HIPPIE BANKING OR THE FUTURE OF FOOD BANKING? – Thoughts from the Closing The Hunger Gap Conference: What strategies will enable you to have the longest term impact on your communities? And what opportunities can Feeding America grasp at a time of new leadership for the organization?

In the past, food banks often treated non distribution-based activities as ‘window dressing.’ Something bright and shiny for the pickier funders who don’t love trucks. 


These programmatic activities were often viewed with some suspicion. Their outcomes were harder to measure than pounds. They were too ‘summer of love,’ while we were up to our necks in hunger, trying to deal with the ‘winter of discontent.’

The situation is changing, and you don’t have to be blissed out to be aware. These feed the line activities are  moving increasingly into the mainstream.

What’s going on? Has someone slipped something into our pallets of Capri-Sun?

Yes, someone did find something in their Capri Sun…mold.

What has changed became clearer last month, when I attended the second biannual ‘Closing The Hunger Gap’ conference in Portland Oregon. The name is misleading – designed to lure in wary food bankers with the reassurance that the traditional language and attitudes towards hunger relief will be maintained.

But don’t be fooled! Read the small print.


The main focus of CTHG (the name’s even worse abbreviated) are all the initiatives that don’t fit into old school meat and (sweet) potatoes food banking. This includes food access / food justice / systemic change / food as medicine / nutrition / gardens / food hubs and more.

Typical scene of Portland life
Typical scene of Portland life

These areas are touched on in passing at other conferences, but at CTHG they’re front and center. This also means the event draws a wide variety of small and large organizations who operate in worlds beyond emergency food distribution.

It was a chance for us to come together to better understand and leverage the ecosystem of organizations trying to make progress in this field. The vibrancy and range of other organizations now working in the food access/justice and nutrition field is staggering. These organizations never had a warehouse of food to base their interventions around and so have had to develop different strategies. We have as much to learn as to teach.

The outside world has changed to move ‘shorten the line’ activities from the periphery to the leading edge of many food bank’s activities.


How’d that happen? One uncomfortable fact is a lack of sustainable success. We are not in the starvation business, where volume of food has a life or death impact. We are in the food security business. And plying that trade, we have largely failed to move the needle on national levels of food insecurity, despite heroic increases in the quantity of food distributed.

It’s not a stretch to conclude that classic food banking is an ineffective tool  to sustainably lower food insecurity. Rather we have increased the levels of ‘food dependency.’


Food banks and member agencies have become de facto grocery stores for an increasingly poverty-ridden society. Instead of money, you pay for your food with your time by standing in line. Consequently we have carved ourselves an increasingly large niche on the lower tier of the national food chain. We are an artificial correction to the system.

I have seen this ‘new normal’ solidify over the last few years and not to mince words, it sucks. I didn’t sign up to be a tool to facilitate the depression of wages to maximise shareholder value. Are we asking people for money to feed people or to fuel the business of those who do want to , or believe themselves able to pay their workers enough money to survive on?

Whatever your feelings on this issue, the reality of the situation is that food banks have benefitted enormously from this situation. It has meant more resources and more security for our organizations. 

We have felt good about bringing more food into the system figuring we will eventually reach saturation point and ‘solve hunger.’ I’m not convinced that we will ever get to that point with our current strategies.

We got chicken! -- As Tyson Foods, Inc., truckdriver Dustin Crawford (right) looks on, Yuma Community Food Bank forklift operator Miguel De La Cruz removes a pallette of chicken from the back of a semi truck trailer to be stored inside the Food Bank warehouse Thursday morning. Tyson Foods donated 30,000 pounds of chicken to the Food Bank as part of an effort to feed people in need and to promote pulic awareness of hunger in America. In September Tyson Foods conducted a Facebook poll in which people were asked to vote for the food bank they would support to get a truckload of food. Ten food banks were selected to be in the poll, from among the most food insecure communities in the U.S. The top three vote-getters, including Yuma Community Food Bank, are getting a truckload of food this month. The top three vote getters in the poll were Food Bank of the Albemarle, Elizabeth City, N.C. (9,467 votes); Yuma Community Food Bank (9, 435 votes); and Mississippi Food Network, Jackson, Miss. (3, 425 votes). Photo by Ra

In the past, we often built elaborate self-justifications about why we didn’t get involved in what happened to distributed food once it left our care. “We just provide the food, we don’t get involved in all that complicated stuff.” If the member agency wasn’t poisoning or purloining and  those  pounds were going out the door, then we were good.


Our ability to get away with taking this approach has steadily, almost imperceptibly been slipping away. It started, strangely enough with SNAP outreach. Remember when food bank involvement in this venture was considered a sinister plot to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids?* That situation changed in a remarkably short time.

Of course, many food banks already have comprehensive plans linked to reaching poverty and health goals that are consistent with the real world need in their service area rather than traditional metrics or performance benchmarking. ( I can think of a couple of examples fromnortherly cousins in California such as San Francisco and Alameda). (Check out the links to these plans)

Just as it happened with SNAP, I think we’re going to see the same rapid uptake in other activities:


  1. NUTRITION AND FOOD LITERACY EDUCATION at all levels and in all client ages and interactions;


  1. INCREASED LOCAL COLLABORATION to allow food to leverage other longer-lasting improvements in people’s lives (building social and community capital, training and job creation, health and housing);


  1. FOOD AS MEDICINE to keep health compromised clients living more productive lives, through the right type of food;


  1. A NATIONAL ANTI-POVERTY COALITION. We will do the painful work to ensure that bottom up and top down efforts coordinate in powerful new social campaigns to address poverty and its root causes.

Are these my fantasies, or are they going to come to pass?

You only have to look at how Feeding America has pivoted to capitalize on this new situation.

The writing on the wall has been there from large national foundations for a couple of years now. They’re tired of supporting an endless war on hunger that had no end-game. The C4C (Collaborating for Clients) work and its offshoots is a direct result of this shift in funder priorities.


The food as medicine approach is gaining traction in the diabetes area and in other public  health-style interventions. The affordable care act has provided a slow but seismic shift in the preparedness of healthcare providers to consider us as partners, however patronizing or wary they may be! The initial BMS funded study with FA foodbanks is bearing fruit around the country. At last our network has generated health specific data and we have to leverage it to the hilt.

