Learning with Lovin': Lessons Learned and Questions Answered

July 1, 2021 Updated: January 18, 2024

By Ashley Stanley, Founder & Executive Director of Lovin’ Spoonfuls

As we wrap up our first year of Learning with Lovin’, I’m excited to take a look back over the last three sessions. So many attendees wrote in with thoughtful questions and great feedback for us, and that will help shape the series for season two! 

Given some of the specific questions and follow-up to this first season, I thought I’d answer some of them here. One of the overwhelming themes in a lot of the feedback was the specific planning and organization in either starting or running a non-profit. While we spoke in more general terms around mission, principles, and ethos – it turns out a lot of folks are looking for the strategy and the ‘how-to.’ I’m so energized by folks who are committed to their work and their passion!

Let’s tackle some of your questions! 

To jump to a specific question, click the corresponding link below.
How do I know if starting a non-profit organization is right for the kind of business I want to start?
How do I start fundraising?
How do I build a team?
How do I lead a team?
How do I choose my partners?
How do I get the word out?
How do I retain professional services on a budget?
The ‘Female Factor’
What if I missed a session of Learning with Lovin’?

How do I know if starting a non-profit organization is right for the kind of business I want to start?

Great question! And one that I think is so important, especially now. We’ve heard so much about founders, about entrepreneurship, and given the ever-growing need for social service, about charity.

Admittedly, I’ve received attention and even accolades for being a ‘founder’ and ‘entrepreneur.’ In my own opinion, though, once you’ve started and built your company, your work as a founder is somewhat, well, over. I didn’t know I was an ‘entrepreneur’ until someone called me one. (I certainly didn’t set out to start my own company.) So the celebration of the person over the mission, especially in non-profit – is, to me, overvalued. 

I am NOT saying the idea of entrepreneurship is in any way negative. Some of the most philanthropic, visionary, and benevolent people in the world are the most successful entrepreneurs and founders of revenue-generating companies. I AM saying that the difference with starting a non-profit organization should perhaps be focused on the end-user rather than the personal aspirations of a founder or an individual. In a non-profit, a founder quickly becomes an employee. The founder title doesn’t apply on a day-to-day operational level. Leadership, however, does. A Board of Directors oversees the Executive Director, and if the founder is also the ED (in my case), they are my bosses. While I, too, hold a board seat, I am given performance reviews, and I am not involved in any conversation about my compensation. The board also would hold me to account should there be a grievance or complaint about me from my staff. While I continue to guide overall strategy and direction, I do not make final decisions about organizational strategy without collaboration, approval, and, most often, votes. I cannot (nor should I) appoint staff or Board members. Our ByLaws and Articles of Incorporation follow a standard protocol for nominating at the board level and hiring at the employee level that offers transparency, visibility, and accountability. Without those guardrails, founders may feel entitled to a louder or even the sole voice, positioning them as the only decision-maker, which quickly alienates other staff, members of boards (ancillary or others), and even volunteers. 

For us at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, in the end, it is always about our end-user. Follow best practice: create a Board that is both passionate about the mission but objective and independent of the Executive Team. 

Something I always say to folks who are eyeing starting a non-profit is ‘ask yourself these questions’:

– What problem am I trying to solve?
– Is the solution I’m offering duplicative?
– Do I want to be an entrepreneur, or do I have a solution to offer? (These two answers can    sometimes align, but they’re very different questions.)
– Can I justify my idea as something the private sector and the public should pay for? In other words, can I show the specific impact that someone’s donation created? For example, support groups aren’t generally appropriate for non-profit classification, while social services for the homeless population are the more typical charity organization. 

How do I start fundraising?

However you can! Don’t let an empty bank account scare you from trying. Once you have your tax-exempt classification and your ST-2/ST-5, a non-profit attorney, an accountant, and a protocol for tax receipts – get after it! I was lucky enough to have had some savings (after a career change) that allowed me to work without compensation for a while and spend some money on basic things like office supplies. Once I had a clear vision and could communicate it in a concise mission statement, I told everyone I could about what I was doing and the value of potential dollars raised. Folks gave immediate feedback ranging from positive to confused, which was incredibly helpful as I revised my mission statement and value proposition multiple times to be as simple as possible. 

People offered to host small fundraisers, and from there, it snowballed. I learned about grants and foundation awards as part of a fundraising strategy, so I started writing grant applications. Realizing I wasn’t a trained grant writer, I found a grant consultant who helped create general templates that I could customize as I continued to fundraise. Friends and family donated anywhere from $5 to $5,000, and slowly a balance started to build. 

