Watch the Interview
In 1998, envisioning a world without hunger, Ray Buchanan — a United Methodist minister — founded Rise Against Hunger (formerly Stop Hunger Now). After enlisting as a U.S. Marine during the Vietnam War, Ray Buchanan quickly recognized that accomplishing a mission required “commitment to something larger than yourself.” Over the past three decades, that principle has driven Ray’s mission to eradicate world hunger.
As a divinity graduate student at Duke University, Ray began working with the poor and hungry. He continued that work at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he received his master’s degree in divinity, and as a pastor at ve rural United Methodist churches in Virginia. As a pastor, Ray joined the effort to save the lives of starving Ethiopians during the 1973-75 famine in Ethiopia.
Driving Ray’s hunger work is the recognition that “ending hunger is more than just feeding people.” So Rise Against Hunger “focuses its feeding programs in areas where we can see transformational development,” he says.
Ray embodies the ideal of a servant leader. And he understands that volunteers and organizations working together can build a global movement that will stimulate the political will to marshal the resources that are essential — and available — to eradicate hunger.
Rise Against Hunger has realized positive, annual growth mainly through expansion of the meal packaging program into new communities. Rise Against Hunger continues to further Ray’s legacy of commitment both to domestic and international crisis response including relief from famine, natural and manmade disasters and health epidemics.
More information at www.riseagainsthunger.org
Read the Interview
Hugh Ballou: Greetings, this is Hugh Ballou. This episode of The Nonprofit Exchange is great, like every one of them, but this one is a new friend who is right here in Lynchburg, Virginia. He has an extensive history of founding charities and taking them not just to the next level, but taking them to the top. In some cases, over the top.
Ray Buchanan: Over the top would be a good way to put it.
Hugh: Ray Buchanan. We are going to talk principally about a charity you formed that you originally called Stop Hunger Now. Now it’s Rise Against Hunger. I want to let you tell a little bit about yourself. You had an idea about something. How did you put it together and start this, get people on board, and get it funded? There is a lot of people with ideas, and they don’t really understand the sequence and how to put it together. Tell us about Ray. Thank you for being on The Nonprofit Exchange today.
Ray: Good to be here. I appreciate the opportunity. I was in the Marine Corps during Vietnam. Came out of the Marine Corps. Did all my undergraduate work in about two and a half years. I then had a mentor who saw more in me than I thought was there. He said, “Where are you going to go to get your divinity degree?” I said, “I hadn’t thought about it.” He said, “You need to go to Duke.” I said, “Riiight.” I literally thought he was kidding, but he knew people who knew people and I found myself at Duke.
I immediately felt like I was way out of my league. I looked at all these young people coming in the first day of class, and I said, “I don’t belong here.” What happened was very interesting. I stood in the corner of the student center of the divinity school, and I saw somebody come in the door who looked as miserable as I felt. He was about my age, older than the normal incoming divinity school student. We hooked up, and he had military experience, been to Vietnam as well. We started talking, and pretty soon another older student came in. The three of us gravitated together.
What happened was that first semester at Duke, we became a support group. We didn’t know that’s what it was, but we were all married and had at least one child. In the course of that semester, we became best friends, closer than friends, and a support group like I said. We started in January. During the summer, of course we all wanted to pastor churches. According to the Methodist church, they had no churches available in North Carolina around Duke. I had the choice, and I chose doing beach ministry in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina. That sounds like a real cool gig, but we did most of our work with runaways and drug culture between one and two o’clock in the morning. I had a safe house for folks.
One of our other friends served a small church in Raleigh. Ken, the first person I saw, came from Virginia. His superintendent needed pastors badly. He already had a church promised to him. He talked to his superintendent, and he said, “You have friends that might serve churches?” The process was so far along that we didn’t get to visit, but he called. I learned my first lesson of humility. He asked me who I was and what I wanted, so I told him I’d been a youth minister in a larger church in North Carolina when I was in college. I had experiences as a chaplain’s assistant. I really pumped myself up the way you would to a boss. He said, “I haven’t been able to get up with your other friend. What kind of experience does he have?” I said, “He’s a really nice guy. He doesn’t really have as much experience as me, but he is really committed. He has a heart for the Lord, but he just hasn’t had the experience.” The superintendent without missing a beat said, “Well, that is his subtlety. You obviously have much more experience. I’ll give you the five churches, and I’ll give him the four churches.” I learned real quick you don’t need to do that.
I started there because that is really the start of the journey we are talking about. The three of us were appointed to churches in rural Virginia, the south side of Virginia. We were right outside of South Hill. Between us we had 13 rural churches.
Hugh: Oh, wow.
