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Hugh Ballou: Greetings, welcome to The Nonprofit Exchange. Just like every episode we’ve had so far, we have a really good guest today. He has done some really good stuff. I am sitting here in Lynchburg, Virginia. Co-host Russell Dennis is sitting in Denver, Colorado. Hello, Russell.
Russell Dennis: Greetings and salutations. Happy Tuesday, everybody. Welcome back.
Hugh: We do this podcast interviews every Tuesday at 2. If you’re listening to these, I don’t care when it is, it might be a year from when we recorded this or later, you can always go to TheNonprofitExchange.org. You can see the archives of three years, three years’ worth of incredible interviews, and today is no exception. We have sitting in Raleigh, North Carolina Rod Brooks. Rod, hello.
Rod Brooks: Hello, Hugh. Good to be with you and Russell. Thanks so much for having me on the podcast.
Hugh: The people who are listening can’t see, but Rod has this big map sitting behind him. He is sitting in the main offices of an organization called Rise Against Hunger. Rod, our custom here is to let guests share things about themselves. Do that. Somewhere in there, talk about Rise Against Hunger because that is not the original name for this organization. Get us acquainted with you and the organization please.
Rod: I would love to. I love sharing about Rise Against Hunger. It is an amazing organization. We are an international nonprofit organization. Our mission is to end hunger in our lifetime. As you referenced, we were initially founded as Stop Hunger Now. It was about a year ago that we changed our name from Stop Hunger Now to Rise Against Hunger. We are headquartered here in Raleigh, North Carolina, but in fact, we have grown quite a bit. Now we have offices throughout the United States in about 20 cities. We have also established affiliate Rise Against Hunger organizations in five countries outside the U.S., including South Africa, Malaysia, India, Italy, and the Philippines. We have grown quite a bit.
We are probably most well-known for our meal packaging program. This is a program where volunteers package high-protein, dehydrated meals that we use in a very strategic way, feeding children through school feeding programs. This is a very strategic way to end hunger because on the one hand, you provide nutrition that enables those children to learn, but in addition, you provide an incentive for parents to send their kids to school. We often see when we start school feeding programs that the school enrollment will double, triple, quadruple. As more children get into the educational training opportunities, literacy levels increase, and it’s through that that you can begin to break the cycle of poverty around the world that so often keeps people hungry. That is a program that has grown dramatically since we started it.
I remember our very first meal packaging event was December of 2005. That first full year, 2006, we packaged 1.7 million meals, which we distributed to partners around the world. Last year, just in the U.S. alone, we packaged nearly 60 million meals, engaged 380,000 volunteers, and nourished the lives of more than 1.04 million people. Our impact is great.
Not only is our impact through providing these meals and nutrition through school feeding programs, but we also support programs that enhance local food production and local family incomes, which increases access to food and which leverages natural resources. Those are sustainable community development projects, which we support to help end hunger on a permanent basis.
We are also very much involved in crisis relief as well as advocacy around hunger, so we try to take a very holistic approach to ending hunger. We feel like we are a part of supporting the movement to end hunger around the world.
Hugh: Tell us about you. What’s your background? How did you end up in this seat? What were the chapters before this that prepared you for this?
Rod: Sure. I was born and raised in North Carolina. I confess that through high school, I had never traveled the state much less the country. Until the summer after my senior year of high school, where I went on those school field trips of 14 countries in 11 days, I suppose that piqued my interest. I’m not sure if it was the beer we drank in Munich or what, but it piqued my interest in international travel. I had already been studying Spanish in high school, but when I got to college, I had a professor there, Professor Laray, who was the spitting image of Don Quixote. He convinced me that I needed to spend my junior year living in Seville, Spain. I lived in Spain for a year on a study abroad program. I can only describe that experience as life-changing. It took a person who was born and raised in North Carolina and completely changed my perspective. I realized in particular how much in common I had with people around the world. Despite the differences in culture, language, taste, and what have you, there was just a tremendous amount we shared at heart. That was what led me to an interest in global education and eventually working internationally.
When I graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in Spanish and Economics, I went to work for a nonprofit organization whose founder had a vision to create a global learning center in downtown Raleigh. Like I had, he lived a couple years abroad. He was a Peace Corps volunteer living and working in India. It was appealing to me to help develop a learning center like that where people could essentially gain the experience that I had, which was to learn how we’re connected with people in places around the world.
