Interview with Bill Shore
Co-Founder and CEO, Share Our Strength
Leaders Speak Series
Share Our Strength began in the basement of a row house on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. in 1984, in response to the famine then raging in Ethiopia. Brother and sister Bill Shore and Debbie Shore started the nonprofit organization with the belief that everyone has a strength to share in the global fight against hunger and poverty, and that in these shared strengths lie sustainable solutions. Today, the organization is dedicated to ending childhood hunger in the U.S. by ensuring all children get the healthy food they need every day.
Here are edited excerpts of our interview with Bill Shore for Triple Crown Leadership.
How would you describe the organization’s leadership approach?
Bill Shore: We lead by inspiring others and putting out a vision that will inspire people to do their best to achieve it. In many cases, we leave it to them how they go about it. We delegate quite a bit. It’s about getting folks to aim towards the goals that we’ve set and having confidence in the folks we bring on to do that. We intentionally recruit people whose judgment and experience we have confidence in.
How do you create an environment where people feel empowered to do that?
Shore: By example with the kind of things you choose to get involved in or not, the kind of decisions that you choose to make yourself or leave to others. In my case, I leave a very high percentage of that to others and try to spend my time giving people an opportunity to receive some of the things that I have the privilege of seeing, whether it’s being out in the community or being in Ethiopia during a famine. I believe that the things that have been powerful motivators for me are likely to motivate others too. I try to lead by sharing those experiences.
Is there an example you can provide of letting others make these decisions?
Shore: We distribute tens of millions of dollars in grants here, and the grant-making team really makes those decisions. They make recommendations, which the executive leadership group has an opportunity to look at, but we almost never change them. In many nonprofits, that’s an executive process or even a board decision-making process. But here we’ve got a small group of people that just makes those decisions. It’s a lot more streamlined and efficient. It saves a lot of time and money.
How would you describe the organization’s culture?
Shore: Entrepreneurial, risk-taking, and innovative. There aren’t a lot of rules at Share Our Strength, and we really encourage people who have ideas to pursue them and take them as far as they can. We’re not just aiming for the usual suspects. We’re trying to reach the unusual suspects who care deeply about hunger and poverty, and we have to do that in a variety of different ways. We’ve got to innovate.
Some organizations fight hunger by showing pictures of children with bloated bellies. We fight hunger by signing contracts with large corporations sincerely passionate about our cause that are also going to get marketing advantages by working with us. It’s a very different model, and raises more money and awareness for ending child hunger.
We see a nonprofit and think differently—not just about redistributing wealth but actually creating wealth.
Did the organization start with that entrepreneurial culture or has it evolved over time?
Bill Shore: It’s a combination. When we started it was a classic bootstrapping effort. It started with a $2,000 cash advance on a credit card by a couple of folks who had a sense that all of the different activities that were underway in the zone of hunger and poverty were all important but not good enough. There needed to be some addition to that mix. So, we were in uncharted territory.
We began as a nonprofit that had decided not to take government money, foundation money, or philanthropic dollars, so it almost forced us to be entrepreneurial if we were going to sustain a really good organization. It forced us to look for nontraditional sources of revenue. Once you’re in that kind of situation, you become entrepreneurial very quickly.
Who is involved in the culture-building process at Share Our Strength?
Shore: A lot of it happened in an ad hoc way at first based on the idiosyncrasies of the people involved. Then you start to get more proactive about it. Our senior management team is diverse in terms of their experiences, talents, strengths, and abilities, but has a common outlook about what we want the culture to be. We’re trying to get more purposeful about that. I think many organizations don’t start out purposeful about it. In our case, we have been playing a little bit of catch-up, and we’re very happy with the culture we have here. Now it’s a question of how do we preserve and strengthen it.
How do leaders create the conditions for high performance with integrity at Share our Strength?
Shore: Two things. One is about the people that you bring in. If you bring in people of high integrity and make sure that the organization is filled with people of that nature, then that’s what you’re going to have. It’s very important to start there.
The other issue is just having a sense of how you model that behavior, how you’re being an example of that, setting a tone in which people have a sense of perspective so that they’re not tempted to take the kind of shortcuts that usually raise questions of integrity and ethics.
Has Share Our Strength faced ethical dilemmas?
Shore: A number of years ago one of the home shopping networks on cable TV wanted us to partner with them and bring a lot of our chefs in to demonstrate cooking with all kinds of different cookware that they were selling. It was probably a fine opportunity, but we were not able to satisfy ourselves that the products met the standards that were important to us in terms of fair labor and environmental issues. So, we walked away. There are plenty of those that, if we’re not convinced we’re going to sleep well at night over them, we just walk away.
How do you measure success? What metrics do you use?
Shore: For many years, we had what I would think of as proxies for measuring success. We could measure how much money we’d raised, or how much money we’d granted out, or how many organizations we’d touched, or how many people we fed. Now we’ve gotten a lot more strategic about that. Now we’ve focused ourselves on a very clear goal for which we hold ourselves accountable: ending childhood hunger in the U.S..
