Monday, November 29, 2010

Strategic Lessons for Nonprofits from Business Innovators and Entrepreneurs

While THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN will, for obvious reasons, be thought of as a book about malaria, it is also about the lessons the social sector can learn from innovators and business entrepreneurs, like Steve Hoffman who started a Rockville, Maryland biotech company called Sanaria to tackle one of the toughest problems in the world – a problem affecting people so marginalized and voiceless that there are no traditional economic markets or political markets for solving it.

In Washington and the other centers of government that we look to for solutions to social problems, the battle over how to solve our toughest and most controversial problems usually revolves around spending more money or less money, government taking a bigger or smaller role, and the right and left poles of the culture wars. But from today’s unprecedented convergence of science, entrepreneurship and philanthropy there is emerging a set of problem solving strategies that until now have been widely overlooked.

The book, describes six strategic lessons learned, which I summarize below.

First: Invest in bringing existing solutions to scale rather than discovering new ones

Second: Most failures are not failures of planning, strategy, resources, organization or discipline, but failures of imagination.

Third: It is incumbent upon social entrepreneurs to not only develop solutions but to make them affordable, to explore the economic that will enable them to deliver their product or service for “a dollar a dose.”

Fourth: When markets don’t exist they must somehow be created; or at least proxies or substitutes for market forces must be employed as an alternative.

Fifth: Solving problems, not salving them, creates the most compelling return on investment.

Sixth: What is needed in the nonprofit sector even more than collaboration is a commitment to compete at every level and to not expect first rate outcomes with second rate inputs.


Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Dog that Didn't Bark and the Deficit Hawk That Didn't Swoop

With the newly elected Congress, anti-hunger champions have to take their good news where they can find it, or perhaps where they can imagine it, at least that’s what I did reading yesterday’s New York Times front page story on California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, incoming chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee. It can be read at

Issa is quoted as saying the government needs “to go on a diet” to erase the annual budget deficit of $1.4 trillion and states his goal of focusing on places where money can be saved. According to the Times he has drawn up this “list of big targets: $40 billion a year in fraud or waste in Medicare, tens of billions of dollars in subsidies to government controlled mortgage giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; $8.5 billion in losses by the Postal Service in the last fiscal year; tens of millions of dollars spent on redundant programs within federal agencies or squandered through corrupt contracting practices.”

But as was the case with Sherlock Holmes who was struck by the conspicuous silence of the dog that didn’t bark, I was struck by the lack of any reference to anti-hunger or anti-poverty programs, or even SNAP, often a favorite target. Perhaps Issa will prove to be the deficit hawk that does not indiscriminately swoop down on the voiceless and vulnerable, and also prove our thesis that such food and nutrition programs now have a solid track record and bipartisan support.

It was just one article about one member of the new House leadership, but for a moment I was surprised and just slightly, temporarily, encouraged.

Monday, November 22, 2010

In the presidents cabinet - putting the most vulnerable and voiceless first

Last Thursday we hosted a breakfast at NY’s Regency Hotel in which Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack met with about 80 opinion leaders from business and philanthropic circles to share his perspective on the connection between childhood hunger and education, and to help Share Our Strength lay the foundation for bringing our No Kid Hungry campaign to New York City. As has been the case each time I’ve been with him, I came away with even greater respect and admiration.

Vilsack made the economic competitiveness, education, and national security arguments for ensuring that our kids are not hungry, as well as making the moral case. He argued that in today’s interconnected global economy, our kids are no longer competing with classmates in their school or in nearby schools but against all children everywhere.

He also emphasized that of the 42 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits, only 10% were getting cash welfare assistance, meaning that 90% were working Americans. He warned that unless this was better understood, these Americans would be stereotyped and stigmatized, unfairly as they have in the past.

Several times Vilsack used the word “outrageous” to describe the failure of communities to ensure that more kids were being enrolled in programs for which they were eligible. In a job that is usually associated with Agri-business, policy pronouncements and regulatory strategies, Secretary Vilsack has never forgotten that there are kids in our country who are left out and left behind and that we must find a way to ensure their well being regardless of current political and economic conditions. Not all of our colleagues in the anti-hunger community stood by this good man when he asked for help supporting the Child Nutrition Reauthorization bill. Last week made me even more proud that we at Share Our Strength never wavered.