For 16 years—it was remarkable that I was able to hold a job for 16 years right after college, but then somehow they kept letting me put on different hats. I went from managing one of the outreach programs to ultimately being the vice president for administration with that organization called Exploris. I was there through the conceptualization, the design, the fundraising—it was about an $80 million project, and I was fortunate to be involved in the fundraising, as I learned a lot through that experience—and ultimately the construction and operation of the museum. That had been my background prior to joining with Rise Against Hunger, which again at the time was called Stop Hunger Now.
That actually leads me to the topic today that might be of interest to your listeners to hear about. That is how I became involved with Stop Hunger Now, now Rise Against Hunger. What that process was for becoming CEO of an organization that began with the very passionate, visionary, charismatic founder and how we achieved that transition. That is what I’d love to share with you today and would love to answer any questions you have, too.
Hugh: That’s quite a story. You had some pretty significant training before you came to this job.
Rod: I did.
Hugh: That’s quite remarkable. I want to remind listeners that we did interview the founder, Ray Buchanan, several months ago. He talked about the history and philosophy and whatnot. You are taking this into a different direction. You and Ray are closely connected. Ray introduced us when I visited your offices, which are quite impressive. This open space. You don’t have an office with closed doors literally. You are out there with people, and you are very engaged with people. I was most impressed with the creativity and how that space was created so people could interact. Everything is tidy. People are working there. They are working hard, but it is very organized. I am sure people get a lot more done when they can find things. I was impressed with your leadership when I walked in the door.
We are centering around leadership and how we have this ability to make things happen. There is a lot of people listening to this podcast who tried things and couldn’t make them happen. They tried to be a founder and tried to take it the next step from the founder. They have stepped into- We call it a nonprofit; it is the only organization in the world we define by what we’re not. We step into the role, and we haven’t really got the moxie, the skill, the ability to lead it. I see by the results and the stories you’re telling that you are probably a person uniquely equipped to take the mantel for this and move it forward.
I want to clarify a couple things. You feed people with this food that you prepare. I accidentally went with my wife to a local conference center, and there were a bunch of Methodist youth—we went for a dialogue about their faith—but we walked into people setting up—you have a local affiliate chapter here—a packaging program. It was a picture of energy. I think in less than an hour, they packaged 25,000 meals. It was remarkable.
Rod: That is one of the amazing things about our program. The meal packaging events that we conduct are a huge amount of fun. It is amazing that in preparing a very simple meal that is comprised of rice, soy, dehydrated vegetables, and a vitamin formulation specifically designed for malnourished people, it is amazing that you can have so much fun preparing these, but at the same time, be so fulfilled, knowing that when you scoop that cup of rice into a funnel, you are just one step away from actually feeding someone. That is what I hear from volunteers all the time. Our project managers out in the field do a fantastic job of engaging people of all ages in this remarkable experience. A group of 50 people can package 10,000 servings in just a couple hours. It can really make a huge impact.
Hugh: These were youth. They were on it. It was an energy field.
Part of your dialogue, you give people the food, but you also teach them things. What is the teaching part of how they get out of this hunger situation?
Rod: The important thing for us is to recognize ending hunger is very much about empowering people. Our method here for ending hunger—again, we try to look at ending hunger holistically, and we focus on how we can create transformation in people’s lives. We can recognize that there is a very immediate impact of the meals we provide. I have had physicians for example. There was one physician I spoke to who shared with me she has been traveling to Guatemala for 5-6 years each year. Each year, prior to our providing meals in this community, she found the children there were suffering severe effects from malnutrition. It was only a year later from when we started providing meals in this community that she contacted me and said, “I’m amazed that in the period of one year, the children I’m serving here, they are not exhibiting the effects of hunger and malnutrition. If anything, I am here treating cuts and bruises, the kinds of things that happen to kids when they’re active and can play.” It’s amazing what happens when providing the kind of nutrition that we do in such a short amount of time.
What is also very important is the long-term impact of these meals we are providing. Again, when we start a school feeding program, it provides an incentive for parents to send their children to school. We tend to take universal access to school in the United States for granted, but that is certainly not the case around the world. We often see when we start a school feeding program that the school enrollment dramatically increases. That provides greater access to literacy and vocational training. It’s through that education we can begin to break the cycle of poverty.