The Feeding America network’s ‘meal gap’ focus has resulted in the conclusion that only fresh produce as can fill that gap. Despite territorial squabbles about who’s turnip is who’s. (And as a ‘net exporting’ county, I’m more of a squabbler than most!) this emphasis has already improved the levels of ‘Foods 2 Encourage.’ We are at a transitional point now where the new stats are being used as a fig leaf to hide the nutrient poor quality of other foods passing through our system. This situation will eventually correct itself as food manufacturers increasingly target the lucrative ‘health’ market.


As we were talking  about gaps, there is still an ‘education gap.’ Given the increased emphasis on fresh produce, it demands a comensurate increase in the focus on the education that will allow people to want to cook more produce. Unless we do this, we might as well toss all this new produce away in the dumpster and save our clients the trouble. This represents an, as yet, unseized opportunity on the national level. To match the focus on produce with an equal focus on ensuring it makes it the ‘last mile’ into the mouth of growing child or shrinking adult.


The final of the four areas of the ‘shorten the line’ activities that I identified earlier in this article is the one that represents the biggest unturned key of all – the coordinated anti-poverty movement.

Feeding America has had a fitful relationship with frenemies like ‘Share our Strength’ and others. There was also the fear that by partnering in a deep way with non-food focused entities we would lose our USP (and the funding that comes with providing food – something that people riot in the streets about if they don’t get enough of . This has always focused the minds of politicians of all stripes.)

We have arrived at  a moment of opportunity with a new leader taking on the CEO function at Feeding America. Is it going to be more of the same or are we going to have a leap of the imagination as to what is possible for us to achieve?

Diana Aviv - New CEO of Feeding America
Diana Aviv – New CEO of Feeding America

I encourage Diana Aviv to grasp this opportunity and run with it. CTHG has shown on the local level how food can be a way of leveraging other longer-lasting interventions in people’s lives. The same is true on the national level. Let us leverage the billions of pounds of food the network brings to the table, to forge a greater coalition of those who want to address the trap of poverty that so many are consigned to.

I’m sorry to give you indigestion, but this may involve issues such as minimum wage reform and campaign finance reform, so that people can provide for themselves and invest in their own communities, and also so we have political decisions that reflect the will of the many, not the road block of the few.

Sometimes the battles pick us.

I hope to see you at the next CTHG conference. Don’t just send your staff next time, come yourself. You will be inspired and stretched. There is a whole other world out there and it provides a key to improving the lives of those we serve and work with for the long-term.

Oh and don’t worry, the conference name is going to change.


* You win a free gluten-free Krispy Kreem donut if you picked up on the Doctor Strangelove reference.







Pic 1

Your nonprofit organization steps out onto the yellow brick road, hearts full for your hopeful march to achieve your mission. So why is it that the Emerald City doesn’t seem any closer now than it was a year ago, or even five?

Maybe because there is a fork in the road that you are missing which could really get you there.

Maybe you need to pivot.

The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County has been engaged in a significant pivot over the last five years from simply providing emergency food to 300 local nonprofit agencies to operating like a preventative health organization, raising low-income people’s health in the cheapest way possible – through what they eat.


We were originally seen as an essential organization for the community, but one whose job was to apply a nutritional band aid to a problem that could never be fixed.

We knew the true hunger issue locally was a form of institutionalized malnutrition – lack of food access for healthy food and easy access to poor quality food. These factors led to poor nutrition and health. Even more significant was a lack of the skills and empowerment needed to make good use of fresh.


Our first stage was to outlaw candy and soda and put hundreds of thousands of dollars into sourcing more fresh produce and making it available free to agencies.


Our pivot has been a big success for us, so let’s consider what tactics might be applicable to you in your situation.

Pic 2

Why don’t you start by taking a helicopter view of what you are doing and how it fits in with who else is doing what in this area.

Take a hard look at your true impact against the total need both from the perspective of the individuals you serve and related to what the community really needs.

Consider extensive stakeholder and user interviews. You will probably find that your end users have a different perspective of your services than you do.


With the Foodbank, once we’d made this commitment to pivoting by focusing on nutritional health rather than pumping out empty hunger –inducing calories, we realized that ‘charity’ was not going to get us more than part of the way to our destination. So we moved from focusing on a simple one-way charitable exchange to messy, awkward exhausting – yet sustainable – community engagement.


This was exemplified in our programs like the national award winning HSP, where an old model of food distribution (poor kids go to a room and pick up your bag of food while everyone watches) was replaced by a mutually supportive healthcare model that engaged the whole family in the excitement of helping each other stay healthy with food.



So, try not to think only in terms of your existing ‘mission’ which may be too open ended or vague. Perhaps consider what is the ‘destination’ you need to arrive at? (A community where…)

Pic 3

 In our previous mission, everything was about the short term and today’s crisis. Our clients are needy, we are needy as an organization. Help! Help! That will get you sympathy money. That will get you ‘go away’ money. But it will not get you the money you need to try to really solve the problem.

Pic 4

Move out of your historical comfort zone and do more of what needs to be done (as opposed to what you’re ‘good’ at doing) and build the partnerships that will help you reach the destination in collaboration with others.

What chunk of the destination goal could your organization take on, either by yourself or in partnership? How can you build support and resources for this?

Your pivot will fail if societal and local circumstances are not in favor of it (for the Foodbank it was donor and client interest in healthy food available for all, and also granting foundation interest in moving from outputs to long term outcomes). Another reason to pivot may be to avoid a big bad twister of a change in the outside world that is coming toward you.

Pic 5

It may be easier to sell your pivot as an ‘evolution’ as opposed to a sudden turn. It will cause less unease for all parties. And with some people you just have to pretend nothing’s changed!

Pic 6

Use data to win the argument for pivot – this is a way of avoiding it being a battle of personalities. Who are the supporters who can help you compile and interpret this data?

Pic 7

Who are the key influencers that can help you make the case for a pivot? Look for individual champions on your board, volunteers and funding community to influence others. Balance when to ask permission and forgiveness.

Pic 8

You may have to operate like an internal start-up within your larger organization. This will be a core group of believers who can steer change.