Legally, to hold a non-profit and tax-exempt classification, you have to show meeting minutes, clear representation of followed protocol, and financial accounting and auditing showing straightforward and responsible allocation of funds raised. There is accountability both at the State and Federal levels. Holding a tax-exempt classification is a responsibility and must be treated and honored with reverence and legitimacy. 

A note though, if you can’t tell someone where their donated dollar went, you probably aren’t ready. Foundations that award grants will require reporting and accounting, and I’ve always felt it’s critical to offer the same kind of transparency to individuals who donate as well. Charity Navigator and Guidestar are wonderful resources for examples of organizations with solid ratings.

How do I build a team?

This is critical to the success of any company, non-profit or for-profit. As a former athlete, I believe the value of a team is essential to every aspect of a company. The first thing I had to do was identify what I was terrible at – seriously! Because this work is all about the people you’ll be serving, or the planet, or an animal who desperately needs rescuing – the team has to be as strong, capable, and sustainable as possible. Finding people who are masters of their own skill sets, who are honest and willing to hold up a mirror to their boss, their colleagues, and their staff are the folks you want. More importantly, they’re the folks your end-users need. If you’re a founder, an ED, or even both – you want to find people who will challenge you, be vocal when you’re wrong, be vocal when they’re wrong, and who can see the broader picture of any given situation – whether it be the sustainability of your day to day operations, your organization’s bank account, or your organization’s culture. Without people like that, an organization or company rarely moves beyond its own needs to strike the coveted balance of being able to serve its beneficiary with reliability and consistency. 

Keep in mind this is something that will evolve over time. You’ll have people who stay for the long haul and folks who are the right fit for a certain period of time. For example, the early Board of Directors for Lovin’ Spoonfuls was incredibly passionate and willing to commit their time to assist with our early start-up stages. As the organization grew and other requirements were added to the role of being a board member, some folks moved on – and that’s completely normal and ok. Recognizing and valuing contributions (sweat, financial, and/or strategic) is important at all stages of growth. 

How do I lead a team?

I’ve always subscribed to the distinction that management is doing things the ‘right’ way, and leadership is doing the right things. Good management should always involve strong and decent leadership. Involve your team in critical conversations, and ask for feedback. Tools like skip level reviews (a casual but review-like meeting with your boss’s boss) and even ad hoc conversations with staff members of different levels can offer unique insight not just into performance but into culture. Without a strong culture of trust, it’s unlikely to see long-term success internally or externally. 

Value and respect your people at all levels – including your vendors and beneficiaries. Communication is key in any relationship, in any setting. Leveling and feedback don’t require condescension, attitude, or superiority. Your team are all each other’s teammates, including you – whether or not you’re a captain or a benchwarmer, the entire team must respect each other and trust each other enough that the common purpose of the mission is shared. When one person, no matter who it is, devalues another – rifts that often can’t be healed start to form, and trust is lost. When that happens, employee and volunteer retention suffers, and ultimately the end-user is most affected by inconsistent service.

Speaking to all founders/EDs now! So now that you’ve got your team get out of their way! Steve Jobs said, ‘It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do,’ and it is an essential piece of strategy for any company. Vision is critical, absolutely – but you’ll need the balanced approach of a team and others to make sure your work, your service, and your mission are as impactful as they can be. Culture is created from the top down, and where there’s broad symmetry is often a good indicator of trust in organizational leadership. A single vision only serves a single person! 

How do I choose my partners?

The word partner is so broad. For us, at Lovin’ Spoonfuls, it spans companies and organizations we operationally work with. It can also refer to others like vendors, event contractors, and even funders. 

On a day-to-day level, our beneficiaries and even our food suppliers often choose us. It certainly wasn’t always that way, but over the years and as the need has grown, we have a waiting list of organizations who need our service. While there are always logistics involved with adding new vendors and beneficiaries, we tend to look for and prioritize companies and organizations committed to and aligned with the goals of our mission. When that happens, there really is a coordinated and collaborative effort that’s meant to meet the need. We work with over 250 companies and organizations to make sure good food stays out of landfills and finds its way to folks who need it. Our operations team has created clear protocols and systems that not only serve our beneficiaries but that help keep us providing good customer service to our grocery, retail, and wholesale vendors. 

It’s slightly more nuanced when it comes to funders than simply choosing who you want or hope to work with. In addition to application protocols, there are often Letters Of Intent that must be submitted so the funder can ‘vet’ your organization for fit. Aside from private foundations, many companies have their own foundations or charitable arms – and they all usually have their own specific areas of focus. For example, it wouldn’t make sense for a hunger relief organization to apply to an education-focused foundation. A good partnership involves a clear understanding from your organization of what the potential funder is willing to support and then a clear understanding from the funder of your mission and how you specifically achieve your goals. 