What we also find is that majority of increase in school enrollment is young girls. It’s often young girls who are not educated in a developing community in the world. On average, studies show that a girl who is not educated might have between seven and eight kids in her lifetime. If she is educated, if she is learning to read and write, that birth rate drops to between two and three children on average. As a result, maternal health rates dramatically increase. With fewer children being born, infant mortality rates decrease significantly because more resources are provided for those kids who are there. That has a huge impact over time in reducing the number of children born each year. We see more children living past the age of five. It’s these long-term benefits that we also emphasize.
Along with the nutrition programs we support, we are supporting programs that increase local food production. One example is again in Guatemala. We began working about 18 months ago with a local group of farmers there who learned of our organization because of the meals we provide in their community. They came to us and said, “We would like to start raising tilapia fish in our community.” We provided about $42,000, technical expertise, and help with their program design, but ultimately, this is something we empowered them to do locally. Not only did we see more food being produced in the community, some of which was shared with the school feeding program we were supporting, but we also saw the incomes of those farmers dramatically increase.
Through those types of programs, we can eradicate hunger community by community around the world.
Hugh: That is remarkable. I detect this is not just a cerebral thing. It’s not just a job for you; it’s a passion. When you talk about it, the passion comes out. That’s underlying this. You do have the skillset. I want to have you talk about the journey.
That is so remarkable. Your program is stopping hunger, but it is also economic development, job creation, and community engagement.
Rod: Hugh, there is one other piece that I have to emphasize. The reason that I think our meal packaging program is so powerful is I mentioned last year we engaged 380,000 volunteers around the world. Conceivably, we could have packaged those meals with a machine in a factory somewhere. But there is a reason we engage volunteers. We believe that in order to end hunger, we have to create a movement to end hunger. We have to create the general will and the political will to mobilize the resources to end hunger. I like to think that those that we engaged last year are 380,000 hunger fighters who are now engaged in a very hands-on way in ending hunger. They have become more aware of hunger and where it exists and why. They have become aware that there are very specific, successful, sustainable things we can do to end hunger. This is why we have a focus on this.
Interestingly, we have just launched a campaign I want to share with everyone. It’s called This is Possible. Something exciting happened in September of 2015. The United Nations adopted the Sustainable Development Goals. SDG #2 is to achieve zero hunger by the year 2030, just 12 years from now. It turns out that one of the biggest challenges to achieving that goal is simply the fact that many people don’t realize that hunger doesn’t have to exist. They don’t realize that we produce enough food to feed every single person. They don’t realize that in fact, over the last two decades, we have made tremendous progress in reducing the number of malnourished people around the world by as much as 20% in fact. We still have challenges. We still see an increase in hunger due to conflict and people being displaced from their homes. In fact, we saw a bump in the number of people who are malnourished due to conflict over the past couple years. When you look at the trajectory, we are clearly on the trajectory to end hunger by 2030.
That is what this campaign, This is Possible, is really about: to illustrate to people that ending hunger is not this huge, insurmountable problem, but rather a series of smaller problems that are solvable through effective, proven, sustainable solutions. Look on our website, RiseAgainstHunger.org, and be sure to check out our other website, 2030isPossible.org, to learn how in fact we can and will end hunger by 2030.
Hugh: Those are numbers.
Rod: Yes, 2030ispossible.org.
Hugh: Okay. Wow. That’s quite remarkable. It’s like on a conveyor belt that’s already going. You came into an organization that had a good board, a good vision, and a good program. There was a transition from the previous leadership to you. You are making a transition to the future. You are in the middle of this rebranding, renaming, reidentifying who we are because you couldn’t operate in every country with the trademark before. Now you have Rise Against Hunger, and you can go anywhere with that. You have led it through some transitions. I am willing to bet sitting here and watching you that you have steps in your mind on the transition going forward.
I encounter a whole lot of leaders who are stuck because they haven’t put a structure in place, haven’t really communicated the vision, and really, they are more doers than leaders. They haven’t let go of enough stuff. Talk about the calling of leadership for you and how you have empowered yourself to this job, those transitions that I talked about. Talk about the leadership piece of this.