Saturday, November 20, 2010

Grateful Response to the Wall Street Journal's Review of THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN

This weekend the Wall Street Journal devoted an entire page to malaria, the “Scourge of Humankind”, using my new book THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN and Sonia Shaw’s THE FEVER as the reviewer’s bookends to capture the different points of view about how best to address this terrible disease. The reviewer was W.F. Bynum, professor emeritus of the history of medicine at University College London and his piece can be found at

Though Professor Bynum didn’t quite buy my point of view, or perhaps didn’t fully get it, that seems like a mere quibble. After five years researching and writing IMAGINATIONS in a way designed to reach a more popular audience, it was incredibly fulfilling to see it given the serious consideration one would hope for by a distinguished expert such as Professor Bynum, and to see it trigger greater discussion and awareness of the toll taken by malaria on some of the world’s poorest children.

The review did an especially good job of making the link between malaria and poverty. In the book I write about the challenges of solving problems that impact those so voiceless and marginalized that there are no markets for solving them. I’ve been concerned about the Catch-22 of the same being true regarding a book about such matters – would there be a market among readers who have little connection to such realities? Gratefully, the Wall Street Journal and Professor Bynum suggest that there may be.

The review states that given the history of efforts to fight malaria “it is optimistic to think the disease can easily be stamped out.” Certainly no one I’ve written about, especially malaria vaccine developer Steve Hoffman, would disagree with that. THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN is more about hope than optimism, hope in the sense that Vaclav Havel meant when he said “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” That’s what drives those featured in my book.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

With thanks to the Pucker Gallery for my first book party

 What a special treat it was for me to have my first book party for THE IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN at Boston’s Pucker Gallerty, which played such a critical role in the development of my thinking about the book. A year ago I was invited to speak there about the work of the artist and potter Brother Thomas. It was just at the time I thought I was struggling to finish the book. I was actually struggling to start it. I’d spent five years following a man named Steve Hoffman who was trying to invent a vaccine to eliminate malaria, which kills about one million kids in Africa every year. I wanted to write about how you solve problems that affect people so voiceless and marginalized that there are no markets for solving them. These are the toughest problems of all to solve.

I didn’t quite have a handle on what was so different about Steve, until, thanks to Bernie, I learned about Brother Thomas. And learned that he has broken 1100 of the first 1200 pots he threw. And understood that for Brother Thomas, good was not good enough. And that for Steve when it came to vaccines that protected 50% of the children immunized, but let the other 50% become gravely ill, good was not good enough. In the DNA of every great achievement is a gene encoded with the instruction that good is not good enough. It was in this that I saw such a strong connection to our work at Share Our Strength trying to end childhood hunger.

A gratifying early review for IMAGINATIONS OF UNREASONABLE MEN

Any author braces themself for their book's pub date by saying reviews don't matter, but it is actually a huge relief when one of the first is positive!  This just in from Library Journal:

Shore, Bill. The Imaginations of Unreasonable Men: Inspiration, Vision, and Purpose in the Quest To End Malaria. PublicAffairs: Perseus. Nov. 2010. c.320p. index. ISBN 9781586487645. $25.95. MED

Founder of Share Our Strength, a nonprofit devoted to eliminating hunger in children, Shore was deeply moved by the death of a child he encountered in Ethiopia. He resolved to investigate the scientific work conducted to fight malaria and other tropical diseases and to explore the qualities of individuals and organizations that are key to success against varied health and social problems often rejected as unprofitable, quixotic, and, ultimately, hopeless. Shore spotlights Steve Hoffman as the exemplar of the game-changing scientist pursuing development of a malaria vaccine. Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted to humans by the Anopheles mosquito, but vaccines against parasites have long been considered impossible. Shore leads his readers to hope that the synergy of creative researchers like Hoffman and the targeted funding of innovative nonprofits will be victorious in the fight against malaria and result in success against a host of social and health problems plaguing the poor and voiceless. VERDICT This well-written description of the ravages of tropical diseases and current efforts to combat them and the trials and triumphs of one particular scientist will enthrall interested readers.—Kathy Arsenault, St. Petersburg, FL

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Behind the scenes at Larry King Live

Because L.A. traffic is so impossible to judge, everyone arrived early for Larry King Live: me, Jeff Bridges and even Larry. I was in make-up when Larry King walked in and dropped down into the chair beside me. Because he was taping three different shows this day I introduced myself to him as his guest with Jeff Bridges.