At the end of the day, it’s all about relationships with your partners! Good partnerships make good sense!

How do I get the word out?

Like I mentioned a few questions back, I told everyone what I was up to. And as I built my team, I encouraged them to communicate their own experience and their own passion for the mission. Word of mouth and grassroots communication was extremely effective in getting the word out. Additionally, it was eye-opening and incredibly rewarding to start hearing from employees, volunteers, and partners of the organization what was impactful to them – in their own words. That created the personality of Lovin’ Spoonfuls early on and really is the foundation of what’s been built.

My professional career began long before the days of social media. As Lovin’ Spoonfuls was starting, that was really my first real foray into the impact of social media as we know it now. It can serve as a far-reaching public bulletin board, and it can be a truly effective tool to communicate with your community. The downside is that too often, companies and organizations start focusing on the ‘brand,’ and they don’t deliver on what they’ve theoretically created. In other words, when I hear an organization talking incessantly about its brand, my inauthenticity alarm starts ringing! While branding is certainly important and a main component of a marketing strategy, an organization’s personality must be cultivated and supported by the community at large. If it’s legitimate enough to hold – the brand will be built. We ought to always remember that founders, EDs, employees, volunteers, and even board members are in service to the end-user – not to a ‘brand.’ 

How do I retain professional services on a budget?

Great question! Incubators, legal services, fiscal agents, and other such professional services are available to non-profits for greatly reduced and, in some cases, pro bono rates. Don’t be afraid to ask! The worst someone can say is no, and that’s ok. When someone or a company does decide to support or donate to the organization, expect them to ask for financial statements and other documents that represent the legitimacy of the organization. They should be doing this as part of their own due diligence, and when it’s a right fit, they will gain a deep familiarity with and understanding of the organization’s work. 

It’s important to invest what you have (when you have it) in the organization’s infrastructure to build, reinforce and maintain standards of service and appropriate conduct. Professional accounting services/bookkeepers familiar with non-profit classification and insurance companies for the organization and its officers (directors and officer’s insurance) are critical. Board members who are willing to serve in traditional roles like secretary, treasurer, chair, etc. (and give financially) and sit on different committees like fund development, nominating, etc., are often from industries that you’ll need expertise from – for example, legal – and often you’ll benefit from pro bono services.

The ‘Female Factor’

In the final Learning with Lovin’ session, the conversation was so robust I think we’ll try and plan for a part two. We had so many questions, from salary negotiation strategy to the kind of advice (good AND bad) we’ve heard over the years. 

Mentorship was also a topic that came up, and it is so important. Anyone who’s out there operating without a mirror is shortchanging their company. Having a mentor is such a critical piece of professional development that everyone needs in every stage of their professional career. This is also true of having a strong support system: people who will tell it like it is, directly and honestly. The insight we gain into ourselves is essential to being an effective leader, manager, and teammate. Being able and willing to seek and receive feedback is a trait of true leadership.

One theme from our final session was overwhelmingly clear – success of any kind requires an inclusive, supportive, and pragmatic approach. Here are some thoughts for women in the workplace, from a few of the women of Lovin’ Spoonfuls…

“Don’t be afraid to speak up. I want to see women find their voice and use it confidently in the workplace. It’s not personal. It’s just work” – Lauren Palumbo, Chief Operating Officer, Lovin’ Spoonfuls

“Don’t be afraid to lean on your support system. It’s not a sign of weakness.” Lisa Fall, CEO BOX Options Market, Lovin’ Spoonfuls Board Chair

“Try to show up every day the way you were before anybody ever told you to be quiet/polite/nice. Don’t be a jerk, but show up as yourself, in other words. Your ‘people,’ – up to and including right-fit employers – are not only going to ‘get’ you, they’re going to appreciate you. If they don’t, they’re not your people. Move on.”Joni Kusminsky, Communications & Marketing Director, Lovin’ Spoonfuls

“Balance, prioritize, and be measured, rather than reactive. Your career is a long and winding road, and won’t be sustainable without the foregoing.” Nancy Freed, Partner (first female Equity Partner) Prince, Lobel & Tye LLP,  Lovin’ Spoonfuls Board Member

“It’s not a competition. Imagine how much more we could do, and how much better we would do it, if we simply worked to champion each other and the unique skills we bring to the workforce and our teams.”Erin Keohane, Senior Director of Development, Lovin’ Spoonfuls

What if I missed a session of Learning with Lovin’?

Good news! We recorded them. Watch The Business of Doing Good, Choosing Your Business Partners, and Women Leaders & Their Lessons Learned here.

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