Rod: I think I can do that through describing a bit of how I got here, how Ray and I worked together, and then how I succeeded Ray although he continues to be involved certainly. Let me describe what I consider those four phases.
I will say that Rise Against Hunger has accomplished an effective transition from a very successful, passionate, visionary founder to me as a successor CEO. We recognize that is often a step that is very difficult for founder-based nonprofit organizations. I think there is value in describing this transition. I do want to point out that this transition I am going to describe took place over nine years. I recognize that we are very fortunate to have had that amount of time. Honestly, I’m glad that your listeners have had a chance to get to know Ray because it’s very much to his credit that we have been able to successfully make this transition.
Let me start with how we met. Again, I mentioned that before working with Rise Against Hunger, I was at a museum in downtown Raleigh. I was there in December of 2004 when the enormous tsunami struck southeast Asia. On that day, about 300,000 people lost their lives, a terrible tragedy. With the museum, we held a day where we invited nonprofit organizations in to raise money and awareness for the relief efforts. Stop Hunger Now was one of the organizations we invited in. it was then that I met Ray. I immediately was moved by his passion and his vision of a world without hunger. Frankly, it was something that I had never considered before. I, as I’m sure most people have, have always taken hunger for granted, that it existed around the world and was apathetic that there was nothing we could do about it. Not for Ray. He clearly had a vision that ending hunger was not only possible, but it was also a moral imperative, something we couldn’t afford not to do. That was what was so powerful to me to meet Ray.
Interestingly, as fate works, a year later, the museum that I had worked for 16 years to create and construct and bring about ended up merging with another organization. My position, as vice president for administration, was eliminated in that merger. We had a board member in common, however, a person who served on both boards for the museum and for Stop Hunger Now, who said, “Rod, remember Ray Buchanan you met a year ago? Go talk to him. I understand the board at Stop Hunger Now is interested in hiring a CEO to work with Ray to develop the organization.”
Ray and I had breakfast in January of 2006. I recall that meeting very well. It was great reconnecting with Ray. It was also very clear that he wasn’t necessarily very sure of what he needed in a CEO or wanted. Quite frankly, I had been working for 16 years. I didn’t know that I was ready to jump into something else right away. I said, “Let me volunteer with you. Let’s do some strategic planning together. I have some ideas for funding perhaps we can explore. Let me just volunteer.”
For a period of five months, I volunteered with Ray and the small staff that we had on board then. There was a total of five people then. I did just that. We worked together to create a strategic plan. Ray had just developed the meal packaging problem, so I was learning about that and learning about hunger. It was during that five-month period that we realized there was some good chemistry there. We shared a passion although clearly I did not know as much about ending hunger as Ray did. Very little, in fact. But we realized that we could work well together. We shared a passion. We just felt like it was a good fit. We decided that why don’t we actually pursue this?
There was no money in hiring a CEO at the time, but there was one donor, a donor who had provided start-up funding for Stop Hunger Now in 1998 who we went to go visit. Knowing Ray, he thought he would benefit from having someone to work with, so he ended up providing funding to fund my position for the first couple of years. That was how we got started.
Following that, there was a period of about six years where we co-led the organization. He brought me on with the idea of succession and certainly to his credit, he recognized the opportunity that I could afford the organization, but also recognize there was room for me to grow. I felt very empowered by what he was able to provide for me. During this six-year period, we actually did define it as a management team. We amended the bylaws of the organization to define a management team consisting of Ray as the founder and myself as the CEO. That was to establish clear expectations for the board.
Generally, I focused on the internal development, the processes, creating the infrastructure for the organization while Ray focused on the external relations, the fundraising, speaking. He certainly provided much inspiration to our very young staff as we grew, as well as lots of training for me in particular around hunger.
During this time, we were a real team. I feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to learn from Ray during this time. Very generous. For any founder who is out there, this is something I can really offer. I think it would have been easy for Ray to have held back or not shared everything but really during that period, I was able to internalize not only just the knowledge he had in his head, but also the passion he had for our mission. That was something that was such a gift he provided to me during that time.
That time, where we were working together as a team, was a very effective period of significant growth. Over frankly the last 12 years, we have grown from an organization of about five people with a budget of about $800,000 to now our annual budget is about $23 million. We have about 140 people on our staff. We distribute another $26 million in in-kind around the world. We have seen exponential growth. That period of us co-leading the organization was a period where we saw perhaps the most rapid rate of growth.