Ray: And we were going to school fulltime, commuting an hour and a half one way. We learned really quickly about supporting one another. We learned that each one of us had gifts and graces that matched with the others. Where I was weak, my friend was strong. Where he was weak, our other friend was strong. Rather than compete, we decided we would work as a team. With those 13 churches, they were all small, struggling, had that feeling that many small Methodist churches have, that they weren’t ministering. They were surviving. We decided to change that. For the four years that we were there, we made sure we worked as a cooperative parish. We weren’t ever legally called that, but we had our churches go together. I remember the first thing we did is we gathered clothes for Appalachia. They had never been able to do anything as one or two churches, but as 13 churches, we filled a huge U-Haul truck. The men took it to Appalachia, and it made them feel so empowered to be able to do something.
Hugh: As you’re talking about that, that is a group of churches. The same thing could apply to a group of small charities.
Ray: Absolutely. One of the key philosophies that I have always worked with is everything is built on partnerships. The more partners you could have involved, the stronger the program is. I’m not saying it’s easier, but it really impacts more people, not only from the relief side, but also from the folks doing it.
A key principle in what helps grow the organizations I have been a part of is we always seek partnerships. One example is with Rise Against Hunger, when I started, I knew nothing about international relief work. I had been doing domestic relief work for 20 years, and I’ve done a few things internationally. But how you work internationally is something I had to learn on the job. One thing I committed to was I was not going to start offices internationally because internationally, every place I wanted to work, there were already relief organizations on the ground. I didn’t need to reinvent the wheel. I just needed to partner with the folks already there who had a better idea of what was necessary.
Hugh: I won’t let that one slip by. You’re really understanding the synergy of collaboration. Let’s do more stuff than we can do by ourselves. What year was that?
Ray: I started Rise Against Hunger in January of 1998. What had happened was earlier than that,
Society had a program called The Potato Project. That is the story of God’s grace. Basically, Society of St. Andrew was an intentional community devoted to covenant living. What that means is in response to world hunger, we said we wanted to come together and demonstrate a lifestyle that the entire world could adopt, a just lifestyle, a fair lifestyle. We had two families that moved together onto a farm. We formed a covenant to live under the poverty level. When we started in 1979, that was about $2,000 a person.
Hugh: Oh my goodness.
Ray: If you put all the stuff in the world in a pile and everybody took a fair share, in 1979, it would come to about $2,000 a person. We made a covenant that we would live under that. We had nine people in our community: four adults and five kids. We said we would live under $18,000 a year. We never made it up to $18,000 a year. Basically, we lived under the poverty level out of choice, and we wanted to do that not only to identify with the poor, but also to demonstrate to the church especially that if we wanted to, we could live in a way that the entire world would be able to have a fair share.
Hugh: The year you founded this organization was 1979. It was founded as Stop Hunger Now.
Ray: The first organization was founded as Society of St. Andrew. I was the co-director of that from 1979-1998. In 1998, the reason I left Society of St. Andrew is because after 15 years or so, both my co-director and I were getting burned out. You start out with your hands working with the poor, shoulder to shoulder, but as the organization gets bigger and bigger, you get further away from the poor. We worked with the poor. Then we had staff that worked with the poor. Then we had managers. Then we had directors of the managers. All of a sudden, you look around and you have 70-80 employees in five or six states. You are so far you can’t even see the poor. I started using my vacation time to go internationally to work in Africa and what have you so I could still get my hands dirty.
Hugh: That’s interesting. You get so far away from the work that is your passion. You get sucked in to the organization. There is a lesson in that, too.
Hugh: When did you found this organization that is now Rise Against Hunger?
Hugh: And it was founded as Stop Hunger Now.
Ray: Yes, it was founded as Stop Hunger Now. The reason the name is important, the reason I founded it is because I did my work internationally, it hit me that although hunger in the United States is real and it’s horrible and it’s immoral, the richest country in the history of the world, that we have hunger doesn’t make sense. The Christian church has to understand its responsibility there. As I worked internationally, there were opportunities that started to rise in doing stuff internationally. My passions fairly quickly turned to doing international work because although hunger is real in the United States, it’s qualitatively different than hunger around the world. In the United States, no one dies of hunger. I challenge you to find a newspaper article that talks about the last time anyone died of hunger. They might have died of exposure or something, but it is such a rarity that it is not measurable. You go international, and after all these years, we have hunger down to 20,000 people a day.
Hugh: A day.
