Building an Organization of Leaders: Do you have the courage to let people ‘borrow the keys’ to your organization?


Food banks and other nonprofit organizations typically start off as wholly volunteer groups coming together around a (chipped and borrowed) table to plot a community response to a social problem or a social opportunity (such as, how to repurpose excess food).

Lousy table, great ideas
Lousy table, great ideas

Assuming the nonprofit does not pass away in its scrawny infancy, it goes through a steady year by year cycle of increasing professionalism. It needs to build a machine for the long-term. That machine is comprised of an increasing number of paid staff.

This cycle may continue until volunteers become something of an appendage. A phantom limb that takes on the shape of the purpose it used to have, but is no longer vital to the continued health of the organization. Instead volunteers become a way of connecting the community to the organization it supports. An interim stage to a cash donation. Busy work volunteer tasks are sometimes created to keep them occupied. (Anyone who is reading this post, put your hand on your heart and promise that you never laboriously created a volunteer opportunity for a corporate sponsor). A group of corporate volunteers may don a t-shirt descend like locusts and to ‘make a difference’ in two hours and then depart.

We’re grateful for their interest and support, but it is not fair to them if it is in support of an antiquated use of volunteers, tied into an old model of operating. It’s not like there is a shortage of work to be done, and in fact there is an urgent need for new strategies in volunteer management.

Why, Erik? Why does there have to be a new damn strategy every five minutes for every little thing? Why can’t we just – for once – keep things the way they are?

Well dear reader, in this case it is because we will all fail in our long-term goals without it. We can continue being the teenie ‘Dora the Explorer’ band aid covering the suppurating wound, but we will never reach the ‘scale’ required to solve the problems we want if we rely on the old paradigm of strict separation between professional staff and traditional volunteers.

"Thanks for the plug, mijo." Who'd have thought half the world's band aid use would be by  kids who want an external demonstration of some social or psychological owee!
“Thanks for the plug, mijo.” Who’d have thought half the world’s band aid use would be by kids who want an external demonstration of some social or psychological owee!

We need a new approach that is scalable and sustainable. And the only way to do that is to let the community into our organizations in a whole new way – a way where they have real power and influence, and also parity in many ways with paid staff.

‘Scary!’ as my two-year old would say.

Two years old and already shilling for the  Foodbank. Has the father no shame?
Two years old and already shilling for the Foodbank. Has the father no shame?

I am talking about the use of what I call ‘community leaders’ and which you may already call ‘skills-based’ volunteers. These are people who want to do more than de-stress over a huge bin of gently rotting carrot nubs.  In this post I want to talk about how our embrace of this approach is bringing our food bank back to the community we serve, building long-term sustainability and forcing us all to improve our game and our leadership skills.

I know, folks, being nice to people from the community, rather than grouching at your paid employees is hard work. That’s why to understand why we needed to do this, you first need to understand why there was literally no other way we could actually plan a way to achieve our mission.

I would have taken the low road, really I would!

So why did we start this? Because it was the only way we could have the numbers to move from the endless ‘war on hunger’ approach to food banking and social service provision to a specific destination that we could state as a vision and then back up with metrics detailing achievable steps along the way.


We moved from a traditionally cautious mission statement about storing and distributing food safely to a kind of combo version of vision and Mission Statement as below:


The above is putting a lot of the onus on the community to solve the community’s problems. You might even view it as having some kind of nerve to ask folks for money and then to throw the thing back at them and say: ‘You do it, we’ll help.” I suppose it is somewhat cheeky, but the reality is that there is no other way we’re going to get beyond Dora and her sticky non-solution. It can also be viewed as a positive thing, that we are inviting the community in – especially if your focus is health and nutrition. It is an invitation to a celebration of what we can achieve together.

Running isolated programs is not going to get us to our destination, because they come or go, depending on funding / leader preference etc. That means we need to move from programs to ‘pathways’


To give you an example of this type of approach, we can look at our ‘Feed the Future series of children’s programs.


The below demonstration of the sequential nature of our children’s programs shows how they are taken along a progressing pathway of programs with the clear destination of nutritionally independent young adults.


If we’re going to talk about sustainability, we need to talk a little about the flow of energy – human energy. So, I ask, which of these progressions is more sustainable?