Hugh: I want to highlight a couple things. Russell, Rod has given us permission to interrupt and clarify and highlight some things. I don’t know if you’re hearing what I’m hearing, but there are so many “leaders,” Rod, that will not take input. I’ve got to show it myself. What I’m hearing you in that dialogue, you had a willing giver in Ray, of course. Everybody would be willing to take that input and to create that partnership. Russell, how many people have we met in our careers who are going to figure out and do it and not take this kind of support? You’ve met a few, haven’t you?
Russell: It’s painful to watch. Two things were going on. Ray had probably got ahold of a copy of The Founder’s Dilemma and read that. I know you mentioned being in Spain. Nothing like a little bit of wine to breeze the skin. You hung around too long. If you hang around long enough, they will find something for you to do. It never fails. It never fails.
But you pretty much did everything right as far as ramping things up. That’s pretty important. If you try to do things by yourself, you are really heading for trouble. That is where you ramp up by leveraging everybody’s efforts. I have seen other people do things, like Travis Smith here in Denver. He started an organization called Impact Locally. They are in Colorado. They are in 11 cities by the way. Philadelphia and Denver are two of the cities they are in.
Mobilizing all of these volunteers, that’s huge, to pack lunches. I have gone and packed some lunches. We cranked out 1,200 sack lunches in 45 minutes. You get volunteers. People can get involved, and you can really leverage the effort of volunteers so they feel like they are doing something. After we put it all together, we go as a group and have a route of 12 different places where homeless people appear and distribute it. It really engages everybody. It keeps people going. You have people every month, but it has a lot of energy.
The other thing I like is what my friend Wendy Lipton-Dibner calls ethical bribes. That is getting these meals out to the students. There is a purpose to getting that out. There are so many other benefits. It’s a really neat ethical bribe. You’d be surprised how many kids go without good meals who are eligible for free food right here in the United States. That’s pretty critical. Trying to find ways to develop food sustainably is remarkable. It’s a great business model.
Hugh: I want to go back to the leadership piece. You onboarded from five to 140 people in creating systems. What we see commonly is that leaders do overfunction. It limits that growth. It limits the functionality of others. I just wanted to highlight that piece of your story where you are open, transparent, vulnerable. You took input, but you also empowered others, not only in the volunteer program, but what I see in your staff and your board. I just wanted to isolate that as we look at best practices for leaders. Sorry to interrupt your momentum there, but it was too good to let it pass.
Rod: I’m glad you mentioned that. Again, that period as Ray and I were working as a team was one of the periods of most rapid growth. Our skills complemented each other. We found out how to work really closely together.
I do want to point out before this all sounds too rosy that there were some challenges during that period. With co-leading an organization, who do staff turn to? Where is the ultimate accountability that the board needs to look to? Between the two of us, Ray and I had to make sure we didn’t overcommit the organization. We had to stay very close together on decisions and commitments we were making.
We overcame some of those challenges through a number of things. One was the ability to have very candid conversations together when things went wrong. That came about through the strong relationship and sense of trust we had built with each other from the day that I started volunteering through the years we had worked together. We were courageous enough to speak candidly with one another. I can’t say enough how much I value that in the relationship we had.
Another thing was that I always felt that Ray was invested in my success. Again, I think you’re probably right, Russell. Maybe he did pick up a copy of that book. He realized his success would depend on my success. I always felt he was invested in my success, and I feel like he continues to be. Looking back on those days, I recognize how easy it would have been for him to have felt threatened. I certainly never experienced that.
Likewise, I’ll share with you honestly that from my perspective, initially, when I came on board, I felt a lot of pressure that I had to be the one, that people expected me to be just like Ray. It took me a few years. It took me some learning and coming into my own to give myself permission to be myself as the leader of this organization. As I came into that, it also strengthened my ability to honor Ray as the founder, and at the same time, stand in my strength as a leader. I just really feel fortunate that Ray empowered me during those years to build that sense of self. We did it in a way that was honoring and respectful of each other.
Hugh: You’re right. That is a common stumbling block for leaders coming in after someone else: to give yourself permission to be you. That is the authenticity of a transformational leader. You couldn’t be Ray. Was that an immediate revelation or awareness that you needed to be you? Or was that a growing awareness as you worked the job?