Pic 9

Money greases the most painfully grinding of wheels. So find a source of outside funding which will enable you to research or take on some small initial facet of your pivot. Use this outside money to speed internal change. Use this ‘win’ to demonstrate to those who are on the fence that your pivot will draw new forms of support. We were able to secure partial funds to hire a dietician, and it enabled us to make a lot of changes.

Pic 10

Make peace with the fact that your pivot may require you to be a ‘two-faced’ organization for a period of time presenting either the old or evolved mission in different ways to different people.

It will take time, education and persuasion for donors supporting your original mission to come to understand and embrace your new mission. (What is that verse from the Bible…For what shall it nonprofit a man to gain the whole world and lose… his funding.) When I am talking to donors, I know within 30 seconds whether I should be having a hunger or nutrition conversation)


Pic 11

Finally, it’s not all about the outside world. Pivoting the mission is a lot easier than pivoting the culture. What is your plan for making this kind of shift internally? Identifying and empowering champions is one way. Firing or ‘freeing up the future’ of people who cannot move on in their thinking is another uncomfortable but vital tool. The culture is going to be the last thing to change and it will take years (Culture eats mission for breakfast).

As long as you remember Glinda’s words and you will get there just fine.

Pic 12





Goodbye Fundraising, Hello Resource Development

The Fundraising Tree of Many Hands
The Fundraising Tree of Many Hands

We are nearing the financial year end for many nonprofit organizations, and maybe things are going to work out fine and you will make budget.  Perhaps you will even produce one of those modest nonprofit surpluses that will make everyone feel good, with being so much that it would raise any eyebrows in the community. It is unlikely to be enough to enable you to truly reinvest in your mission at the level necessary.

Maybe, though, you are going to have a deficit this year. Is it a one-off freak event or do you sense a gradual softening of your fundraising?

In the world of food banking and emergency food provision we rode a wave of recession-based fundraising from 2008 to 2012 that was based on general recognition that doubling down on core services was a necessity that had to take priority over funding the opera or saving the snowy plovers.

Line Dancing
Line Dancing Without The Stars

Those days are over. The problem is that the recovery is job-lite, and a growing number of the people who access our services are food insecure families with at least one breadwinner trying to piece together a living from a handful of part-time, low-pay, no-benefit jobs.

Nevertheless, many donors have become bored with the recession, and they want to move on. Now, they could be whistling opera arias while they feed the snowy plovers, rather than tapping their toe to a Woody Guthrie number and making sure that no American goes hungry. Many foundations have already moved on from a posture of feeling obligated to focus their resources on ‘urgent needs’ of a recession.

Gimme all your money, honey.
Snowy: Gimme all your money, honey.

I have touched on the challenges of the current fundraising environment in this column before, typically by encouraging you to ‘sell a new bill of goods’ to your donors (such as nutrition and food literacy; or food banks as preventive health institutions; or as community development engines). These newer ‘cure not band aid’ activities are designed to work symbiotically with the previous singular focus of hunger relief.

However, in this post, I want to encourage you to consider a more permanent shift in how you approach the entirety of your fundraising and development.

The Development Team (Self-Portrait)
The Development Team (Self-Portrait)

Walk down the hall to look at your fundraising person or staff or department. However many, or how wonderful they are, they are NOT going to be able to succeed in providing the level of funding truly needed for you to succeed at your stated mission.

I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but they cannot do it alone.

It requires everyone on the payroll and also everyone with links to your organization to have a ‘resource acquisition’ mentality, which is something different from simple ‘fundraising,’ and I hope to make this distinction clear.

When nonprofit leaders swap notes about fundraising, we usually gravitate to chit-chat about direct mail vs. events vs. online vs. this or that. We get hung up on the tactical tools rather than focusing on the types of shift in strategic approach that will enable us to succeed.

The good news is this strategic approach requires you to focus heavily on only two things:

1. Building and maintaining diverse relationships in the community;

2. Having the technology and dynamic internal communications/culture to assemble and actively disseminate the latest information about those relationships to all staff.

That’s it, folks. Focus all your energies and staff on these two issues and your organization will be sustainable in the long term. (Assuming, of course, you are the right people doing the right thing at the right time for your community)

Today's washout is tomorrow's prospect.
Today’s washout is tomorrow’s prospect.

So how do you do what I am suggesting? Let’s take a look at a group of people who are doing them already – people who are raising money for institutions of higher education. You’ve seen them at airport hubs in shorts and a suit jacket, modern day bounty hunters, tracking down their prey. These gift officers put incredible focus on steadily building relationships and joining the dots between a complex net of interconnected people. Of course, they start with an advantage, that they have a finite group of ‘prospects’ with a common interest related to a shared past experience of their glorious alma mater. (And even if that experience was plain bad, the fundraiser knows that they can give it a decade or two and rely on the golden glow-generator of memory to make that graduate positively inclined towards the institution. Or maybe just call it Stockholm Syndrome!)

A human services nonprofit needs to build a similar kind of shared experience with its large number of potential supporters in ways both large and small. Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s Impact Group approach to focused service provision is already generating new communities of interest (and communities of resource development) for us, around shared interest areas like nutrition or diabetes care or poverty or through targeting specific geographical areas of highest need in our service area.

Diabetes Impact Group logo

We seek to involve people beyond the ‘twanging heart strings’ level of financial support, because we want to directly connect people to an area of their on-going interest:

“The Foodbank are interested in optimum nutrition and exercise? So am I!

The Foodbank is working to provide special support to those with diabetes? I’ve got an aunt with diabetes!

The Foodbank is bringing special focus to build collaboratives to address poverty in a particular part of town? That’s the part of town my family pulled themselves out of, or that’s the part of town that I could make a lot of money long-term by investing in at the ground floor!

The list goes on and on and on. Everyone who supports us is interested in ameliorating hunger, but most are interested in so much more; in things that are ‘stickier’ than solely hunger, the perception of which will ebb and flow with (skewed or otherwise) perceptions of the local situation.

If we can engage people long term in a positive change area, then this is going to garner us far more sustainable resources to help us achieve our mission of building healthy communities through good nutrition.


