What's Lost When We Don't Invest in Non-Profits

Our national success has been the result of acquiring gain through risk. Businesses invest in R&D to create new products. We buy stocks in the hope of gaining profits. Farmers seed their fields with the hope of a successful harvest. Risk accompanies any investment in the for-profit world. While you are fully aware that you might also lose part or all of your investment, well-managed risk creates economic growth.

The not-for-profit sector however is risk averse. Foundations typically "play it safe" and avoid the discomfort that may accompany new solutions either because success is not guaranteed or because it is simply easier to work with what you have historically worked with.

When a charity appeals to you personally for your support, you decide if the cause is important and then, the amount you will donate. Most philanthropic foundations however work within narrowly defined guidelines that limit what they will support. While this helps to keep the foundation focused on its core goals, it also stifles innovation in the non-profit sector since new ideas are by definition almost certainly outside (or at least a step ahead) of those guidelines.

AmpleHarvest.org is a six year old non-profit that was created to address the issue of the waste of food - especially fresh food from millions of home and community gardens that resulted from overly abundant harvests. This excess food is left to rot in the garden while nearby food pantries and soup kitchens go without. Up to now, local food drives have not accepted it because the food bank network's design was not built to accommodate locally grown fresh food.

AmpleHarvest.org's solution was simple - enable food donations to bypass the regional food banks and instead go directly to the local food pantries thereby creating an entirely new supply channel between the gardeners and the need in the community. It created a nationwide registry of pantries and soup kitchens that actually wanted the food along with an educational campaign helping growers donate the food. It took advantage of technology to enable the donation of the food while also eliminating the need for additional refrigeration or storage at the pantries. Moreover, with the delivery of the food done by the gardener herself, it helped to create a lifelong relationship between the grower and the pantry. The idea was to move information instead of food to help eliminate the waste of food and hunger.

The program has been a huge success with more than 7,500 food programs nationwide participating to receive the food. Feeding America's food bank network participated, the USDA and White House helped promote it and the media lauded the program. Tens of millions of pounds of food that would have been lost to waste instead became available to millions of people who would otherwise only have access to processed food.

The biggest challenge turned out not to be plugging the leak in our food safety net that was never before noticed, but rather getting the funding needed for the program. While a few foundations "got it", most that support traditional food programs had a difficult time putting AmpleHarves.org's oval solution into their round funding holes.

By eliminating the need to purchase, ship, or refrigerate food, AmpleHarvest.org also eliminated the major cost most food programs incur - the food itself. At first glance, this sounds great yet in the non-profit world, a program with only technology and staff is viewed as having 100% overhead and is therefore deemed grossly inefficient.

As a result, while it is full of innovations and efficiencies no other program comes close to, AmpleHarvest.org starves for funding while traditional recurring food programs continued to see monies coming in.

We would have never accept the "why do we need computers - we have paper and pens" argument in the corporate world, yet in the non-profit world, funding tends to flow the way it always has simply because that is the way it has always been.

If we funded businesses as we now do in the non-profit sector, America would be a third world economy.

We should be investing in innovative ideas in the non-profit realm to solve, rather than just react to problems. Until we do, we limit our ability to fix some of our most pressing needs not because there is no solution but because we are not willing to risk success.