunger, Denver, is there’s a role for everybody to play. This is not like trying to come up with a vaccine for some disease or trying to solve nuclear proliferation. Everybody can be involved. They can donate funds. They can volunteer. They can be advocates. They can get involved in their schools in their neighborhood. So, if you go to nokidhungry.org or shareourstrength.org, you find lots of ways to engage, and that’s probably the best way. Also, everybody has a local food bank in their community, a local advocacy organization, and we’d be glad to connect people to those as well.
Denver: And give a listen to Add Passion and Stir. Thanks Billy, it was a real pleasure to have you on the show.
Billy: Thank you, Denver.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at www.facebook.com/businessofgiving.