If the CRM jigsaw only had four pieces...
If the CRM jigsaw only had four pieces, life would be so peaceful…

Technology can help us achieve this, because we can source new types of information on people and compare links between large amounts of data. We can utilize a cheap (or theoretically free to nonprofits) CRM (Constituent Relationship Manager) like Salesforce or spend lots of money on Raiser’s Edge or any of the other IT solutions out there. It doesn’t really matter what you use as long as you are aggregating and linking all that data, and taking all of those relationships seriously.

This demands that we bring a high level of sophistication and focus to fundraising efforts over a wider level of dollar donation, whereas before, this was only the purview of the major gift level. I am sensing the need for us to flatten out how we treat small scale and large-scale contributors to our organizations. People want more information, more access. We have to find ways of doing it that don’t suck us dry of time and money.

Clearly, it is not cost effective to spend hour upon hour of staff time to build a relationship with a very chatty $25 donor, which is why social media and utilizing groups of community supporters acting as a conduit, becomes vitally important. You might also be pleasantly surprised to discover that the contractor who gives you $25 at Christmas is one degree of separation away from the wealthy person who favors that contractor for the job of moving the west wing of their house to the east wing or whatever the current priority is.

Meet your new Major Gifts Officer
The new Major Gifts Officer cracks a joke

Perhaps at this stage of the discussion, you might acknowledge the potential benefits of focusing on relationship building and mapping, but how do you make it happen with a staff that is already stretched tighter than Simon Cowell’s face?

It's not only your patience I'm stretching
It’s not only your patience I’m stretching

I have talked in previous posts of the potential upside of moving, however painfully, towards an employment model where everyone you hire is a leader or potential leader – whether they ride a desk or a forklift. Their job is to inspire, guide and when needed, manage the work of a shifting group of human resources that are paid ‘other than with money.’

This enables everyone in the organization to scale the impact they could achieve on their own. They work with volunteers, community leaders (super volunteers), knowledge philanthropists and interns.

For this to work, processes need to be simplified and automated, online training needs to be provided for tasks, and we need the ability to break down complex tasks into smaller discrete sub-tasks which can be taken on by those with only a modest amount of time to commit to the organization. The upside for employees of this kind of ‘outside-in’ organization is that they will be become better paid.

If this wasn’t confronting and challenging enough by itself, I am further suggesting that you need to up the ante by insisting that all staff be tasked with bringing resources into the organization as well. (And be rewarded for doing so).

However small your staff is, they have between them relationships with the people who have the relationships with the people that are waiting to be inspired and actively engaged in your mission, and which will bring it the sustainability of funding that it needs to succeed. You just need to give staff the confidence, permission and motivation to start to grow and link those relationships.


I’m afraid this involves more of that indigestion-provoking medicine called ‘culture change’ and the kind of cross-functional teams and situations that can get people talking and sharing what and who they know.

This now brings us to considering the distinction that I drew earlier, when I said it was more a question of getting staff, board and volunteers to understand that what we are asking of them is not ‘fundraising,’ but ‘resource acquisition’ which is different. The more introverted members of your team can be reassured that ‘resource acquisition is far less scary and embarrassing than fundraising.

It is not asking your friends for money. REPEAT. It is not asking your friends for money.

Rather it is building a matrix charting the varying resource needs of the organization alongside the different interest/involvement areas that your organization provides, and then to begin to join the dots themselves about who they know who might be interested in what area.

The whole organization pitched in to bring home the bacon (and the wooly mammoth)
The whole organization pitched in to bring home the bacon (and the wooly mammoth, and the hippo and the python) Where’s Russell Crowe when you need him?

This kind of culture change also involves tasking staff who come to you with great idea for a new initiative with getting involved in generating the resources to put that initiative into action.

To which they reply: Wait, isn’t it the development department’s job to come up with the money to make my initiative a reality? I mean I can work up a budget or something, but the development director needs to schmooze some people and write some begging letters, because that’s their expertise, right?

Development Departmental Mascot
Development Departmental Mascot

It is their job, however it is also the job of the employee with the lightbulb over their head. Again it is a question of breaking down the elements of this initiative into chunks of people, things and money. We can’t afford to pay for everything ourselves, because that would be hogging all the fun, right? So where are new resources for each of these chunks out there in the community, which are laying in the hands of people who are waiting for the opportunities that their social investment in you will bring them, their employers, families and groups.

I would argue that the required resources for many new initiatives are out there, they just need to be tapped, and who better to do it than the person who within your organization who is excited by what that new initiative can achieve? Of course they are working in tandem with the accepted development team, so that you minimize toe-stepping and mixed messaging, but they can play a key role in helping to drive the process. They can get involved in meeting with people who may be able to play and working their own set of relationships and forging new relationships built on common interest and shared vision.

I don’t know about you, but when I walk into an all-staff meeting, I don’t see a bunch of job titles sitting around, I see everyone as a walking ‘Kickstarter’ campaign ready to inspire the community to deliver on an amazing idea.

Get out there and bring back the resources
Get out there and bring back the resources

This doesn’t mean that the development department is getting off the hook, oh no. They have to utilize the same approach. If they come up with great new fundraising ideas, they also need to come up with the people (who are not paid staff) who want to execute the idea. They also need a logical framework for how this activity is going to get some oversight and accountability from within our organization. This requires us to work with trusted volunteers who can engage with other volunteers or community organizations. We also need to rely on a sharing technology and culture to enable us to mitigate the risk of a crazy or self-serving person doing damage to our good name/brand.


These days, we are all Sherlock Holmes, looking for the clues and connections that are going to close the case or close the campaign, and build an organization that is sustained by the community for generations to come. Your mission deserves nothing less, right?

This Holiday Season, Let’s Have A Little Less Hope

The CEO at his desk.
The CEO at his desk. “Christmas bonus??? Put another brick of Ramen noodles on the fire and be glad the Food Bank offers you gainful employment, Bob Cratchit.”

Twas the night before Christmas when all through the food bank

Not a creature was stirring not even a mouse…

(Especially not a mouse, or those AIB inspectors will be down on us like a ton of moldy potatoes)

If you search the web for the words ‘hunger’ and ‘hope’ together, you will get a hundred and fifty four million hits. The idea has gained currency over the years that not only does the food we provide fill bellies, but that we are also offering something else, something that will not break our programmatic budget to provide: the ‘hope’ of a better day tomorrow.


