In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that
have shaped their business philosophy.



Executive director, Operation Food Search


Background:  

Operation Food Search helps feed 200,000 individuals who struggle with hunger and food insecurity each month. The nonprofit works with more than 300 community partners in the city of St. Louis and 31 Missouri and Illinois counties to provide emergency food distribution, nutrition education and other services through programs including Cooking Matters and Operation Backpack.

The Mistake:

Not being more confident in championing the cause.

I wish I had a better sense of assuredness of our work earlier on and been bolder in demonstrating how pervasive the issue of hunger is. For example, about 15 years ago, we recognized that nutrition education was important in addressing the problem of hunger. I’m a very conservative, cautious person in a way. And, when we start a new program, I always like to make sure adequate funding is in place. So we started with one dietitian and the program has grown today to a staff of eight. Looking back, I would have tried to accelerate the expansion.

To give it context, when I started at Operation Food Search 20 years ago, there were many people who would have argued that hunger was not an issue in the St. Louis community. Now, there are scholars and universities, school districts and medical institutions studying hunger and its effects. It has been almost universally accepted that hunger eats at the very fabric of our community and, really, our country. We would all be better off if it was erased. That was not always the case. Particularly during the last recession, almost everybody knew somebody who had lost their job. It became more understood that these kinds of things can happen to anyone.

Hunger eats at the very fabric of our community.

The Lesson:

Now when I talk to people, I feel a sense of courage, for lack of a better term, simply because I think hunger is an issue worthy of an investment of money, time and talent. I ask for bigger things, a higher level of support and more far-reaching commitments to address the problem of hunger. Looking back, I should have reached out to more people in a more strategic way, had the confidence to know I was representing people with no voice and realized these people really did deserve to be heard.

I tell people I have an undeveloped sense of fear, so I was always quick to say “yes.” But now I have this sense of assuredness that has built over the years and makes me more effective. So, at Operation Food Search, we have a great culture in that we say “yes” to most opportunities and then figure out how we’re going to make it all work. It’s really all part of not giving up on an opportunity because it appears to be difficult or impossible to realize. I really encourage our staff and others to ask two questions: “How?” and “Why not?” How could we do this and why wouldn’t we do this? That really leads to more innovative solutions to operational issues or sometimes even complex problems.

Off the top of my head, I can’t think of one primary turning point. There have been many. For most of us, I think it takes time to get confidence and build on that. Confidence kind of begets more of the same.

As one illustration, probably 10 years ago, the organization made the move to take bolder steps to address childhood hunger. We started that with a program called Operation Backpack. We provide backpacks full of food to children who would probably go hungry over the weekend when they are not getting free or reduced-price meals at school. We started with 100 kids at one school and now we’re up to close to 60 schools and serving 10,000 children a week. Seeing the response of the children, seeing the importance of this program and the horrible effects of hunger in children – those kinds of things also propel us in the nonprofit world to take bolder steps.

Operation Food Search is on Twitter at at @OPFoodSearch.

Photo courtesy of Operation Food Search.

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