Rod: I think that was a growing awareness for me personally. I’m glad your listeners have had the chance to meet Ray because he is a passionate, visionary, charismatic person. You follow someone like that, and you feel this pressure—at least I did—to be that guy. It turns out I had to be my own person in order to lead successfully. Ray was very supportive of me in stepping into that role.
Hugh: You’re giving us some important lessons for all of us. Even though we teach this, Russell, we still have some traps. Go on with your journey. This is a fascinating journey. I wanted to highlight some of these leadership awareness pieces, this competency. But I’m sure there were some times you had to reboot, refocus as you went into this job, which was huge.
Rod: With that, we come into the next phase, which was that Ray had less and less of an interest in the day-to-day operations of the organization and was more interested in pursuing some other activities like writing a book, which he did. When it came to that time, we both knew that time had arrived. We knew I was in a place where I could take responsibility. Ray was in a place where he felt confident and trustful in me and wanted to pursue other activities, too.
We worked with the board to define a phase retirement period over three years, the first year of which Ray continued to work full-time. The second year, he reduced his time to 50%, and the third year, to 25%. It was during that transition period that I assumed all the day-to-day responsibility of running the organization. We reamended the organizational bylaws to reflect my role as president and CEO. I was the sole person responsible to the board. It was through that process that we established me as the leader of the organization. It alleviated some of the confusion around who was responsible and who was casting the vision for the organization going forward.
I really appreciate Roy’s support through that period. It took his leadership to support me in assuming that role, and it took my stepping into that role to support him in making the transition that he wanted to make, too.
That three-year period culminated in a wonderful celebration of Ray’s retirement that we did in September of 2015. Hundreds of people in the audience, awards and recognition and people speaking about the amazing vision that Ray had, and honoring him as the founder of the organization. That for me was one of the most meaningful gifts that we could provide to thank Ray for all that he had done in establishing this organization, and just to acknowledge how he was such an inspiration to all of us who were part of the organization.
Hugh: I hear underlying all of this an emphasis on strategy. Many times, people that are in our seat are visionary, but not tactical. Putting that together and having a track that everybody knows where you’re going. You keep coming back to strategy and a work plan. That is a really huge piece for leaders to pay attention to. People think that inhibits our creativity. Our saying at SynerVision is that strategy is a container for your creativity. Now that you have a strategy, you can put effort toward doing your work. Anchored in what you are saying is a lot of good leadership principles, but anchored in strategy is a real high point for me. I didn’t want to let that one pass.
Rod: I agree. To add to what you were describing, crafting that three-year transition, I really have to commend our board during that time. They asked us to be strategic about that. They asked us to put time frames and specific deliverables and expectations in place. There was a lot of accountability that the board required of us as we were going through that process. There is a valuable lesson for boards of directors in that they have to take a responsibility to help facilitate this type of transition.
The last piece here I would mention is that I am very proud that there is a fourth phase. That fourth phase continues in fact now. Ray is now an advocate for the organization. Let me start with this. As I have studied organizational change, I have recognized that organizations certainly need to focus on what needs to change in the future in order to expand your impact or achieve greater results or what have you. But it is so very important to continue to honor the best parts of the past. For our organization, as growth-focused, as strategically-focused as we are, we recognize that for our organization, that has always been honoring the vision and the tenacity and the spirit that Ray has always inspired in us. It was important for us that we as an organization, and frankly for myself in particular, that we continue to honor Ray and the vision he cast for the organization.
In this fourth phase, which again continues, we defined a role for Ray, which is an advocate for the organization, a global ambassador. In this capacity, he makes appearances and speaks on behalf of the organization’s mission to end hunger. He is very effective in that. A very charismatic speaker, very passionate. He is involved in our donor stewardship program, helping us to acknowledge key donors. It means a lot for Ray to be there at those events to recognize our significant milestones our donors have achieved. He continues to participate in key strategic planning meetings that we have had with our international affiliates around the world. I say this is an ongoing phase because I still feel like there are opportunities for us to explore that we haven’t capitalized on yet, where we can continue to enhance this role. I know that is something he is very interested in. But to your point, it is something we defined intentionally, and something that there is accountability around that we both have responsibility for upholding.