Let me be direct and say that I don’t see much hope at the average unadorned food distribution: “I hope the line moves quicker,” and “I hope they don’t make me feel too embarrassed.” This feeling of disempowerment has nothing to do with the sincerity or charitable spirit of those volunteers or staff running the distribution. Some are run in a very compassionate and sensitive way, yet however we sugar the pill, people are still held back by the unequal relationship between ‘giver’ and ‘taker.’

Please, hold your snowballs to my face until the end, because in this special holiday cheermeister edition of ‘From Hunger to Health’ I want to briefly question the benefits of trading so freely in ‘hope’, as we turn to looking at shortening the line for our services, and avoiding the institutionalization of ’emergency food’ as a handy alternative to paying people enough money to live on.


First, hold my hand and fly through the chilly winter air, avoiding the Amazon drones, and let us alight in a town and peer through the brightly-lit windows of two food distributions. One is a standard ‘Come, Wait, Wait Some More, Take your Bag and Go’ distribution and the other is a distribution that offers wrap-around or holistic services. The sights we see are very different, as we will see as we tamp the snow off our boots and go inside.

Yet, what is this? Before we can enter, the ‘Ghost of Foundation Cash Yet to Come’ taps its boney finger on our shoulder and commands us to “E-VAL-U-ATE” in a deep and terrifying voice. “Okay”, we say back to him, “You want us to evaluate our programs and those of our partners? Here is a metric that is way more sophisticated than any that could be developed by the boys and girls at the ‘Stanford Social Innovation Review.’ It is called eye contact.” This simple (and quite literally) straight-faced test measures the amount of eye contact the programmatic interaction elicits from clients.


We actually did this test last week on two programs a few miles apart in our service area. At the standard distribution, virtually no one met your eye when they could avoid it and wanted to get away as quickly as possible. At the other, one of our Healthy School Pantry programs where we are running what is for all intents and purposes a ‘health fair’ with a lot of activities and opportunities designed to build community, we saw a much different picture. People were generous in their eye contact saying how much they were enjoying being there and appreciating learning and being a part of something where they felt empowered and valued as equals.

But you’re giving them hope too, I hear you say. What’s the difference?

Let me begin to answer that question by looking at the national perspective. We can offer people the solid reassurance that we will fight to protect their meagre food stamps and commodity benefits from more punitive cuts. Yet, we certainly can’t offer the real hope that people are crying out for: a society where working hard at a job will enable you be able to feed and provide a roof over the heads of your loved ones.

We know from our work that more and more people cannot earn enough money to support their families without help from the food bank network and its partners. People run faster and faster on the hamster wheel of low-pay, no-benefit jobs. If we continue to apply the current strategies, it is hard for me to see the ‘hope’ for anything beyond  endless SNAP wars, more companies expecting food banks to cover the tab for their food insecurity-level wages and the growth of the ‘hunger industrial complex’ to keep the whole mess from boiling over into civic unrest. Sorry to be such a downer in this season of ‘Goodwill to All men’, but I have enormous respect for the hardworking families we work with, certainly enough to want to level with them.

I think when they said "Goodwill to all Men," they didn't mean that we'd all end up shopping at Goodwill because we that was all we could afford.
I think when they said “Goodwill to all Men,” they didn’t mean it quite so literally, that we’d all end up shopping at Goodwill because we that was all we could afford.

I don’t believe I am being fatalistic or even negative. I’m not noble enough for lost causes and so I am sincerely convinced that we will end hunger in America and become a more equitable and healthier country. It’s just that I’m not getting any younger and I’m impatient about waiting millennia for it to happen.

So why should our daily ‘hope distributions’ be slowing this process down?

Humor me for a moment as we consider the words of my guru, Buddhist monk, poet, teacher and all-round cool dude in black pajamas, Thich Nhat Hanh.  Hanh said:

“The future is made of a series of present moments. Therefore the best way to take care of the future is to take care of the present moment. That is why hope is sometimes an obstacle. People tend to hope because they feel helpless in the present moment. The present moment is so heavy, so unbearable to endure, which is why they invest in the future with hope. ‘I hope tomorrow will be better.’ They get a little bit of relief because of this investment. However, to do this we have to spend a lot of energy hoping for the future and there isn’t much energy left for us to take care of the present. Without enough energy, we cannot have a breakthrough. If we can bring more energy back to the present, we find this breakthrough.”

[Transcribed from the recording of retreat as ‘The Art of Mindful Living’ (2000), Sounds True Audio with occasional paraphrasing to make it less Vietnamesely monkish on the printed page.]

Thich Nhat Hanh rocks the wooly hat. "You think this is a Gap ad? Let's talk about the gap between happiness and forgetfulness???
Thich Nhat Hanh rocks the wooly hat. “You think this is a Gap ad? Let’s talk about the gap between happiness and forgetfulness???

This is, for me, the danger of focusing too much on ‘hope’ rather than action to transform our society in the present moment. I am not talking about it in a literal, mean-spirited fashion that we should promote hopelessness. We want to give joy and love in everything we do. However I am advocating every day we focus on real change and the actions required to make that happen. Our organizations, because we are concerned with the most basic tool (food) that can sustain and help and bring people together, can play a huge role in leveraging this change.

Have a wonderful Holiday season, and heartfelt thanks from Scrooge to everyone working to build food security in the USA.

Here’s to 2014!

Season’s Greetings and remember, our Food Bank is now accepting cuts of pork and frogs legs as part of our grocery rescue. Even you Tiny Tim…

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…

Hunger Inc: What is the ‘Theory of Change’ that is guiding our actions at a local and a national level?

Hunger inc

Welcome to Hunger Inc.

There are times when I feel like I am an insignificant toiler in a great and serious national bureaucracy – the business of hunger in America.

Imagine our prospectus to potential investors:

Hunger inc shareholders meet

Ladies and Gentlemen, business has been outstanding since the Great Boom of 2009, with emergency food organizations bringing in record amounts of money and building ever more impressive infrastructures ready to take the art and science of hunger relief into the 22nd Century. We have diversified into new business areas, and got our brand message and talking points over to lawmakers and the public through advocacy. 