Ray: But when I started, it was like 30,000 people a day dying of hunger. There is no way to explain that. I have always wanted to have the biggest impact. So I started focusing internationally, and my partner, after you work together with somebody for 20 years, you know each other. He looked at me and said, “If you need money for that, you raise it. We don’t have money for that.” At that time, Society of St. Andrew was doing $15 or 20 million worth of in-can work, and our cash budget was $1 or $1.5 million a year. We never had enough money. That is how Stop Hunger got started because I needed to raise $25,000 for a special project. I didn’t have it. After my partner said, “Well, if you want it, you raise it,” which was the way we worked, I remembered that five years earlier, a donor had come to us, he and his wife. We had an office in a sheep shed. They came and sat around the table and said they wanted to help feed the hungry. His vision of hunger was a starving child with a bowl held up. At that point, my partner and I said, “We don’t do that.” We didn’t. We worked in the United States, using tractor trailers to haul produce to food banks on Native American reservations. We told him we really appreciate the offer, but that is not what we do. It’s not a good match. But we have a friend who is chairman of the board of Food for the Hungry. We will give you his name, and you can connect. We broke the cardinal rule of you never give a donor away. We gave this donor away before we ever started working with him. Strange thing though. Every year, he would call us and say, “Do you have any special projects?” We’d say yes. He’d say, “Send me the bill.” For about $8-10,000. He would never give us a grant. He would never write us a check. But he would always give us a gift of about $10,000 by paying a certain bill. I remembered his vision.
After five years, I went to our Director of Development and called him and said, “Give me this guy’s name and number.” He said, “Let’s meet.” I went to Virginia Beach, and we had lunch. I’ll never forget. The timing was amazing. I drove from the big island, and he drove a couple of blocks and we got there at the same time. We met in the parking lot and walked into the restaurant. He said, “How are things going?” making small talk. I said, “Great. My daughter is having her first child.” He said, “Oh, you’re going to be a grandfather for the first time?” The proper answer would be, “Of course I am. Yes, that’s great.” I said, “No. When my son turned 21, he got a girl pregnant, so I have a grandson.” I said, Shut up, shut up, this is not the way you speak, shut up. It was like I had verbal diarrhea. We get in, and the maître d’ seats us. He comes back and starts to speak. John waves his hands, saying, “No.” He leans across the table and he says, “Ray, last year was the worst year of my life. I went from being a millionaire to not being a millionaire. I got kicked out of my own organization that I started. My wife divorced me. My son had to get staggering drunk to tell me that he had gotten a young lady pregnant.”
Hugh: Oh my goodness.
Ray: This is before the menus get there. All that is simply to say we were on a level that you normally don’t get to with a donor until you’ve cultivated them for years. That is how Stop Hunger Now got started to be honest.
Hugh: We are recording live on Facebook. If you come by and wonder what this is, this is the Nonprofit Exchange. Every Tuesday at 2 EST, we talk with a thought leader about how they have made things happen. We are talking to Ray Buchanan about multiple charities he has founded. Ray, I have moved from using the word “nonprofit” a lot even though this is the Nonprofit Exchange. When I am in conversation, I use the word charity because we have tax-exempt charities. It’s a business and a framework that has got a lot of rules and regulations for the IRS. My co-host, Russell, used to work for the IRS. He is very much up to date with how we need to comply with those. We need to have strong business principles. If you are listening to the podcast sometime in history, you can ask questions on the podcast page. We learn from other people’s stories. Ray, when you are looking back and talking about starting these, Russell was just meeting with a gentleman that has got a hunger project. This is quite an amazing story, Russell, about Ray starting what was called Stop Hunger Now. Now it’s called Rise Against Hunger. You had an idea. How hard was it to get it off the ground? How hard was it to get people to support it? How hard was it to get some funding?
Ray: I want to say one of the first things that was my first organization, Society of St. Andrew, what made that successful is that when we started our first big project after three years, we fell into the Potato Project, which has taken unused produce otherwise thrown away, wasted. We were going to get that to the hungry across Virginia. The farmers agreed to give us the produce, but they had to get their money recouped on the extra labor, the bags, and the transportation. I could tell you a lot of funny stories about that. Long story short, they could get us potatoes that would normally be thrown away for three cents a pound, a phenomenal price. They said they could get us a million pounds of potatoes. A million pounds of potatoes at three cents a pound is $30,000. At that point, our two families were living on between $12-15,000 a year. That was all the money in the world. That first $30,000 came from the United Methodist Church seeing the vision and buying into the vision. I could talk for hours about the faithfulness in that because at that point, we were seen as a couple of hippies living on a farm. We weren’t the bare-faced young guys. But they had enough faith to put the money into it.
