(0:00:01) KL: Is the process that is delivered in your organization consistent?
(0:00:04) Intro: Welcome to the Behind the Billboard Podcast, a living, breathing, interactive conversation about getting better as a leader, a team and as a person. We believe that success is all about people and we are on a mission to help you grow. Here is your host, Kris Lindahl.
(0:00:22) KL: I was fortunate enough to sit down with the CEO of Feed My Starving Children, Mark Crea. Mark is a fascinating leader. He shared so much about how they have grown Feed My Starving Children. The one stat that sticks out is that they have grown from 3,000,000 meals that they packed a year in 2003 to 365,000,000 meals packed this year. They have grown at a rate of 40% for 13 years consistently. There are so many takeaways from this interview and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
(0:00:56) MC: Hey, Kris. How are you?
(0:00:58) KL: Good. Thank you so much for being here. I really have loved all of the consistency in almost everything you have done so far. We will talk a lot about that, we will talk a lot about Feed My Starving Children, but before we get to that point I really want to go back to the beginning for you because I am always interested in what lead you up to where you are today.
(0:01:15) MC: Well, it started as… I am a Saint Paul kid from a typical family in the 50’s and 60’s. My dad was a small businessman and worked his tail off all of the time. Worked hard. Always was learning. When I think about where did I get the best leadership examples; it came from my dad.
(0:01:37) KL: Almost every single leader that I talk to, it is about being a student first and it is about being a sponge in the environments they are in. You know, so you look back, and you have your father who taught you some of those lessons. Did you go to college? Did you go to work right away? What are those early positions?
(0:01:51) MC: Well, just because of my dad, I started working when I was a kid. I would go down and help him at the store. That was just a part of our makeup.
(0:02:01) KL: What age were you? Do you remember back?
(0:02:03) MC: I was probably ten or twelve years old going down there and doing that. Worked all through high school and college. I went to the University of St. Thomas and majored in business. I came out of that having a real heart for internships and things. So, in my senior year at St. Thomas I did an internship for the Hazelden Foundation. I ended up spending 17 years there working for some really great people. Some great men and women. I also really found that mission piece that said, you can really do good work you then you can really make a difference and do both.
(0:02:44) KL: When you were an intern and really starting off in those early years, what is it that you were like, you know what? This is what I learned about being a leader. Or this is something that I implemented and it has made a huge difference in my life?
(0:02:57) MC: Yeah. There were a number of things. I had some great mentors. One of the early things that I learned, and part of it is your personality, but if you go in with a true attitude of wanting to help others succeed at what they are doing, you can get so much accomplished. I was thrown into some early difficulties and some areas that needed some attention. I was just this young intern. This kid out of school. I just went in there and said how do I help these people accomplish what they are doing or fix something? Personally, as a person, I just like to say, “Let me fix something.” Like, let me at it and see if we can make this better. I just learned a lot. Not about myself, but about the others and putting the others first. That is really valuable for me.
(0:03:54) KL: It is so important to put others first. It is such a great characteristic to have and it is why I am so excited to have you here. So what lead you to the decision to come to this organization?
(0:04:05) MC: A lot of it goes back, Kris, truly, to my faith. When I was running my career… yeah! I was successful. I was doing things. Was I as happy as I wanted to be? No. When I paid attention to what I thought my God-given talents were and when I aligned that with what I thought the Lord was doing I was much more successful. I went into the corporate world after my time with Hazelden and I did that for a number of years and I was successful, but I just really felt like I wanted to have a bigger impact and so fast forward to 2003 when Feed My Starving Children was small but looking for new direction and new leadership.
(0:04:49) KL: Yeah being fulfilled is such a big thing in being a leaders and what makes you feel like you are actually using all of your gifts to the fullest potential. There have been years in my career where I can honestly say I felt really empty and until you start to get your values aligned and get clear on your mission on where you are going and what you are doing, it does get very difficult. So, I can totally relate to that. Okay, so in 2003 is when you joined Feed My Starving Children. Is that correct?
(0:05:17) MC: Right. The organization was really small. We had one site with seven staff at that time. I started in early ‘04 officially with them and they had been going through a long stretch of ten years of no growth and really searching to find a way to feed more kids, frankly. So the organization and the board at that time made a couple of decisions but the critical decision was re-embracing it’s Christian roots and saying we are going to tell people why we are doing this work. We are supposed to feed the widows and the orphans. Who are these children around the world anyways? They are simply God’s kids. Let’s go out and feed them. The organization has been a rocket ever since.