So, my fellow Americans, you might be for hunger or against it, but you can’t deny that as a vibrant concern, we are here to stay. Thank you and please give generously.

Okay, so I am getting a little carried away, but maybe that’s because this is the last moment to think for a second before we enter into that slalom run down to ‘The Holidays.’

This is the gravy season for emergency hunger organizations when genuine loving concern for one’s fellow man, paired with a side order of good old-fashioned guilt allows us to make a sizeable chunk of our operating nut for the coming year.

Shakin' the Tree
Shakin’ the Tree

Before we board this seasonal gravy (and turkey) train once more, I thought it would be good for us to ask ourselves a hard question. We say we want to shorten the line and end hunger in America. That is a laudable goal, but how exactly are we going to do it? What is our ‘Theory of Change’ (the detailed measurable steps contained in a logic model) that are going to take us from here to there.


It’s at this stage in the conversation that Mr. Spock might begin to find our logic a little “…illogical, Captain.” We might say that the problem can be ‘solved’ by protecting and strengthening the federal safety net; finding more money for advocacy to engage the public in ‘the fight’; generating way more TEFAP; providing generous funding for a strong food bank network. Oh, yes, and Farm Bill, Farm Bill, Farm Bill.

All great things, but nowhere near a theory of change. In reality they are far closer to a ‘Theory of Stasis.’

Theory of Change? Well, I'm halfway there.
Theory of Change? Well, I’m halfway there.

Logic models and theories of change are something we find easier to deal with on a small-scale programmatic level where we have more control over the environment we are operating in. (Here is a resource from the Kellogg Foundation on applying Theory of Change to your mission).

Theory of Change by the Kellogg Foundation

Years ago, a local foundation provided me with a handy flow chart on which I had to chart how my program would lead to positive changes in client behavior. (Over time, I came to refer to this flow chart as the ‘Human Sausage Machine’ – clients and food were stuffed in at one end and changed humans miraculously popped out of the other end). We were veritable Willy Wonkas of nutrition with our INCREDIBLE BEHAVIOR-CHANGING MACnCHEESE!!

John Arnold surveys his children.
John Arnold surveys his children.

I must confess that the community kitchen I ran at that time had to make a few ‘creative leaps’ when demonstrating how we would actually change behavior. I would resort to my earnest protestations that children can’t learn if they haven’t had breakfast, or that people can’t look for jobs if they are hungry. All absolutely true, but the other truth was that we were not in the behavior change business. We were in the emergency hash slinging business, a subdivision of the ‘maintenance of things as they are’ business and that we should be funded because there was plenty of demand for those services.

Change my behavior? Alright, pass the salt, PLEASE!!
Change my behavior? Alright, pass the salt, PLEASE!!

Fast forward to the present day and I have to wonder whether we don’t have that same problem on a national level? We are stuck in the maintenance business rather than the transformational business. And how much fun is that?

Those of us working in the area of food insecurity have real problems articulating a persuasive theory of significant, sustainable change. We can talk convincingly of all the things that need to be done, but not how all this busyness will come together to actually change the situation. We have great theories for increasing the size of the band aid we are applying to the patient, but no clear idea about how to cure the patient. This is not a criticism of Feeding America or any other group. I think all national hunger-related organizations have the same challenge.

We will now explain our Theory of Change for ending food insecurity in America. First slide, please!
We will now explain our Theory of Change for ending food insecurity in America. First slide, please!

Can you end food insecurity in America by doing more of what we are doing? After 11 years in the hunger sphere, I can put my hand on my heart and give a hearty “No!”

From my perspective, I think one problem is that we have been stuck looking at too narrow an area – that of food insecurity. This has been a small enough area for us to operate proficiently and to demonstrate unique excellence in our nonprofit services, but it is not large enough to actually solve the problem that we are trying to deal with. When challenged about this, we tend to retract like a poked sea slug, saying that anything else is ‘too complex and we just have to stick to doing what we know.’

To my mind, this is a big mistake. We need to expand and take the helicopter up higher, not lower.

Touch me one more time, kid. One more time!
Touch me one more time, kid. One more time!

We are stuck dealing with complex health and social problems in an overly simplistic fashion. It has created a culture of food banking as a continuous shift in an ER ward, where we’re all too busy with the suffering and drama of the moment to give enough thought to how we can do anything more than get through. No time to think! Lives are in the balance!

Another 50cc's of creamed rice, nurse. We're losing him!
Another 50cc’s of creamed rice, nurse. We’re losing him!

Until recently we were talking pounds of food per person in poverty as the solution to ending hunger, now the metric has shifted to numbers of meals provided (even if those meals are a theoretical construct, made up of pounds of soda, candy or whatever the total ‘food’ poundage of a food bank might be). These metrics are too crude to really help us move up from our current level of support and national focus.

Closing the meal gap
Closing the meal gap

We got into using the term ‘Food security’ because hunger was too reductive an explanation for what we were dealing with (useful for fundraising, but not able to explain the broad need for food assistance). Yet food security has become it’s own little prison, constricting our room for bold maneuver.


Which brings me back to asking what is our ‘Theory of Change’, both with individuals, communities and with the nation as a whole? In our little gnat bite of a California county are piecing together our own local ‘theory of change’ which I will share in another post, but to come up with a workable ‘theory’ on a national level we need a whole new set of relationships and collaborations between hunger, health, nutrition, anti-poverty, job creation and community development organizations nationwide.

This partnership would form a continuum of help to keep people healthy and connected to building and maintaining vibrant communities. Food insecurity is really only one part of a longer engagement and relationship with people

It is clear that none of this can be achieved by a single organization or by a purely top-down approach. It is also clear – to me at least – that these things cannot be achieved purely within a sphere of operations labeled ‘hunger relief.’ No matter how many millions we collect it will still always be a ‘sop for the needy’ – not enough to actually deal with the issue.

However, if we were to pivot to focusing on the issue as one of public health where we were going to commit to marshaling our efforts and those of our 64,000 member agencies to raise the baseline health of Americans in the simplest and most cost effective way possible – by raising the standard of their nutrition, it would be a historic game changer.

