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Finding Common Purpose

Recently, I had a discussion with Susannah Morgan, the CEO at Oregon Food Bank. Susannah’s in her twenty-third year “in and around food banking,” twenty of which have been in leadership roles. She started out as executive assistant at the San Francisco Food Bank. After that, she moved to Boston to earn an MBA at Boston University and worked in a homeless services agency in Boston’s South End that was a partner of the Greater Boston Food Bank, and later she moved to Anchorage and ran Food Bank of Alaska for a dozen years. Susannah’s been in Oregon for six-and-a-half years.

I wanted to talk with Susannah because of the metaphorical “give a fish/teach how to fish” contrast I’ve been writing about in my blog. I felt it was important to have a discussion with someone who has been on the front lines of giving and teaching.  

In a previous post, I wrote, “We want fewer people being handed a fish and more people able to fish for themselves.” It’s important to differentiate between that first line of support to help people meet basic needs they can’t fulfill on their own and efforts to help people meet milestones along their lifelong pathways. Doing so not only helps us ensure seamless “handoffs” from one to the other, so people can not only survive but ultimately thrive, but also provides critical input to a new, and much needed, 21st-century social contract.

Susannah sees both as essential—and mutually reinforcing. “We think about our work in terms of our mission, which is beautifully simple and beautifully complex: eliminate hunger and its root causes.” She broke that down into “three buckets.”

The first bucket is “filling plates today,” which means making sure people “aren’t missing meals [and] don’t have the physical experience of being hungry, which in and of itself is a moral, ethical, good thing to do. You don’t want your fellow human beings to suffer,” she stated. “The consequences of being hungry, especially for children, can have lasting health impacts. It’s not just the thing that you’re doing today, but can be part of changing someone’s health profile over their lifetime through the act of distributing food and getting food to people.”

That first bucket is reflected in the distribution by Oregon Food Bank and its statewide Network of nearly 100 million pounds of food to 800,000 individuals in 2018. It’s mind boggling that close to 20 percent of Oregonians need that kind of assistance in a country with so many resources!

“Food tomorrow”—the second bucket—focuses on how the food bank is helping people get out of needing to seek food assistance.

“How are we building on their own strength and resilience and community network to change the outcomes in their lives?”

“Those are family- or individual-level interventions. The ones we lead tend to be food-related—gardening on a budget programs, community gardens, nutrition, and grocery shopping on a budget programs. Then we partner with other agencies that are doing workforce training and other skill-building interventions.”  

“Food for all” is the last bucket. “How are we changing the rules of the game? How are we changing the system so that fewer people are ending up hungry in the first place? In our ideal world, no one needs food assistance.”

Clearly, Susannah has embraced the ideas that nonprofits, philanthropy, and government both need to give a fish and teach how to fish, and she’s figured out how to do both.

Of the many different parts to our conversation, the one that stuck out to me the most was her description of “a fundamental shift in our understanding of our work” from the old emphasis on how much food could be distributed to “the ways in which that food was distributed.” It concentrates on the way she works with the people she serves, beginning with “filling the plates”—which challenges much of the conventional wisdom about what food banks do generally and that I think offers us some very valuable insights.

The realization was that “it is never just the thing that you’re getting [but] it’s also the experience around the thing. How did you feel when you were getting the food? Was it a welcoming place? Were there people who looked like you? Were there people that spoke your language? Did you get what works for you and your family? Did you have choice and agency in the matter? Because all those things will impact whether someone comes back for food again when they desperately need it. All of those will impact whether this is something that they dread doing and absolutely avoid, or whether it is a service they can use as frequently and as easily as they need?”

In other words, “the how really matters.” Susannah’s organization aims to provide food assistance in a way that is “changing society” by “creating different spaces than our current economic system creates for folks.” What that means in practice is that Oregon Food Bank has “come to see that food assistance done in a way that builds community, food assistance done in a way that promotes leadership of people experiencing hunger, food assistance done in a way that builds autonomy and confidence and empathy, is itself transformative. It’s a transformative experience for people, because poverty is dehumanizing. Poverty is the experience of lack of inclusion. There are places you can’t go. There are things you can’t buy. There are people you can’t talk to. There are experiences you can’t have because of money and resources.”

Susannah described it further as creating food assistance “in a way where there are none of those barriers, where this is a place that the people you serve help set the rules for how it’s going to be done, where their thoughts and opinions matter, where what works well for their families is also what works well at that food pantry.” She went on to define “food tomorrow” even further as eliminating the need for the food pantry through “a set of programs that are not primarily about food assistance, but primarily about other interventions that help build people’s autonomy and ability to rise out of poverty.” And she put it in the fish context.

“Giving is transactional. Teaching people how to fish sounds skill-based. Let me give you a rod and a hook, and show you the best spots, and teach you how to flick your wrists. But there is a level beneath both of those, which is really about personhood, which is really about relationship, which is really about feeling deserving of the things that happen to you, good and bad.” This is about investing not in giving people fish or teaching people to fish, but about “investing in the relationship.”

Susannah went even deeper.

“I find myself thinking that ‘give a fish’ or ‘teach someone to fish’ is fundamentally flawed because it’s not focusing on the thing where the transformation will actually happen. The transformation is actually going to happen when people feel included, when people feel as if they have power and agency and voice.”

She described how Oregon Food Bank makes that concrete, using the example of cooking classes and coming to view them as “social network building.”

“When we follow up a year later, we’re asking whether people are still using those recipes and how much they’re cooking at home” as well as “whether they are still in touch with any of the folks they went through classes with.” Oregon Food Bank today considers “social connectivity” and “social inclusion” to be part of what it is striving for.

There are two facets of Susannah’s change in her approach to her work that I find particularly compelling. The first is her commitment to self-reflection. After 20-plus years of doing this work, she is not afraid to say she’s not sure they have been doing it the right way. Despite having done great work for so long, she continues to ask whether it is making enough of a difference. It’s an important and humbling question for all of us, one I ask myself, one I ask the Root Cause team to consider in all of our work, and one I hope my colleagues will ask themselves.

The second is the very simple insight of not doing for, but doing with. It’s a fundamental mindset shift nonprofits, philanthropy, and government need not just in our work, but in our country—a simple understanding that we are all human beings trying to make our way in the world. Yes, we may start at different places—family circumstances, geography, and so on—but we all want to feel included and have a voice and choice in our future.

Susannah is not content to limit that shift in mindset to Oregon Food Bank. She shared with me a message for all organizations that work to improve people’s lives. The single thing they can do, she said, is “to start engaging their clients in decision-making as opposed to just feedback loops.” It’s a difficult adjustment, and there are risks—the main one being that we’re going to hear that there are people we’re serving who nevertheless find our programs to be “incredibly demeaning or disempowering.”

Hearing that, though, “will transform your work.” That’s Susannah’s experience with how it has transformed how Oregon Food Bank works.

The conversation was so rich that I decided it really deserves two posts. So, next week I will focus on Susannah’s third bucket around system change and her take on establishing a common purpose and setting the terms of a 21st-century social contract.

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