Once that project started, we had never realized that we were just scratching the surface. Farmers wanted to give us more and more produce, which required more money and more distribution areas, which required more transportation. Literally within two months, we were spending $30,000 to last us this summer, and after about a month and a half, we were out of money. It hadn’t been misused, but the need was so great. We started having to raise money. The first thing we did was my partner’s brother who had a business degree came to us and said, “You all need somebody to fund this.” Both of us understood that numbers are not my friends. I will be honest with you. I like letters. You can make words with letters, and words make sentences. Numbers are just numbers. We asked his brother to help us, and he graciously helped us. From day one, we ran the organization as a business.
Hugh: From day one.
Ray: From day one. That is one of the biggest benchmarks that I can point to as to why it worked. We didn’t operate as a church. That sounds very horrible, but it’s true. We operated as a business, not only in that the finances were handled to the penny. I can literally remember Friday evening at 6:00 realizing that David was still in the office. We operated in a sheep shed that previously held sheep in it. I would see the light on and say, “David, what are you doing?” “I can’t get the books to balance.” I said, “What is it?” He said, “It’s 27 cents. I cannot find it.” I said, “Here is a quarter.” He said, “Noooo, you don’t understand.” That is the way we operated financially from day one, but we also realized that when we made a promise, it was a commitment. Unlike a lot of charities, church organizations, nonprofits, it was like, We will not get to it if we can when we can. If we said we were going to do something, we did it. The operating as a business is a key principle that every nonprofit ought to operate by.
Hugh: Hey Russell, we teach this stuff. It works. How about that?
Russell: The sweet spot is where fun and compliance and compassion come together. That’s what I call the sweet spot. 27 cents by the way is not material if you have more than five dollars.
Ray: I understand that. But the principle is the same.
Russell: The principle is the same. It’s like operating a business without losing who you are. If you have a mission and the mission is spiritual, you don’t have to lose that. There is a point in there where money and spirituality mix. It’s just understanding both the critical components to what you’re doing so that you don’t leave either out to the exclusion. They are not mutually exclusive in other words.
Ray: Absolutely. To jump forward, when I started Stop Hunger Now, basically I met with this donor. I was asking him for $25,000. He had been giving us $10,000 a year for five years. When I got to the point where he said, “What do you really want?” and I told him I needed $25,000 to move three containers of food to North Korea and Africa, he said, “Fine, I’ll write you a check Monday.” Any time you can take a donor from $10,000 to $25,000, you know that is a home run. I was just going internally like Yes! I couldn’t wait to go home and work out the logistics.
He looked across the table and said, “Tell me, you said you were burned out and were thinking about leaving the organization a couple years earlier. What is it that you really want?” Not trying to be flip, but I said, “I want to feed more hungry people.” He is not the kind of man who accepts an answer like that. He said, “I asked you a serious question. Give me a serious answer.” I had to take a deep breath. I answered him, “What I’d really like to do is go to crisis areas around the world, find out what the real need is, come home, and cut through all the red tape and BS and get that need met as fast as possible.” He leaned across the table and said, “That’s exactly my dream, with one exception.” I said, “What is that?” He said, “I’d want you to take the checkbook with you.” We finished the meeting.
As we are getting in our cars, he looked at me and said, “Let’s see if we can’t make our dreams come true.” Two days later, he called and said, “How soon can the head of my foundation and I meet with you and your partner in Big Island?”
Two days after that, four days after our original meeting, they were in our office. Both my partner and I knew what he wanted: to set up an international relief hunger organization. My partner and our wives and I have nonstop been figuring out how to make it work. At that point, Society of St. Andrew had an 18-year track record. We were known throughout the United Methodist Church, working in all 48 contiguous states, constantly went up to the Hill to give testimony on hunger and gleaning. I was on the House Select committee and a bunch of stuff like that. We said, “Oh, good, we are going to have a domestic arm and an international arm.” We presented that to him as what we were going to do. He looked at us and crossed his arms and said, “Nope, I’m not interested.” We were crushed. We thought we had this perfect plan. He said, “Look, you are a domestic hunger organization. Your board is always going to fight over who gets the money. Here is what I’ll do. I’ll give you a quarter of a million dollars a year for two years. Three conditions. 1) You set up a new organization. 2) You set up a completely separate board of directors. 3) You are the director,” pointing at me.
Ray: Now, what do you do when you’re 50 years old and somebody looks at you and says, “I will make your dreams come true?”
Hugh: Oh my.
Ray: That is so exciting. But if you look at the flip side of it, we had an organization that we had started as two families living under the poverty level and was now at the pinnacle of our ministry. Like I said, we are at Capitol Hill every month. Our senator’s wife was on our board. It was a horse you could ride until you wanted to get off. It was only going to get bigger and better. You leave that to start over basically. You leave that. The four adults that founded this society prayed together and cried together and discussed for two to three days. We came to the conclusion that if we didn’t take his offer, that money was not going to be there. To get to a place where we could do the international ministry that we wanted would take us a couple of years to raise another quarter of a million dollars because we had maxed out our fundraising capacity at that point. We knew that it would take us a year or two to ramp up if we could. We thought we would take his offer because we could do more good faster by doing that than any other way we could.