It would have the power to bring in the Department of Health and Human Services as an additional funding partner. (I know we came to the dance with the USDA, but my feet are getting tired and so are theirs, I imagine, as they’ve been asked to do impossible limbo dances beyond their original dance card).


To make such a pivot at the national Federal agency level requires us to get our collaborative shit together with a broad coalition of national charities, prepared to use nutritional literacy and health as a pump-primer for other next stage activities, such as community development and job creation.

We know what we do is providing the most basic need possible, but we are leaving the potential for huge positive change in people’s lives on the table walking away from leveraging that basic food need, and the access it affords into people’s lives, to help them get ahead.

We need to reframe the issue from the negative one of charity for ‘the needy’ to a positive engagement with people to ensure long-lasting nutritional health is seen as a vital and attainable public health goal.

Lack of adequate healthy food and the skills to use it need to be presented as issues of unacceptable public health and should be addressed, treated and funded in that fashion. The food bank and emergency food network remains the sleeping giant of the public health world. We can be the engine of the largest improvement in health since indoor plumbing.

To do this we need to have the ability to demonstrate the efficacy of our nutritional and educational interventions using acceptable public health criteria. Evaluation is the key to opening the door to a new approach and new funding from the Feds, from health insurers and from donors who want to see a major long-term return on their social investment.

For me, this represents the broad strokes true ‘theory of change’ that will enable us to move people from hunger to health.

Sign up now at thehungergap.org
Sign up now at thehungergap.org

I look forward to seeing you at the upcoming ‘Closing the Hunger Gap’ conference in Tucson on Sept 15. If you weren’t planning on coming, maybe you should. This is not a national learning conference put on by a national body, but a grass roots effort staged by a single food bank, determined to do what it can to provide a forum for a range of types of organizations to come together how to move forward this vital work on both a local and national level.

Making Better Bolder Decisions – Teachings from the Stanford Social Innovation Conference – Part One

Stanford Social Innovation Review is one of the best journals of its kind, talking about the evolving lines between non-profit organizations, business and government. Of course the kind of journal we are referring to deal with issues that are a lot easier to talk and theorize about then to actually achieve in a focused, sustainable way. And here at ‘From Hunger Into Health’ we’re dreamers and idealists, but also hard-nosed types who have to live by our wits, and where the first question out of our lips is: “Sounds great, but is it free?”

That’s why it’s always been great that SSIR holds a yearly conference at Stanford Alumni Center that focuses much more in the art of the practical. Real nonprofit leaders from around the world come together for a couple of days to hear some of the latest ideas and share their tales from the trenches.

Stanford Alumni Center – Why is the Alumni center always one of the flashiest buildings on campus? Because the development department knows where the graduates are, and they will track you down…

This was my third year of attending. I always like to go as it is a nice stimulus. Of course my staff dread me attending, because it means I will return with EVEN MORE NEW IDEAS THAT I WILL EXPECT OTHERS TO EXECUTE. Not entirely true, as a lot of execution has to come from me too. I thought that this year it would be good to share some of my learnings on this blog, so saving you money and freeing up your time. I’ll do a number of posts in the coming few months. We start off with MAKING BETTER BOLDER DECISIONS, a lecture given by Stanford faculty member Chip Heath, which will be (surprise, surprise) drawn from his upcoming book.

Chip Heath

Yes, wisdom can come from the mouth of someone called Chip, and Chip Heath is (with the assistance of his brother Dan) the author of the book ‘Switch: How to Change Things when Change is Hard (Broadway Books) which made a pretty good fist at dealing with what is a daily subject here at Food Bank Central.

Chip started with some sobering statistics. (Actually he probably started with a joke, but i’ll spare you.)

  • 60% of top business executives admit their bad decisions are as frequent as their good ones.
  • ‘People’ decisions are the hardest and most important. Yet 40% of top level headhunting fails within 18 months.
  • The dropout rate amongst teachers is higher than that of students.

So how can we improve this challenging area? After all this is why they pay us the big bucks, to make decisions, right? The standard advice out there is to ‘trust your gut.’ But Chip points out that the human gut is not always particularly trustworthy. He put up a slide of a slice of the Cheesecake Factor Red Velvet Cheesecake, which has as many calories as three double cheeseburgers and a bag of Skittles.

So much for trusting the gut. (This brought back a tear of nostalgia from a Feeding America national summit a couple of years back, when we left the auditorium after a stirring discussion of good nutrition, only to find complimentary slices of Cheesecake Factory Peanut Butter Cheesecake waiting for us – hey, they were sponsors, what can you do?)

Ok, so the gut is in doubt. Other people say trust the experts, trust analysis. Ye 83% of mergers and acquisitions – which only occur after incredible degrees of expensive analysis – end up creating no financial value whatsoever. If you always said no to a merger or acquisition, you’d be right 5 times out of 6. Remember, ‘the experts are often wrong, but never in doubt.’ The average completely certain medical diagnosis is wrong 40% of the time. The average cost overrun on new plants is 56%

So, expertise is not getting us where we need to be, and the problem is compounded by the fact that with most decisions we don’t get enough specific feedback to know what was really a bad decision anyway.

There are experts…and then there is Mr. Miyagi. He’s the real deal.

Intuition, says Chip, is a machine for jumping to conclusions. It is a narrow perspective from which to view the world. It is also more about having an immediate reaction to an opportunity. He asked us to consider the concept of a ‘spotlight’, which is how we look at something that requires a decision. Spotlights are close up and good for highlighting info, but they tend to throw other options into the darkness. We need a process to help us move the spotlight around to be able to consider all aspects of a decision.

It was then that Chip hit us with his acronym. A couple of hundred note takers in the audience breathed a sigh of relief – at last a nice juicy acronym to add to our voluminous collections.


Widen options

Reality test your assumptions

Add distance to the choice process

Prepare to be wrong.

The problem with decisions is that if we have two choices we are very likely to choose the clunker. If we have more options it will lead to a better rounded decision. The concept of reality-testing your assumptions is because we can’t help suffering from ‘confirmation bias,’ where we go out searching for information that confirms our initial view. The concept of ‘adding distance’ is there because we need perspective to get away from the short term anxiety that clouds a decision. Distance at time of choice is valuable. The final element is ‘prepare to be wrong.’ If we can move beyond seeing the success of our decision as the only possible result, then we can be more prepared for the different future that might show up.