Hugh: Those are words people toss around, but they are not willing to commit to them. Because of that, it penalizes their success. It compromises the work. There is a built-in accountability with your strategy, which is not a putative thing. Accountability, I didn’t do what I was supposed to do. It’s the other side: people now know how to help you do what you’re going to do. What I’m seeing with you is you’re very transparent in what you do. Am I hearing that correctly?
Rod: I try to be. Absolutely. Frankly, I appreciate your mentioning that, and I don’t take it lightly. What made this transition so successful is Ray and I were able to be very transparent in describing what was happening. Our work with the board, sharing this message with the staff—as an organization grows, it is more difficult to communicate across a larger organization. We spent extra time focused on that. I don’t pretend at all to say it was smooth the entire time. There were clearly periods where people were confused, and maybe they didn’t understand where we were going. But we always tried to hear those concerns and speak to them. There were frequent occasions when we would speak through a town hall meeting or even one-on-one meetings or departmental meetings, spending time focusing on where we are going, what this looks like in the future, and how things are looking differently now.
Hugh: Very good story. Russell, did you note any other leadership points you’d like to highlight from this interesting dialogue he has given us?
Rod: I am mesmerized here. There are a couple of thoughts that hit my mind. The first is Ray didn’t want to follow himself with another Ray. The rule that you’d never let a great leader pick his successor, he blew that rule up. He completely obliterated that and showed you that it is workable. I suspect if we get him in a room and get him to come clean, he’ll admit to us how many more rounds of golf he is playing and how long he wanted to play more golf before he met you and how many rounds he could see when he started talking to you that first time.
Rod: I’m not sure, Russell. I don’t see him on a golf course by any means.
Russell: It’s just spending that time. You have done great work as far as putting together a succession plan. That is the way you do it. You actually build it and create it and craft it. It takes time. All of these things take time. But you step into your own. Great leaders build great leaders. That is how an organization continues, expands, and grows. That should run the same way whether you are there or not. This is the power of systems. This is what happens when people know what needs to be done.
I’d like to go back and talk. I had a conversation with a young lady at a nonprofit that I was introduced to who thought, Oh, the work he’s doing is great, so I’d like to talk to him. I had a conversation with her. By now, there has been some burnout on the board. There was a lot of energy put toward a grand initiative that didn’t come to fruition. A lot of the people that were there burned out. But the key is that leadership, and of course you have to have a great board of directors.
Talk about how you managed to get them to understand what it was that you needed from them and have them come forward. Or did you just stumble into an awesome board of director factory and pick the ones off the shelf that you liked? How did that happen? None of this happens in a vacuum. Talk about how the board started, how it developed, how it shifted, how you brought people in.
Rod: It’s a great question. The board plays such an important role, especially in facilitating this type of transition. When I started, we had a much smaller board. We had about six people at the time. Now we have a board of 19 people. We have a variety of skillsets that we needed to add to our board. Now is the point I have to acknowledge that as much as I have tried to be an effective leader, there is a huge amount of providence in what we have accomplished here. No matter what your faith or tradition or what you believe, we owe it to a higher power to open the doors that ultimately lead to our success. I can point to so many instances where it’s been the right person who has shown up at the right time who has made all the difference in the world. I can certainly say that for the board members who have come on board. The board members who were on board when I first started who recognized the potential and were willing to entertain this idea of co-management for a period of time, which is not a common thing. It took some conversation and people voicing concerns and discussing opportunities through that we ultimately agreed to give that a try. What I found is that nonprofit boards tend to be pretty risk-averse. I very much credit that early board who said, “Let’s give this more non-traditional approach a try.” I think that very much led to our success.
Again, there have been board members who all along have been very engaged. That is one thing I can say about our board. Ours has not been a board just for representation, just for names on a letterhead. Ours has always been a very engaged board. We have had very active working committees. We have had folks who have spent a lot of time and effort getting us to where we are, and that engagement has been critical. We over time have shifted. Early in the organization, when we were a group of five people on staff, it necessarily meant that board members had to be more engaged in operational activities. As we have grown and built managerial leadership capacity, it has meant that the board has had the opportunity and has also taken the opportunity to focus more on governance and strategic direction of the organization. There has been a lot of work to help define what that role means. There is always working between guard rails. Sometimes you sway one direction, which is too operational, and the other is too hands-off. You are always going back and forth between those. Our board has been very reflective on looking at how they take on those responsibilities. That has been a very intentional focus for us. Ray and I have both valued this in the board members that we’ve had, that level of engagement.