I left Society of St. Andrew at that point to take over and start a new organization. That is how Stop Hunger Now got started. I started January 1, 1998 with a guaranteed $2,500. Show you how simple I am. I had two goals for 1998 for Stop Hunger Now. I wanted to do at least a half a million dollars’ worth of ministry. I wanted to double his gift of $250,000. Secondly, I wanted to be in five or six countries. I didn’t want to be a single country nonprofit. At the end of the first year, we were audited, and the audit showed that we had done $2.9 million worth of aid in 18 countries. That was the start of Stop Hunger Now.
The name is very significant because Society of St. Andrew, my first organization, was named for the disciple Andrew. He was always introducing others to Jesus one at a time, “Here is my friend.” We like that kind of evangelism. More importantly, he was the disciple that knew about the boy with the loaves and fishes when Jesus fed the 5,000. Very significant spiritually. As we grew, we had focus groups and consultants come in. The first thing every group said, “That is the most horrible name you could have picked. There is no worse name.” Society of St. Andrew: Is that a Presbyterian program? Is it a Catholic program? Is it an Episcopal program? Is it a golfing group? It says nothing about what you do. I learned that. When I started my own organization, Stop Hunger Now, our mission and our ministry were identical. Nobody ever asked what do you do.
Hugh: Why the change from Stop Hunger Now to Rise Against Hunger?
Ray: We rebranded this year because as we grew, we realized that Sodexo has their foundation called Stop Hunger. Dozens of times, we tried to work with them to get the trademark Stop Hunger Now, and their lawyer said it’s too close. For 12 years or 15 years, we worked side by side, no problems, but as our program expanded internationally and we started doing more programs outside the U.S., we bumped up against Sodexo in England, where they didn’t want our brand in England for some reason. Our board looked at it and realized we had to get a trademark name. As we started looking at marks, we couldn’t even get the mark that we had. We had to start from scratch to rebrand.
Hugh: It’s really good to have that clarity. Your brand tells people what you do. If there is confusion, people don’t want to help you. Russell, I know your brain is going with this funding thing. Russell teaches charities how to attract funding. He is one of our WayFinders in SynerVision. We are talking about Ray joining the WayFinder team. I didn’t tell him about the initiation process.
Ray: I don’t have a lot of hair to shave.
Russell: There is full heads of hair, and there is perfect ones like this.
Ray: That’s right.
Russell: You don’t need to dress this up.
Ray: I hear ya. I hear ya.
Hugh: Russell, did you come from- You got this striped shirt on. Did you come from a ball game where you are refereeing, or were you on the work cam for the prison?
Russell: Rocks from Little Rocks all morning long.
Hugh: Russell, you are listening to this story like I am. I am thinking like this is a fairytale story. How do these people come along?
This is one of our colleagues in Denver. You are real popular.
Russell: I am just a party waiting to happen here.
Hugh: I know. As you are listening to his story, how many charities have we worked with over the years that really struggled to get somebody to believe in them to help them get some funding? There must be something that worked with your tenacity, your language, or something. Russell, what are you hearing? What question do you have for Ray about this early stage and the funding piece together and then getting the right team?
Russell: That is a perfect illustration of what we talk about when we talk about why you are doing what it is that you’re doing. Or do you want to get out of it? That is a perfect illustration of how important that is because that is exactly what happened to Ray. When somebody brings that horse to you and says, “Here is the gift horse. You don’t quibble over what you call it. You just say thank you and move on.” There is a lot of fear involved with that. But you took the bull by the horns and went on and did what it was that you thought you needed to do. Focus on the fact that the mission is important. This is big. This is something that is bigger than me. I have to go here and do this. Here it is. Face that fear and go ahead and do it anyway. Talk with people and find out what is important to them. You were able to speak their language, and that is why they partnered with you. When you talk to people, it’s important to use language that is important to them and that they value and move from that standpoint.
Let’s talk about that a little bit, Ray. I’m sure there were some doubts or some voices come up. We have our critics. We have our itty bitty committee, and I throw something a little extra in. This is PG-13. I will not throw the extra word in there. Itty bitty committee that comes calling when you go to brass that dream and you go to take it a step further. Talk about how you handle some of those conversations that were going on in your head and push through them to reach for the bigger goal.