Let’s look at these areas in a little more detail.

Widening Options

We tend to think choices are an ‘either/or’ thing. Chip called this the decision making process most commonly adopted by teenagers. It is expressed as a ‘whether or not,’ as apparently teens rarely consider that they have multiple options.

Professor Paul Nutt at Ohio State University made a study where he looked at key decisions that business and nonprofit organizations have made. His approach was to contact multiple decision makers and also those who were involved but outside the direct decision making process. He discovered that 71% of these crucial decisions (168 in total) were simple ‘whether or not’ choices with no third option considered. This means that organizations are operating like teenagers. So if you hear should we do this or not then alarm bells should ring warning you that you have a narrow framing of the situation without adequate options to choose from. If you view the future as range of possibilities, then you have room to make a better decision.

He brought up the example of an organization called HopeLab. They wanted to design an activity monitor for teens to measure how physically active they were and to provide some kind of reward system. (the product is called Zamzee and check it out at www.Hopelab.org – interesting company and product).

To design this product, they considered 6 or 7 potential partners. Normally it would have been a straight horse race and they would have agonized over who to bet on. Picking partners based on how they impress you in a meeting can be dangerous. (Especially if you want to move beyond the gut situation).

So HopeLab thought: why not buy the horserace? They broke down the project to smaller stages and hired five of the companies to each do the first small part of the project to see how well they did and how HopeLab worked with the outside partner. This is not as onerous as it sounds, because you can typically eliminate a couple straight out of the gate as a result of them being bad to work with or not to have any real ideas, however impressive the binders were at their presentation.

This process is also an opportunity to really look at what you are trying to achieve. If a particular approach keeps coming up as important in multiple people’s work, then it would be good to include it in the finished product or service. In HopeLab’s case, two firms had brilliant ideas. They had the luxury of combining the best features from each and now had two proven partners to choose from. At this point they could make their choice or even run the race again with the next stage of the project.

Our kneejerk response might be that by doing this, we were making at least part of the project five times more expensive than it needed to be. The rebuttal to that would be that we are improving the actualization of the project in a way that is going to save us a lot more money further down the line when things get really expensive – far more than you spent when things were cheaper at the beginning. So instead of getting stuck on ‘either/or,’ maybe think ‘this AND that’ and you may be able to achieve more.

Reality Testing Assumptions

Reality testing is doing what it takes to get the data, and not just the data that confirms what your gut tells you. ‘Confirmation bias’ is a particular problem when there is ambiguity. We want to confirm what we believe. Data that supports us is always going to interest us more than that that which does not.

Clearly sometimes there is no data to draw on. It this case, there is a value to testing. So in the case of recruiting, people put way too much store on the interview, even though this is not the most predictive indicator to future job success. Another alternative is have people do work samples. Why predict if you can know? Most of us could, with a bit of thought, come up with some way of asking people to produce a sample or demonstration of their work no matter what job they were applying for.

The best defense is to force yourself to ask disturbing questions: Why are we not likely to finish this project on time? Why should we not start this program? Sometimes non-comfirming questions can be positive.

Another element that Chip brought in for us to consider in the decision-making framework was our own attitude. Specifically, that we should be always trying to assume positive intent on the part of other people we are dealing with. Often our first reaction is to assume negative intent. We are always listening out for criticism. If we assume positive intent, we will be amazed what happens, because we are always downplaying the positive. He produced statistics showing that when married couples keep a marriage diary, where they write down the things that make them happy, that 70% of relationships improve. This is because typically we dismiss the good stuff and focus on the negative.

Add Distance to the Process

The villain in the decision making process is short-term emotion – getting caught in the here and now and not looking at the long term implications of decisions. You don’t always have the luxury of sleeping on the decision. Chip brought up an amusing example of how we would advise our best friend if he/she was asking us whether they should call an unattached person they had admired or whether they should attempt to continue making a favorable impression in their shared work/study environment for longer so that their approach might be more likely to succeed. If the friend was agonizing, we would all say ”just call him/her’. That is probably the right recommendation. Yet when the decisions are ours, then our fears and anxieties can win out or slow things down. So, next time you face a tough decision, just ask: “What would I tell my best friend to do?” Distance helps us identify the core priorities. That is the approach you should take. Identify your core priorities and enshrine them in your decision making process.

Prepare to be wrong

I think this is a much overlooked stage of the decision-making process. Overconfidence can blind you to preparing for an environment where you decision doesn’t work out.

It’s a pre-mortem, but it won’t hurt hardly at all…

As part of the decision-making process, consider conducting a ‘premortem.’ Don’t just focus on your best picture of the future. Imagine your organization a year from now, and the new project has been a disaster. Ask those involved with and impacted by the decision what happened? If you move that spotlight to what could cause a bad result, you will be surprised how accurately people can tell you what and why things went wrong.

The ‘Pre-parade’

This not only keeps you ready for the range of possibilities that is the future, but also helps you make a better decision in the first place. The process isn’t all negative either because you should also conduct a ‘pre-parade.’ This is a consideration of what happens if you are wildly successful. Will you be prepared? Will you build expectation to deliver something where you can’t meet the huge demand or interest?

The Tripwire



The final element of the decision-making process is to consider when do you rethink a decision? The need here is for tripwires. These are agreed markers of success (budgetary/timeline/project achievement) at key early stages, so you can be confident that things are starting off and continuing in the way that they need to, in order to lead to success.

Chip told us the story of rock band Van Halen and their infamous ‘no brown M&M’s’ rider. This has always been held up as an example of unbridled rock star excess. In fact the band were shrewd business people and by burying something like this in their detailed contract to perform at a venue, it acted as a tripwire to see whether the venue had read the stipulations of the contract in detail. If there were brown M&M’s in the dressing room, then this raised the alarm for a detailed check into more life or death issues such as electrical safety.

Having a process is the answer with decision making, according to research. Systematically ask questions both of the matter to be decided and also your own attitudes to it. Your decision-making can never be perfect – but it can be better.