(0:06:04) KL: No kidding. Real quick for people that at listening from other parts of the country and are maybe not familiar with what Feed My Starving Children is. Could you give us a detailed synopsis of what Feed My Starving Children is and what you are trying to accomplish because I think some people listening might not know what Feed My Starving Children is.
(0:06:21) MC: Of course. So Feed My Starving Children is a relief organization. But what we have done is something that is different than I think most other organizations in the relief world. We use science and technology, so let’s discover, if we are going to feed malnourished kids around the world, let’s give them the very best food. So, using food scientists here in Minnesota, they developed what is the ideal food formula for a malnourished child or person. So what are the vitamins and proteins and all of the things to put them in balance to then give them hope and give them the opportunity to learn and grow up healthy? That is what the organization did. Then employed volunteers to assemble, produce and package all of this food and then use a network of embedded organizations, NGOs and missionaries around the world and use them as the distribution point. Those are quite different from how most of those in the relief world work.
(0:07:28) KL: Fast forward to 2004. You joined the organization and you had been flat for ten years. Right? So, that is not much growth. What was your growth like right when you entered the organization? How soon did that growth start happening?
(0:07:37) MC: I would tell you that the board made the commitment to refocus and rededicate the organization in the fall of ‘03. So here are a couple of numbers for everyone. In 2003, we had one site we were doing three million meals a year. We were in seventeen countries. They utilized twenty thousand volunteers to do that. This year we are going to do three hundred and sixty-five million meals. So three million to three hundred and sixty-five million. 1.4 million volunteers up from twenty thousand volunteers. Seventy counties around the world up from seventeen. Average annual growth since then of 40% a year through ‘07 and ‘08. C’mon. Really? It has just been a blessing and it has been significant, but the impact around the world has been quite remarkable.
(0:08:34) KL: Wow. Congratulations to you and the organization and all of the volunteers that have made an impact. That is really incredible.
(0:08:41) MC: Well, it doesn’t make any sense.
(0:08:44) KL: No, it doesn’t.
(0:08:45) MC: In our history we have done 2.2 billion, with a b, meals that we have shipped to the toughest places around the world. How much of that food should ever really, really get there? Well, we track all of this of course and our number is 99.8%. I could not ship 2.2 billion meals to Cleveland. Sorry, Cleveland. And have a 99.8%. How is that possible when we send it to Sudan, and the Philippians, an Haiti, and Mali? It just doesn’t make sense other than I believe God protects this food. We are pretty good. Our partners in this network of embedded missionaries and NGO’s is good. That is all a good process, but that doesn’t take you to that number though.
(0:09:37) KL: That is what makes me so curious about everything that you have going on. Every time that I come to your organization, which is quite often, I leave feeling like this is the most amazing thing I have ever been apart of and it is consistent every single time. You have had this significant growth and like you said, the numbers don’t make sense. With these kind of numbers there have to be some kind of challenges. 40% growth is beyond hyper growth.
(0:09:59) MC: It makes my head hurt.
(0:10:03) KL: So what are some of the challenges that you have had to address?
(0:10:06) MC: Well, there are always challenges and I would tell you as a charity, people would look and say we have to raise the funds. We don’t take any governmental funding. This is all funded by individuals and faith communities and businesses and all of that money is raised to buy the ingredients and to be able to produce this food. It is all purchased here in the United States and so that is an important piece for us. The volunteers come in and put it all together. That is an ongoing challenge. I would tell you that we are now in forty states doing mobile pack. We have eight permanent sites here and Chicago, in Dallas and Phoenix. Those sites run six days a week, twelve hours a day. How do we make sure, going back to your process that there is consistency that I would tell you that the culture we have? How do we keep that culture the same? That is my number one goal. When the board looks at me as says how many goals do you have? What is the number one goal? It is how do I keep the Christian culture? The culture of process and excellence and urgency and keep that the same across everything we do?
(0:11:23) KL: You said you have 1.4 million volunteers or 1.7?
(0:11:28) MC: 1.4 this year.
(0:11:31) KL: My question is how do you keep that in place?
(0:11:34) MC: Well, it really does take a lot of work because when you think of that, you have seven year olds to ninety year olds coming in and volunteering. One hundred and fifty to two hundred people at a time at our sites. You might have hundreds or thousands at a time in a big mobile pack session. How do you manage that? How do you have consistency? Lots of process in there. Lots of attention to detail in there. There are people in the group that maybe nobody has ever done anything like this. Why would you think you are going to get an efficiency or production out of that? But the way we set it up and the way we monitor it and structure it, we have taken a lot of the guess work or a lot of the things that might go bump in the night out of the process but we want it to be fun. We want people to come in with their own two hands in two hours, that is what we ask you to volunteer; you are going to feed thousands of kids around the world. Maybe you have not been on a mission trip. Come to Feed My Starving Children and you are going to experience a mission trip for two hours as you get to do this. The hands that are going to unpack that food on the other side of the world are those starving children and you can’t get much closer than that.
