Soup Kitchen Confidential

By Jungerhans, Robert | Stanford Social Innovation Review, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

Soup Kitchen Confidential


Jungerhans, Robert, Stanford Social Innovation Review


To share its expertise without jeopardizing its mission, FareStart spun out a new organization BY ROBERT JUNGERHANS

FARESTART IS EXTREMELY good at what it does. The nonprofit opened in 1992 to serve nutritious and culturally diverse meals to Seattle's homeless and disadvantaged men and women. But FareStart's founders soon recognized both their need for sustainable funding and their clients' employment potential. And so the organization opened several businesses that not only generate revenue for the nonprofit, but also train clients for food service jobs.

Every year, more than 300 clients complete FareStart's intensive i6-week food service training program. Trainees learn their trades in FareStart's businesses, which include Seattle's acclaimed FareStart Restaurant and a contract meal service that provides more than 400,000 meals annually to homeless shelters and low-income child-care centers. FareStart also helps trainees with housing, counseling, and case management Upon completing the program, more than 85 percent of trainees land living-wage food service positions. Meanwhile, the businesses that trainees operate provide FareStart with a generous and reliable income stream.

Because of FareStart's successes, nonprofits around the country want the organization to teach them about its business model. "Food service is an area that draws nonprofits," explains Jennifer Flanagan, venture manager for the Social Innovation Accelerator, a Pittsburgh-based organization that helps nonprofits develop and launch earned-income initiatives. "They think [food service] is easy, and it seems to tie to an immediate mission of feeding people. But many nonprofits stumble, and have no idea how to actually run a food operation business," she says.

Despite a strong desire to share their experiences, the FareStart staff and board feared that teaching the organization's lessons would distract it from pursuing its own mission. Guided by Jim Collins' classic book, Good to Great, FareStart aspired to be a hedgehog-an organization that knows one thing extremely well-rather than a fox-an organization that knows many things somewhat well. Because hedgehogs "have a piercing insight that allows them to see through complexity and discern underlying patterns," writes Collins, they are often the best-performing organizations.

The hedgehog idea gave FareStart guiding clarity, says Megan Karch, the organization's executive director. "It may seem selfish," she adds, "but every hour spent helping another organization with its mission is an hour lost to FareStart."

But in 2005, David Carleton came up with a way to share FareStart's model while avoiding mission creep. Carleton, a FareStart volunteer, donor, and consultant, suggested that the organization create another entity-a sort of consultancy. The new nonprofit would "break down the pieces that make FareStart successful and then assist organizations in using those pieces to build customized solutions," he says. As a wholly independent organization with its own funding and staff, the new entity would not strain FareStart's resources.

With the full support of the FareStart board, Carleton established the new consultancy, called Kitchens with Mission (KWM). The organization works with food-oriented nonprofits to bring business discipline and sustainability to their daily activities. Its clients include a broad range of organizations, from jobtraining programs to coffee shops to institutional kitchens. Rather than trying to franchise FareStart, KWM lets 'local communities own and develop their projects," says Carleton. "We help."

UNCLEAR COSTS

One client that has benefited from KWM's services is the Urban Fusion Café (now called Eat UP), which the nonprofit Union Project operates in Pittsburgh. The café employs at-risk youth who receive job training while preparing and serving gourmet espresso drinks, breakfasts, and lunches. In 2007, the Social Innovation Accelerator, which advises and supports the Union Project, asked KWM to evaluate and restructure the café. …

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