“Oh great. Jeff and I were co-stars in a movie once. A great film. Did you see it? The Contender starring Joan Alan. Jeff played the president. Great film. And I knew his dad Lloyd Bridges of course.”

The make-up woman, feeling pressure to turn her attention to Larry, sprayed something on my face and called it a day. I wasn’t sure how Jeff was going to dress so I’d stuck a tie in my pocket just in case. Then Jeff walked in wearing a grey t-shirt and I realized that I was overdressed just by virtue of having buttons on my shirt. Jeff took my chair. Another make-up woman swept in and I went over to the green room where Natalie Cole was waiting to film a segment for Monday about her kidney transplant and the book she wrote about it. We chatted for a bit, I checked e-mails, and about 30 minutes later walked back over to make-up. Jeff was still in the chair. Granted he has more hair than I do, but this still felt slightly out of balance.

I was debating whether to strip down to my Pittsburgh Steelers t-shirt, when Jeff’s assisatnt produced a suit bag for him with three dress shirts and a sports jacket and I was spared further agonizing.

I knew Jeff was going to be good but I didn’t know how good. A lot of his acting technique is based on scrupulous and close observation of others, even when he seems sleepy-eyed and laid back. On the few occasions we’ve been together he’s noticed small but telling things about people that I missed. On the phone he’d talked about how as an actor he tried to put himself in the shoes of others and tried to imagine what it would feel like to be hungry or to not be able to feed his kids. He’s at his best, I think, when he talks about his personal motivation for fighting hunger, although this day he’d also mastered our message about innovative state strategies, the role of governors, and getting more kids access to existing programs.

In one of the best parts of the segment, Larry asks him what the No Kid Hungry pledge is all about. Jeff says: “Let me see if I can recite it for you”. Then staring straight at the camera, he recites the pledge word for word and urges viewers to go to to take it. Larry also repeated directions to the NoKidHungry website.

As if we needed more evidence that our message is spreading and catching on, the floor producer of the show ran up to me as soon as the filming has ended and while Larry and Jeff and I were comparing notes. Her name is Rhoda Gilmore. She says: “I’m so excited that you were on as a guest because in my other job, for an on-line magazine out here, I just produced a segment about Cooking Matters. All of my friends our here want to be part of Share Our Strength.”

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The morning after - what the election means for our No Kid Hungry Campaign

If ever there were an election that affirmed our critical role in filling the gaps that result from the failure of economic and political markets, yesterday’s was it. If ever there were an organization poised, prepared, and committed to succeed at that challenge, it is ours.

There will be a lot of sorting out over the next few days and analysis of what the new make-up of the Congress means. The only thing we can be sure of at this stage is that there will be enormous political pressure to shrink government’s role and to focus on cutting the deficit rather than increasing spending.

Just as the financial markets froze two years ago, the political markets will freeze at least for a time. And there has never been much of an economic market for feeding hungry kids. So we will need to do what we do best: step into the breach, try to bridge it, persuade key stakeholders that ending childhood hunger is not a political issue, but more of an education, health, and even national security issue - and help more Americans see how they can share their strength to ensure no kid hungry.

Our state based strategy has never been centered upon massive new federal spending. Rather the focus has been on ensuring full participation and utilization of programs (that while federally funded) have grown for many years with bipartisan support.

Whatever your reaction to the election results, it is worth noting, and is gratifying, that those who championed our No Kid Hungry campaign – Governor Martin O’Malley in Maryland, Governor Mike Beebe in Arkansas, and Colorado Governor Bill Ritter’s successor John Hickenlooper – were elected by comfortable margins.

The election is an unmistakable reminder that we live in a nation deeply divided in many ways. We have the privilege of working on an issue that unites more than it divides. All of our experience, events, and partners are a testament to that fact. We will need to be better at that than ever because the children we serve are not only vulnerable but voiceless and when the markets leave them behind, organizations like Share Our Strength must work even harder to keep them front and center.