(0:12:53) KL: You mention a mobile pack two-hour event. Just give people listening a little perspective on how many people are actually there volunteering and maybe what the average output of how many meals they are packing is. It is a fast paced environment that, and like you said, it is really enjoyable. For those who haven’t experienced it, can you let them know what that looks like?
(0:13:11) MC: So, what you are doing is the volunteers are assembling a set of ingredients. You are going to work around a cell; we would call it, where you have people who are adding the ingredients. They are all premeasured out. You have got vitamins and minerals in a mixture. You have dehydrated vegetables. You have extruded soy as a protein source and you have rice. These are all dried and dehydrated ingredients so they are all stable. They have a longer shelf life and they are lighter and they are easier to ship. We ship all of this by container load across the world, but volunteers come in and they work in stations and they do all of that. If they can come in for two hours you are going to have a ten to fifteen minute introduction. We are going to explain world hunger. What is going on and the uniqueness of what Feed My Starving Children does. Then there are some instructions since this is an FDA approved facility. This is a food packing facility so people put hairnets on and they are washing their hands and they do all of those great things and then they are going to pack for an hour and a half and you are going to see a production curve on that. It takes a little while to get going and then they are going to be really good. We do two hours because longer shifts and people start to get tired. We don’t want spills and we don’t want those things. At the end they get all done and we do a wrap up session and we tell them how many meals they packed and on average, if a group or an individual would come in for two hours and they are going to pack two hundred and thirty to two hundred and forty meals in that time. So, if you are in with a group you are talking about thousands or tens of thousands of meals in one two hour session if there are, as an example, one hundred and fifty people. People are amazed at how much food gets produced in that short amount of time.
(0:15:04) KL: It is the consistency and the efficiency of this. Where did this process get developed, and has it evolved over the years or has it stayed consistent?
(0:15:15) MC: It has evolved a lot and it continues to. Constant process improvement. Probably one of the most common questions is why don’t you just use machines? Wouldn’t that be better? Well, actually, no, for a couple of reasons. For us, our mission is feeding God’s starving children hungering in mind and body and spirit. So, we get the feeding the body part. That is the food that is going to go into the packs, but what about feeding the spirit? That is what is going to happen for these 1.4 million volunteers who get to come in. Almost half of those volunteers are young people. So, when you think about energizing and engaging teenagers and younger people in this. They get it, Kris. Half the time they are the ones bringing their adults along with because they want to make a difference and so you tap into that and then you just put them into a process that makes sense. There are so many different jobs so people, if you need a sit down job, we are going to have you do the labels for the bags, which is part of the quality control process. If you want to lift boxes and refill bins and stuff and you have a lot of energy, we are going to put you in the warehouse and you are going to wrap and strap boxes. Everything in between. That is the other nice thing. You can kind of self-select. For parents to stand their for their kid who just gets so excited about this and I just look at these moms and dads who are standing there with a big smile on their face, like, look at my kid! They really get it. This is powerful. Look at the conversation we are having as a result of this experience. Why are 68,000 dying every day of starvation in the world? I don’t understand that. It shouldn’t happen. C’mon in and help us make a difference in that.
(0:17:08) KL: Walk me through the point of when the bag starts in that facility to the point of where it is in the box and it is packed up. It is so efficient that I really want listeners to hear what happens the whole way through the process. An abbreviated version, but you know, I just want to give them an idea.