Ray: It’s interesting that you say that because I tell friends that Stop Hunger Now started in January 1998. We knew about it from the end of August. That was when the donor made the decision to move forward. September through March, that six-month period, was probably the period where I was most frightened in my whole life because I had always worked with a partner, worked as a team ministry. We had gotten very successful with what we were doing. We fulfilled all our commitments and were just growing. I was getting ready to leap out into an area I basically knew nothing about with no support network behind me. I was so frightened, but I realized after I did it, I was thinking it was like leaping across the Grand Canyon. Actually, it was just like stepping off a curb. It was just a change. It was nothing great.
What helped me was what I’d learned with my first organization: People honor results. The people allowed us to do the Potato Project because they had seen us living for three years according to a basic lifestyle of justice. Being just and living that out gave us a platform to do the domestic hunger. Doing the domestic hunger piece for 18 years said that yes, we can fulfill what we promised. When I started Stop Hunger Now, that first year, we were able to make some huge accomplishments again through the grace of God. But for example, my first trip in January of 1998, I went to Nicaragua, Honduras, and Haiti because those are the three poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere. During those trips, I made partnerships and started putting the protocols in place to help some organizations. All of a sudden, in August of that year, we had Hurricane Mitch, one of the biggest hurricanes that hit Central America. Because I had worked with these folks and I had the protocols in place, I was able to get them funds that allowed them to be the first organizations in Honduras for example to actually make a difference for the hungry.
When people see that you’re actually making a difference, they want to be a part of that. People are hungry to help. The biggest difficulty that I’ve seen is they don’t know how. If you can demonstrate that your organization really makes a difference, you will not have difficulty finding funding most of the time.
Hugh: If you go out there and knock on doors.
Ray: If you go out there and knock on doors to start with. It’s always the case that when you need money the most, it’s the hardest to get. When you get to a place where you have grown the organization where money is not that difficult to come by, it flows in. That has always been my understanding. I will say that in the early days, my first organization, Society of St. Andrew, when we started the Potato Project and started spending money, it was $1,000 a month, then it was $1,000 a week. We literally had the capacity to spend ourselves out of existence in any two-day period that we decided to move enough produce. Went to D.C. and talked with a lady at a project where we were helping. We were getting potatoes for her. She said, “I know a man that might want to help you. Let me give you his phone number. He likes organizations like yours, so he will probably give you $1,000.” And $1,000 was wonderful for us.
I called the number. It was a business number. He never had come in by 11:00, and he always left by 1:00. Literally for over a week, I couldn’t get up with him. I finally asked the administrative person, “I’m sorry, but I really need to talk to this gentleman. Is there any way I can get ahold of him?” She said, “Let me give you his home phone.” I called his home phone for a week and never got up with him. We were panicked, and the need for money was so great we were at a loss. I called the secretary back and she said, “Oh, I gave you his bedroom number. Let me give you his den number.”
The first time I called this young man, and he was a young man, he answered. I told him who I was and what we were doing. He said, “Oh man, that is so cool. I like that. Could you use $10,000?” I was hoping for $1,000. I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Let me talk to my dad, and we will put it through the foundation. We will give you $10,000.” With just a letter, I sent him a letter request. He gave us $10,000. Then they gave us another $10,000, and another $10,000. That was $30,000 over the course of two months with never meeting him, just a letter. I kept trying to meet him to take him to lunch and get to know him and cultivate him. He said, “Man, I don’t do the lunch thing.” I said, “Fine.” One time I knew I was going to be in D.C, and I told him, “I would love to come see you.” He said, “Come up to the house, and we’ll talk.”
I came up to the house, and this was a young guy who had been involved in the drug culture. It had affected him quite a bit. He had a huge mudbog truck taller than I was. We spent about four hours together just getting to know each other. He fixed us ham sandwiches in the kitchen. Just a really nice young man who is really trying to find himself. I mean, he had a good heart and never talked about money the whole time.
As I was getting ready to leave, he reached into his back pocket and gave me an envelope. “We have been giving you money from the foundation. This is from my personal account. I am sorry it isn’t more than it is, but I’ve been burning through the money a lot faster than I thought. My accountant said he was surprised I had any left in the account at all. This is all I can do. I believe in what you’re doing.” Well, I thanked him profusely of course and put the money in the car.
I got in the car and drove out to the edge of the driveway. It is a long driveway outside of D.C. I couldn’t stand it. I wasn’t going to go on the road home until I looked in the envelope and saw a check for $43,500 from his personal account. The reason that is significant is that $43,000 got us through the next three weeks at which time the United Methodist Committee on Relief gave us a grant for $100,000. You just never know how you cultivate donors. I want to say if you’re faithful in doing what your passion calls you to do and you communicate that openly to your donors, they will respond.