Okay, so the questions start easy. Obviously that ecologically right-on looking circle of arrows is more sustainable. So let’s look at these two energy flows applied to the world we operate within:


Most of us live in the space between these two places, sometimes going back to charity and sometimes reaching ahead to a true state of community engagement.

Here is what the one way arrow has always looked like:


And this is what a more circular form of community engagement looks like. The example is a flow diagram showing how our Healthy School Pantries operate, with people entering at the top right of the diagram, trying a recipe, then learning how to cook it, then receiving the actual food they need to make the meal they are tasting.


So lets look at what are the differences between a volunteer and a community leader:


Of course there is still a place for regular volunteers. We are talking about ‘super volunteers’ overseeing other volunteers or knowledge philanthropists that might run a short-term task force or provide special knowledge.

This all sounds great! Except, remember we are going for that nice circular, sustainable energy flow thing. How, therefore, can we draw Community Leaders from our client base? To this we also need to factor in the unspoken tension between volunteers coming into a community to ‘fix’ their problems (before leaving)  and the community itself.

Our solution to this is our Nutrition Advocates.


This is a grassroots organizing framework that allows the Foodbank to act as a catalyst to encourage micro-communities to take ownership of their own nutritional health and that of their friends and neighbors. The NAs are Foodbank program clients who have become engaged beyond the traditional modality of client-based food bank volunteerism. 

If you are interested in more detailed information about the Nutrition Advocates, you can download this application we submitted to Feeding America for some innovation award.Foodbank of Santa Barbara County – Nutrition Advocates

I have identified two distinct strand of involving volunteers. The first are Community Leaders that have been recruited in the traditional manner with some of the typical expectations of volunteer service:


And then you have Community Leaders drawn from our engagement with clients with a slightly different entry point, but ultimately a similar satisfaction and result. Empowerment and connection for all involved:


Bringing together these two different types of volunteers certainly makes for a more interesting volunteer recognition event. Awkward at first, when you shove together two sets of people used to playing the roles of ‘beneficiary’ and ‘benefactor’, but I am confident that after a few years, this will become the norm with the lines between those helping and being helped becoming ever more fuzzy and permeable.

Of course the outside world is the easy stuff. You just have to move heaven and earth. The real heavy lifting is within your own organization.


We had training from an outside consultant (Vantage Point consulting – based in Canada, experts in this field) to a pretty wide group of managers and developed materials, like simple sample contracts stating what is expected of both parties, yet the reality was that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ and if we did not find a way to steadily (yet urgently) evolve our culture, then all these types of approach were doomed to eventual demise, while everyone subtly folded their hands and waited for the ED to get interested in something else, something less threatening!


I put it to my staff that we want to work with motivated staff who care about our organization and the people in it, and who are open to working in new ways to ensure that the organization continues to develop and move forward. If they are open to us improving how we do things, and open to working with a wide variety of people, then there is a long and successful career for them at the Foodbank. (Staying positive!)

The Book 'The Abundant Not for Profit' which features a chapter devoted to a case study on our work.
The Book ‘The Abundant Not for Profit’ which features a chapter devoted to a case study on our work.

I explained that the number one attribute we are looking for in ALL staff is leadership potential. We want to help them develop that potential. Of course they wondered how can everyone be leaders, right? Who’s going to do all the darn work!! Well, the way it can work is for everyone is for all to be responsible for leading and working with others from the community who connect with the organization. Leadership doesn’t mean making speeches or bossing around people. It means being committed to moving forward the organization and to developing their own skills and those of their team members; it means realizing that all of them are leaders in our community, representing and drawing people to the Foodbank; it means that all of them have to be able to work with, lead and inspire a whole range of volunteers and community leaders to come into the organization (after all, it is their organization as much as ours ) to enable us to achieve much more than we could have done by ourselves.

I sincerely believe this approach actually means a much stronger career path for everyone on our staff, because all of us are able to multiply the results of what we do. I think that is exciting and a great opportunity for everyone to be a leader, whether you are a warehouse assistant working with teams of community leaders or a senior manager with a bunch of knowledge philanthropists running task forces for you.

Our experience over the last 18 months or suggests that these are the challenges:


I believe that sticking to this whole approach is becoming less and less crazy and looking more prescient as time goes on. It is concurrently both a programmatic and a development activity that is working with the community to build community.

The fun has only just begun…

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