(0:17:24) MC: There have been process engineers over the years. They come and volunteer and they get all excited because they get to feed kids instead of make widgets or something. There is a cell, so it is a U-shaped set of tables. It has the ingredients. It has funnels and each ingredient has it’s own measuring devise. There are bags that are food quality. There are baggers. There are weighers. There are sealers. The person is the bagger, which is the toughest job, let me tell you. The bagger puts the bag on the funnel, and then in a certain sequence, those four ingredients get put into that funnel and into that bag. Then the weigher weighs that bag. It has to be a certain number of grams that is part of the process and part of the control. Once they do that, then they would hand it off to the sealer and so these bags are then all sealed with an electric sealer and then they are given to a boxer who is going to lay them all out and we need 36 bags each. Each bag will feed, when it is cooked, will feed 6 children. There are 6 servings in a bag. That person is going to put 36 bags in the box. There are diagrams to show everyone how to do this. Then the runners are going to pick that box up and bring it back to the warehouse. When you are low on ingredients, you know, there say there is a tub of rice, and then you are going to say, “Rice!” And the runner is going to bring a new tub and do that change real fast. It is pretty seamless. You just want this to go smoothly. We are always looking at the Delta times. All of these things. The music. We play music during the session and truly, I mean, we have got this worked out to the point where, what type of music do we want to play today? We need them to pack at 1.3 boxes per volunteer and we know what that means. The volunteer isn’t going to know whether or not in the course of this whole thing whether they packed 4 more bags but we are going to know that when you multiply that by 1.4 million, that is a lot of food. We are fine-tuning that so kind of the iceberg, what is under the water? All of this stuff that we know is going on and we pay attention to saying how do we make this the best experience for people who are giving up this time and helping us feed starving kids around the world?
(0:19:56) KL: The process is so consistent. I wanted to share that because every time I go there I get the same feeling. It is a great feeling. I love being apart of it. Those of you who are listening, whether you are local or you are in one of the areas where there is a mobile pack center or a permanent center. I would love to host you and go with you to attend. If you reach out to me because you are listening to this, just send me a message to behindthebillboard.com. I am in. I would love to go and experience it with people who have never experienced it before because it is something that is super important. It is something that if you have kids or grandkids, I think it is really important to bring them as well. I bring my daughter and her friends all of the time. Like you said earlier, I think it is really important for all of the younger generations to understand what is happening around the world and what we can do to make a difference and solve this.
(0:20:40) MC: It is huge. When you talk about learning all of the time. We are in that perpetual state. Go pay attention. Go spend some time with Culver’s, or McDonalds, or Target. We have lots of corporations here in the Twin Cities. Go spend sometime at Disney World. Go talk to those staff and say, let’s look at their attention to detail. We tweak this stuff all of the time to make sure what we are doing is just maximizing the volunteer’s experience and the productivity of what we are doing. We are going to do 350 mobile pack events in 40 states this year. We have 8 sites in different states running 12 hours a day 6 days a week. How do you make that consistent? So whether you walk into an event in Texas or in Minneapolis or one in phoenix, you are going to get the same high quality performance. All of those things are going to be the same of course, but we want the rest of it, and we are serving our volunteers all of the time. We are always saying what else can we do to improve this? The staff is simply awesome about that.
(0:21:49) KL: Your approach is awesome. I saw something, and I happened to be at Chick-fil-A. I was taking my daughter and her friends there and we are ordering and I get this question at the end and she is like, “Would you like to buy a chocolate chip cookie to support Feed My Starving Children?” I have never one time in my career of anything I have done have I been so disrupted in my pattern of ordering something. Because typically, it is like, “Hey, do you want a chocolate chip cookie?” “Do you want an ice cream come?” “Do you want to upsize?” Whatever it is, and wherever you are, I had never heard those words tied together. I don’t know anything about it. I don’t know if that is the only one Feed My Starving Children does. What are some of the thoughts behind that?
(0:22:28) MC: That goes to another staff that works with organizations. Chick-fil-A is awesome and they did this campaign. So they did this with a whole bunch of their stores and it is about feeding kids. There is a taco chain called Tacos for Life in the southern United States and they are producing millions of meals for starving kids so you buy one of their tacos and they are going to donate to Feed My Starving Children to help feed one more kid. That just resonates with people and it is repeated. It is one of those things where we can all say that is awesome. The need out there and the network we have of organizations around the world. Two things they always say to me are please send us more food. We have more kids to feed. That is always there. The need is so much greater always than what we are producing. We have got to do it well though. We have to be sustainable about this. Second, this is the most remarkable food we have ever received but we are a long term feeding organization so this is about a sustainable thing. If you are running an orphanage, it is about how do I keep my kids alive this month? How about next month? The month after? You can’t get onto the sustainable things if you don’t know in two months where your food or medicine is going to come from. Those are things that focus around sustainability. We would say we are the foundation for so many of these organizations that they can then build on.