Hugh: That is a big “and.” A lot of people don’t connect those dotted lines, do they, Russ?
Russell: That’s that fourth piece of the four steps to building a high-performance nonprofit is communicating that value that you bring. The language is a little different for different people, but it’s about relationships. You communicate that. That is very important. It’s critical. It’s actually being able to go out there, understanding what your core is, and communicating those values. They may not be for everybody, but you go out there and you do it and you make those critical connections. That’s what it’s all about. It’s about relationships.
I was just thinking because that is an example of one donor, but you have different people who volunteer, different people come to work. What are some of the things when people say, “Why do you work with Rise Against Hunger?” What are some of the reasons that people will give? When you understand that, you can communicate that. I am going to put that question to you, Ray, because you have all these relationships you have built, whether it’s a staff member or a volunteer. What are some of the things people are saying when the question, “Why do you work with Rise Against Hunger?” comes up?
Ray: We get the same answer all the time. We engage about a quarter of a million to 350,000 volunteers a year now. We engage them to a meal packaging program that allows- It’s an inter-generational program that lasts two hours where volunteers package high-protein dehydrated meals for school feeding programs internationally. It is a beautiful entrance into making a difference on hunger. We get the same responses every time we ask people. We don’t usually have to ask them. First of all, they say it’s so much fun. We can make a difference. We are having an impact. They can see the connection between their hands and their heart. It’s one thing to write a check and for some people that’s exactly what they need. More and more people in the millennial generation want to be physically involved in what they are committing themselves to. Giving volunteers a chance to be involved makes all the difference in the world.
The same thing is true for boards. I am passionate about growing boards because a high-powered, high-impact board really empowers an organization to reach the next level. It’s the same for every level of volunteering. Giving people a chance to make a difference where they can see it and feel it makes all the difference in the world. People come back time and time again to our events because not only are they interacting with other people and having a good time, but they also know when they put those meals in the box, the next time that box is opened, it will be at a school somewhere where the kids would not be able to come to school without those meals. They know they are transforming lives. That is so important.
Hugh: You sort of understanding the fun part of that. My church in Blacksburg did this. In two hours, how many pounds of food do we package?
Ray: You probably package 10,000 meals.
Hugh: 10,000 meals we packaged in two hours. They have an area director that comes in and tells people all the resources there, the boxes, the gloves. It is a very sanitary process. It’s like an energy field where we are doing stuff, and it’s like a church social event. It’s like games. Like games for families at church. This is far better. We are doing something worthwhile. It is really an energized process where people package. They tell us exactly what is going to happen to it. We put it in those boxes. We take it out, it goes into a truck. Whoosh. It’s gone. I was very impressed with the organization. It’s like turnkey, boom.
Ray: That is part of the secret. The turnkey part of it. The thing is, the more people you have involved in this process, the more fun it becomes. We have done events. One of my favorite events was done in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. We had one university with four campuses. They packaged a million meals in seven hours using 4,000 students in four locations. It was just awesome. It was electric. We do million meal events all the time.
One of the most exciting events I have done recently was February a year ago when Kraft Heinz merged. They brought all their senior leaders from around the world together for their first gathering. They asked Rise Against Hunger to come and do a team building event by packaging meals. They wanted to package a tractor trailer load of meals, 285,000 meals. They wanted to do it in two hours. They had roughly 900-1,000 employees from around the world. Not employees, leaders. These are senior leaders. They came, and this was to merge the Kraft people and the Heinz people together. They had such a blast. The CEO of Kraft-Heinz was in there among them going from table to table, talking about what they were accomplishing. They are one of our biggest corporate partners now. They were then as well. The energy in the room, when you can have that many people working on the same thing, interacting with people you normally wouldn’t interact with, it’s magic.
Hugh: What is the website where people can go find out about this?
Hugh: Riseagainsthunger. It will be listed in the podcast notes and TheNonProfitExchangeorg. It is listed there along with your pretty picture. We will work the logo as well.
The story about getting started is pretty dramatic. I will fund if you start a new organization. Talk about it today. How many countries, how many pounds of food, how much reach?
Ray: We started in 1998. For the first seven years, we were a crisis relief organization. I was in the Marines, so I am being comfortable being in sketchy situations. We focused on getting into areas where the larger organizations either couldn’t go, wouldn’t go. We were a fast operation. I mean we would go in faster than most organizations and make stuff happen. I always wanted to move away from crisis relief into a more sustainable attack on hunger. Our original board donor who gave me all the money was not interested in that. His idea of feeding the hungry was crisis relief only. After about seven years, we had some board transition and a lot of other stuff. It was about that time where the Christmas tsunami hit. I found an organization that was doing meal packaging. I came back from visiting with them and said we are going to do this. That time, I had three staff people. We are going to start this in two months. They all laughed at me. We were able to get it started in two months. The first year, we started meal packaging, we meal packaged 1.1 million meals. The second year was 3.1. This year, we will package 75 million meals for the hungry.
