Best Practice: Securing corporate partners

Nonprofit: Share Our Strength

Type of work: Works to end childhood hunger through grants, advocacy and services to low-income families

Area location: Northwest Washington

Number of staff: 170 full-time

Annual budget: $49 million

When Billy Shore, the head of Share Our Strength, needs help from business donors, he speaks their language. The national charity that fights childhood hunger has been able to attract top Fortune 500 donors in large part because it runs itself like a business operation and works to show the return on donors’ investments.

Share Our Strength has set a goal of ending childhood hunger across the nation by 2015. It’s an ambitious undertaking but one that’s being attacked with an executive business plan that would make an MBA graduate proud.

The charity builds campaigns with an eye for giving donors an incentive to participate. Through its marketing programs, for instance, corporate contributors, such as American Express and JC Penney, are acknowledged prominently when they take part in a fundraising drive. Its high-profile fundraising banquets draw celebrity chefs and allow donors to network with other business leaders.

Shore, who co-founded the organization with his sister in 1984, believes that the key to Share Our Strength’s future is these corporate partnerships, and an important way to gain business donors is to have a clear goal.

“What makes them different is that they’re just so focused on that one thing,” said Charley Wilson, vice president of corporate communications for Sysco.

That one thing, the No Kid Hungry campaign, has tripled its corporate donor base and nearly doubled its revenue since the campaign’s creation in 2010.

‘Marketplace value’

Share Our Strength first attracted notice through its glamorous annual gala, called Taste of the Nation, which it began in 1988. The organization would host culinary demonstrations with celebrity chefs attended by business leaders. When companies such as MasterCard and American Express saw the value in using the event to market to restaurants, the charity began seeing higher sponsorship offers — from $35,000 to $400,000 in two years.

During the early 1990s, Share Our Strength began forging relationships with businesses to run giving campaigns with their customers while also using it for corporate brand publicity, also known as cause-related marketing. For instance, Calphalon, the cookware company, associated one of its signature pans with “Taste the Nation” and gave a percentage of the profits to Share Our Strength.

Over time, a nonprofit Shore founded with a $2,000 cash advance on his credit card had lined up 20 major corporate sponsors, a testament to the fact that the group “really had a marketplace value.”

Measurable goals

In 2004, a line in a book by social activist Jonathan Kozol caught Shore’s attention: “Pick battles that are big enough to matter, small enough to win.”

He began researching the extent of childhood hunger in various states. At the time about 30 million Americans were living below the poverty line. About 2 million children were considered severely hungry — a population he thought the group could address.

Shore and his team met for six weeks to hash out a road map with an established deadline. They zeroed in on the number of hungry students who were not eating school meals, whether because of the stigma attached, they were on break or for some other reason. Working to increase the number of meals students eat at school and finding summer meal programs, the group believed, would help close the hunger gap. So they decided to test the idea in three states — Maryland, Colorado and Arkansas.

The group marked its progress, keeping donors in the loop. Since the start of the No Kid Hungry campaign, 14 percent more students in Maryland without access to school breakfasts now have access. Since 2011, the group reports that 34.3 million additional meals were delivered to chronically hungry children.

“To be able to go back to our partners and say, ‘You invested in us expecting this return and here’s where we are,’ allows them to know in a specific way about their investment beyond just feeling good about it,” Shore said.

The business community has responded with enthusiasm.

“They were very impressive because they have a businesslike focus on measuring outcomes and results even though they’re a nonprofit,” said Robert Stern, chair of the Sodexo Foundation.

Sodexo has given the charity $750,000 each year since the partnership began in 2010.