– Ben Simon
Millennials, as a generation, are probably both more idealistic and more practical than previous generations. We care a lot about changing the world. We want to shop at businesses that take care of their employees and care about the environment and social responsibility. We want to make a good living, but the theory is no longer just “make a bunch of money and then give that money back;” it’s also “go off and do your own thing.” We have seen the growth of entrepreneurship, since entry barriers to entrepreneurship have been lowered with the internet, smart phones, and social media. That doesn’t just mean new businesses. It means that injustices that have persisted for hundreds of years are finally seeing a huge amount of hope. Growing up with that mindset, and around other people who share that mindset, has been a major influence for me and for my generation.
Millennials want a world where positive change is happening, and we care about a diverse array of issues. Although I wasn’t around, I believe that in the ’60s and ’70s, people cared about civil rights and Vietnam, and a few other issues really marked those decades. Today, young people are fired up about a much wider range of issues. It’s exciting to see people moving the needle on various causes.
A number of experiences made me care about hunger, poverty, and the environment before starting Food Recovery Network (FRN). When I was in high school, my dad met a man playing tennis at a neighborhood court. After playing together only a few times, this guy made a bold ask of my dad. He said he couldn’t afford to rent his own place. He had been sleeping at friends’ houses and was out of places to stay. He asked if he could crash with us for a short time; otherwise, he would be homeless.
My dad, barely knowing him, took him in, and this stranger became family, living with us for two years. We ate together and watched football together on Sundays. He had full-time employment at a grocery store, stocking shelves at night, making minimum wage even though he was in his 50s, and different circumstances kept him poor. For example, he didn’t have health care, so when a very serious medical issue came up, he avoided going to the hospital for as long as he could. The doctor said if he had waited another day he might have died. He left the hospital with tens of thousands of dollars of medical debt. Experiences like these changed my perspective. I started to think a lot deeper about societal systems, the privilege that I had, and the opportunity and responsibility to help open pathways for others to succeed.
A few years later at University of Maryland, College Park, my friends and I led canned food drives and raised awareness about hunger. It set the stage for starting FRN when we learned how much food was being wasted in campus dining halls. We had relationships with local organizations, and knew there was a big need in the community for this food, and could not believe that UMD was wasting thousands of pounds of food every week. So we snapped into action and created the program.
We called our friends at other schools and told them about the impact we were making with this simple model of redistributing surplus food we called Food Recovery Network. Our friends started chapters at their schools and told their friends. The idea spread through word of mouth and coverage on media outlets like MSNBC, VH1 and Upworthy. A major turning point for us was receiving a $300,000, two-year investment from Sodexo Foundation in spring 2013 that allowed us to hire full-time staff to scale up our operation. Just 3 ½ years after our first chapter at UMD, we’re now at 115 colleges nationally and have donated over 625,000 pounds of food that otherwise would have been wasted. [As of July 2016, there are 192 chapters in 42 states, and 1,342,680 pounds of food have been recovered.]
I often reflect on the past few years and how we were able to achieve this breakthrough impact. First, team is crucial. It would seem obvious, but I found out later that others had tried to create national campus food recovery programs similar to Food Recovery Network five or so years before we got started. However, they never took off because they weren’t able to assemble high-performing teams. In this regard, we were really lucky going into it: it wasn’t just me. I’m technically the “Founder” but I have seven Co-Founders who each made significant contributions of 10-20 hours a week for two years. Nearly all of these Co-Founders had previous experience fighting hunger, or were involved in nonprofits or student organizations on campus. Assembling an awesome team that’s well equipped to execute is really important.
Having a strategy that everyone buys into is also key. At FRN, we lucked out again because Rob Sheehan, a professor at UMD, is a nonprofit strategy guru and facilitated a pro-bono strategic planning process for us. Rob is all about breakthrough strategies, which aligned perfectly with our energetic, ambitious group of Co-Founders and Board members. Having a clear vision with goals and a roadmap for accomplishing them helped give all our stakeholders confidence as we pushed forward in executing our bold vision.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of a volunteer labor force was also imperative. We understood that volunteers could only go so far. Although they were a huge asset for us, we needed to look at drawing funding. I’ve seen a lot of community-based organizations where you may start with a strong team, but one person’s more invested than everybody else. Then when there’s no funding to pay salaries, people get burned out and drop out. You’re left with one leader who’s volunteering and making just enough to scrape by, putting in 100% of the work and doing three or four jobs. We knew we had to be strategic and realistic about our business model – if that’s social enterprise, or grants and foundations – but be realistic about only having 24 hours in a day.
One of the most common pitfalls in social entrepreneurship is losing focus and drifting away from the core mission. Looking at nonprofits and for-profits, start-ups and organizations that are 20 or 30 years old, it seems like the highest-performing ones are the ones that know who they are and remain true to that. At FRN, we’ve at times been disheartened by the funding landscape because there really are very limited programs around food recovery, while there’s a lot more around nutrition education for kids. That’s really hot right now, and funders follow trends. We do a little bit of nutrition education when that’s what the chapter wants to do, and the food we serve tends to be healthier than what many agencies are used to, but nutrition education is not our core model. We’ve resisted the temptation to roll out a program around nutrition education, even though that was where the funding was. We’ve had to make tough decisions like that, and I’m sure we’ll continue to have to do that, engaging our board and our staff in real communicative conversations. It’s especially unfortunate since for most of our journey there have been no dedicated grant programs around food recovery. However, we’ve been very fortunate to connect with the right funders who enabled us to stay who we are and to do what we do best.
Ultimately, I’ve learned that’s where leadership comes in. Leaders need to be in close touch with their staff and with how a situation the organization is facing will affect everyone’s job. They need to have really strong relationships of trust and respect with whomever they are leading. They need to have a clear vision for where the group or organization needs to go and how to get there, and be able to articulate that in a way that moves head and heart. We probably haven’t done quite as good a job as some, but much of our success has come because we’ve done a pretty good job of packaging our story in a way that makes people want to share it and get involved. Organizations with a story that can be shared and an avenue for people to get involved are the organizations that will capture the energy and passion of this generation and help shape a better future.
This article is reprinted from Vol. 2, No. 1, of Nonprofit Performance Magazine. Subscribe today!
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