Hugh: 75 million from the start of 1.1 million.
Hugh: My goodness.
Ray: Now we have offices in 20 cities in the United States. We now have offices in five countries. I always said I didn’t want to raise a flag in other countries. We didn’t do that until we absolutely had to. What I mean by that is we don’t set up offices in countries to distribute meals. But implementing partners that do that well, they know what they’re doing. So many countries came to us and said, “We want to package meals and engage volunteers in our country.” South Africa was the first. We looked around, and South Africa had all the resources necessary to package meals. We started working in South Africa. Then Malaysia, the Philippines, Italy. We have a list of six or seven countries that want us to come in and start offices. But we are very careful about going and starting offices. They have to have all the resources available, and it has to be a wonderful thing. South Africa for example, they will package 8 or 9 million meals this year themselves. But what they have done is they have talked to the United States so much. This is the fun part about when you have work as partners.
The situation in South Africa is completely different than the United States. They have lots of volunteers, but no funding. The churches in South Africa don’t have a financial base. They had to start going to corporate donors where we weren’t using corporate donors in the United States so much. The corporations got behind what they were doing and gave significant amounts of funds. We went to school and said, “If they are doing it, why don’t we work on that?” Our corporate income has grown by over 70% because we went to school with what South Africa was doing. We learn from each other that way.
In the Philippines, our office there said we use dehydrated vegetables in our meals. Rather than buy those on the market, why don’t we get farmers to grow them so they can have a sustainable livelihood? They have cooperative farms where the farmers know that when they grow these vegetables, they will be bought at a fair price. Now they are getting the production ready to where these can be dehydrated, which will employ more people. They have the value chain from growing the vegetables to putting them in the meals. Employing lots of people. In India, they are doing other things.
Every country operates as its own entity. In fact, I just came back from the Philippines a couple month ago where we had our first strategic global gathering where we are trying to figure out how to operate as a more global organization rather than the U.S. and affiliates. I can’t say enough about the board in the United States willing to look at that and say, “We can be one among equals rather than being paternalistic about it.” It’s a huge sea change, but it’s fun to see that happening. Never envisioned when I stepped out and started Rise Against Hunger, we had probably 148 employees in the United States in five countries. It keeps growing because it’s doing what it says it needs to do.
Hugh: We are hitting our last five minutes in a wrap here. Russ, do you have some comments or questions for our guest today?
Russell: Innovate and collaborate. That is the name of the game. That’s what you are doing. You can spread the impact. The sum is more powerful than the parts. It’s an ideal model. That’s what high performance nonprofits do. I commend you on that. You are doing a remarkable job. What is the big goal for 2018? What is the takeaway? What is the impact that you want to bring in 2018?
Ray: Probably, we are in our strategic planning process now. We have just gone from one year budgeting to three year budgeting. In ’18, we are going to probably 100 million meals. That is just a part of all that is going on. Our global model will be to be implemented in ‘18 and hopefully by 2020, that will be fully operational. It’s more collaboration in ’18 than we have ever had, even in ’16 or ’17.
Hugh: I want you to be thinking about a parting word or sponsor that you have for people who want to do something but are afraid to do it and think it’s an uphill battle or impossible. You have given them a great story, but what advice do you have?
Ray Buchanan, this has been an inspirational hour. You said how long is it going to be? I said, as long as it takes. Well, we could talk all day. As we are wrapping this interview up, what word of encouragement or what thought do you have for people who have a great idea like that but they are afraid to get started or don’t know where to start?
Ray: Let the preacher come out of me for a minute. Three points. First, I think it’s faithfulness. You have to be faithful to what you know is right and what you know you’re called to do. That means doing it. The second is vision. When you are faithful to that vision, people will see that and respond to it. The third is get off your buts, and act on that vision. Faithfulness, vision, and action: those three things are what allow you to do far more than you ever imagined you could do. It’s what encourages people to get in and work with you. Those three things, you do that, and you can make a difference in the world. I think that’s what we are all trying to do is change the world forever. I tell people Rise Against Hunger, the vision is to create a world without hunger. Very simple. What we are really trying to do is change the world forever. I want to be a part of that.
Hugh: Little bit at a time. One person at a time. You have compounded that over the years. Ray Buchanan, thank you for spending time with us and sharing your story. Thank you, Russ.
Ray: Thanks, Russ.
Russell: Thank you.
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