Russell: These folks are all brilliant. You have conversations with some, and they are very good technically. But maybe they just don’t have that time. I think it’s really important to have conversations with people where you get under the hood. It might seem like it’s a little woo-woo, but you have to find out what it is that you want to get out of it. If you’re new, you have to have people who have their hands in the dough, not necessarily people who stand off to the side and say, “That’s a rather large bag of flour. I wonder who is going to move it.” But you can get advisors. If you get people who are brilliant and got some level of commitment, grab ‘em as advisors. You can always use advisors and expertise. Everybody may not be a board member; they may not have that level of commitment. Don’t walk away without getting something, even if it’s having them write a small check once a month. You can find those people with that level of commitment. When you’re giving them what they want, that is the whole thing. There are a lot of difficult conversations, and there is a lot of stuff out there on those difficult conversations. You have to be able to have those without people feeling like they are going to get their heads taken off. Agree to disagree. Give a lot of thought to the minority opinion. You can have a lone voice in the back of the room who says, “Hold up. This is all falling into place, but let’s think it through a little bit further.” I have seen things turn completely around in the strength of a minority opinion, which causes you to rethink everything. It’s all about people. You’re as good as the people that you get behind you. Even if you have a genius like Hugh Ballou heading the thing up, you still need some worker bees and other people to make good.
Hugh: Remember my age and mental condition.
Russell: I thought we could get through the whole thing. We only had six minutes to go.
Hugh: Russell always makes good observations. I like to say I pale in comparison.
Russell: Maybe next week we’ll make it through.
Rod: I have to say I appreciate your comment about board members. One of the things I’ll share with you that I’ve learned in my 12 years here now is earlier in my career, I felt like especially with the word “board,” I had to have everything under control, I had to have everything buttoned up and tied with a bow. I had to have all the answers and had to show that I had it together. I realized that didn’t work for too long because first of all, circumstances are quick to show you that you really can’t control everything. No matter how hard you try or how effective you are, you can’t control everything. Furthermore, I learned that no one of us, particularly me, is as smart as all of us.
One of the things that I have learned is that what’s important is not to worry about being so tied up, but actually engage people in the problems that exist. We are here committed to solving world hunger. That is something that people joke about when they say, “You’re not trying to end world hunger,” but we are trying to end world hunger. We know we don’t have all the answers. It’s something that I have learned: it’s important to allow people to support you and to support me in this role. That is what our board especially has really done.
I have also found it’s the case with our donors. I think the pressure for executive directors often, if we are a nonprofit, is to present this perfect picture for donors and to not share as much of the challenges that you face for fear that they might withdraw their support or not be as committed. Frankly, I’ve found just the opposite to be true. The more I have opened up, the more I have shared what our challenges are, the more people who are willing to step up and provide their support to overcome them.
Hugh: This is really good. We could go on for hours. But people sign off after a period of time here. Give us a snapshot of what you do to continue your personal growth as a leader. What are some of the basic things that you put on your radar to keep growing?
Rod: There are a number of things that are really important to me, Hugh. I have enjoyed reading your publications. Thank you for sharing your book and magazines with me. I am an avid reader. There are always things I am learning.
Furthermore, I have always found that the right book has never failed to show up at the right time. Recently, I was walking through an airport and saw a book by Kim Scott called Radical Candor and realized, Oh my gosh, that is the philosophy of radical feedback and organizational proof that I have been looking for. I have never found anything to be but the right time. Try to keep reading. Try to keep talking to great folks like Hugh. Try to keep sharing openly, candidly, and with a fair amount of vulnerability to know that people can help. That is what I have tried to do.
Hugh: You are an avid reader. You suggested a couple books to me, and I suggested a couple to you. You wrote them down. You promised you’d read the magazine, and you did. Thank you. That’s a compliment.
Rod, as we are exiting this really good interview, what thought would you like to leave people with?
Rod: The one thought I would leave people with is this is possible. We can and we will end hunger by the year 2030. Please go and join our movement at 2030ispossible.org. That is what I will leave you with, Hugh. Thank you.
Hugh: Thank you for being here. Russell, we had a good one today.