Now we’re able to measure with a fair degree of accuracy the difference between the number of kids eligible and the number of kids actually enrolled in various food assistance programs, whether it’s school lunch, or school breakfast, or summer meals. So, our metric has to do with closing that gap, and most of that’s done on a state or community basis. With a kind of dashboard, we’re able to tell in a real time way where we are in any given place. That’s a big change for us.
A lot of it has to do with the big threshold decision: are you going to hold yourself accountable to your stakeholders for a specific outcome? The more inspiring and ambitious the outcome you’re seeking, the riskier it is. We decided to take that risk, and it’s had a very positive impact on the organization.
Who was involved with setting the mission, values, and vision? You also went through a major redesign or rebranding several years ago. Talk about the process.
Shore: I think it started with me pushing in what was probably an inarticulate way at the time for us to do more, to do better, to hold ourselves accountable to a higher standard. The tricky part about this work of ending hunger or poverty is that the size of the challenge is so large that you don’t necessarily get there in any reasonable time frame or with any reasonable amount of money.
So, as well as we’re doing, I always want to acknowledge and celebrate that but at the same time convey that it’s not good enough. We started to think about how we can do better and leverage more impact out of the resources that we have available to us.
We would talk first among our executive leadership team and then increasingly with our full staff and our various concentric circles of stakeholders. Our board brought in consultants to help provide a more structured, facilitated process, more as a kind of discipline to sharpen up the clarity of what we were trying to accomplish and how we were going to get there.
You’re always tweaking and refining that because you’re learning as you go. You find what works and what doesn’t, and you’ve got to go back and revise that. The political climate changes; the economic climate changes.
One of the most important things I do here is remind people that we have to listen to the marketplace and be agile in our response to it. The instinct is always to get into a defensive crouch with your business plan: You’ve worked real hard on it. You’ve invested a lot in it and you have this plan and by god you’ve got to stick with it. My view is just the opposite. It’s really about how you adapt your plan to what’s going on around you that makes you successful, and not how well you stick with your plan.
How do you ensure that the purpose, values, and vision are a living and breathing part of the organization’s culture and actually feed into the decision-making?
Shore: Part of that is just being direct and blunt with calling it when something comes up that doesn’t fit the culture, and just saying that’s just not how we do things here. A lot of things could change, but your core values don’t change. It’s important to create an environment where people can make a career at a place, and they can be sentinels or the guardians of the values because they’ve been here a long time, and they care about them.
When you churn through people, new people come in with new ideas, and they don’t necessarily understand why you’ve done things a certain way. We strive for a mix of fresh blood and new energy, but also folks who really are steadfast about what we stand for. That’s been a good balance for us.
Have there been instances in which someone was violating those shared values or culture?
Shore: We had to fire a manager. He just didn’t treat people the way we treat people. He wasn’t respectful and was abusive. He was very talented in technical skills, but we weren’t willing to have those skills at that cost. We by no means call ourselves perfect, but there are certain things that you can’t compromise on.
How do you approach short- versus long-term considerations?
Shore: One of the responsibilities of a leader is to marshal support for making investments that won’t pay off until the longer term. The really bold, ambitious things that you want to accomplish are going to take a long time. All the incentives in any organization always run to the short term, the immediate gratification to make the quarter’s numbers, and make the budget. It’s really important for somebody to keep their eye on the prize, even if it’s 10 or 15 years out, and ensure that you’re organizing and allocating the resources to achieve that.
All the incentives in any organization always run to the short term…. It’s really important for somebody to keep their eye on the prize.
Was there a period of time over the decades in which Share Our Strength lost its momentum?
Shore: We went through a period like that around 2001-2002. We were a little more than 15 years old. Our growth hit a plateau for a variety of reasons. It took a little while to recognize that. Then it took an enormous amount of energy to break out of that. It’s kind of like breaking the bounds of gravity and trying to get out into space. It was really, really hard.
I think we were successful in changing it. To get out of that, we had to go back to our basics and really remind ourselves of what the vision was, remind ourselves how far we were from getting there, and what we had to do. The larger your organization becomes, the more you’re focused on keeping the organization running as opposed to keeping the organization aimed at the mission that you’re supposed to be accomplishing.
How do you stay motivated and engaged over the years?
Shore: For me, a lot of it is constantly poking and prodding at what my friend Alan Khazei calls your “justice nerve.” When it gets pinged, it really resonates with you for a long time.
Most people who start an organization like this have some experience where something moved them, and they put their hand on the table and said, “I’m going to do something about that.” Then, 25-plus years later, if you’re going to stick around, I think you owe it to everybody around you to keep that sense of urgency.
Bob and Gregg Vanourek are co-authors of the book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, a winner of the International Book Awards.