(0:24:01) KL: You just said network. Our network. I think a lot of leaders listening have a bigger network than they think they do, especially with the power of social media now and how connected we all are, whether it is LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. There are all of these platforms out there that allow us to connect to others. There have been times in my life where we have really tried to get behind something and make a big difference, and it is amazing how many people in my network have stepped up to help. Sometimes it is their time. Sometimes it is monetary. There are all different forms of ways that someone can help. To your point, you had process engineers, where it was their talents. They might say, you know what, I think the efficiency would change if you did this or did that. There are so many different ways to give and I think people always think that it has to be monetary and it is always writing a check. That is what I love about your organization. It is so much more than writing a check. You can go in there and make a difference and use your hands to really help prevent hunger. It can make a huge difference. A network of this size, it almost becomes overwhelming. Some of the numbers you are reporting. 365 million. I mean, 70 counties. All of these things. How do you maintain and monitor as an organization a network of this size and all of these partners? What types of things do you do?
(0:25:25) MC: Well, Kris, we have more people to do that than we used to. When I started there were seven of us. There are now 325 staff members. Lots of part time staff. In the International Programs area, we have four key staff that divide up the world and they are in relationships. This is not, again, different from maybe other organizations. This is not a transactions with our partners that are feeding the kids. This is a relationship. In fact, for us, it is a Christian relationship. What we are going to do together is different if it is a relationship versus a transaction. As we work with them it is as much about saying what are all of the obstacles and what are you dealing with? They are doing the hard work. They are in…
(0:26:21) KL: That is right.
(0:26:22) MC: There is not much they can count on day to day in many of these places. How do we do that? Basically, how do we help you feed more kids? That is an important thing for us. If we can do some things that maybe in a traditional way you wouldn’t… we would say that is not in our bottom line benefit, but for us it feeds more kids, they recognize that. I was sitting with one of our great partners, Feed The Hungry and having dinner one night and Stephen looks at me and he goes, “Mark. You are weird. Your whole organization is weird.” Well, Stephen, I think that is a compliment, and it was. He just said you are not like anyone else. How you treat us. How you work together with us. That is what I hear from businessmen and women all of the time. These people that used to be my competitor are not my competitors anymore. The way that I run my business today is so different than it was five years ago. For charities, for non-profits, that is as relevant for us as anyone else. How do we adapt to getting people and encouraging people to give us donations so we can do that? How do we improve our process all of the time? It is just a never-ending piece. How much of our stuff can we get our hands on and how fast do we have to build out network of distributions of feeding organizations around the world? That is a big focus for us over the next three years and going to, what I would tell you, are the least of these. There are places in the world where the need is great, great, great, but they tend to be some of the most difficult places in the world. But, we have just been blessed with the ability to develop relationships around the world and get in and get to these kids and feed them. There are a lot of places where others don’t want to go or they can’t go and I would just tell you we have had the ability to get in there. That is a bigger focus for us.
(0:28:21) KL: You mentioned there are some places that are difficult to get into. What does difficult actually mean? The misconceptions that come to my mind are someone stealing the meals or someone is blocking them and selling them on the black market. Those are some of the things that I think about, but what are some of the difficulties you and your partners go through when you are trying to get these meals into these counties and to these deserving people?
(0:28:42) MC: Kris, you have corruption, you have logistics problems, you have bad roads or no roads. You have vehicles. It is not a never-ending list, but it is a big list of things. Maybe active war zones. Maybe counties where there is just so much poverty and it is so difficult to even function or get around. You know, can you get something distributed once? Well, maybe. But what about an ongoing basis. When I see where this food ends up… On a boat, up a river, on a woman’s head, up a mountain. It is an amazing thing to watch. Not once, but time and time again. How do you keep it away from the bad guys? A huge, huge issue. That is something that for us and our partners and particularly we believe this food is protected because we ask for protection over it. You can’t document it or do a process flow that explains and answers all of the questions. We do a number of things that we say, yeah, I think this is better. It never takes you to 99.8% but when it happens over and over again and we look at each other and we do and we go, okay. Who is taking credit for that one? Gee. I don’t know. Some of our partners and some of the most difficult places spend 18 months planning the first shipments into those counties with staff on the ground and staff here and how you are going to do it. How are you going to protect that food? This is not anything easy and yet when I see the result of what we are doing it is just a humbling, humbling thing. The kids… I travel a lot and I am in a lot of counties and the things that I leave with always are the set of child’s eyes that look at you. You might see hundreds of kids and inevitably, some kid just catches your heart and catches your attention. If you have an opportunity to come back some months later when this kid is now being fed everyday. There are these kids now, that now they are in college. I have been doing this long enough now that I am like, oh my gosh, this doesn’t even look like the same child. We are not an organization that does a lot of graphic pictures but we have some pictures that show a before and after, and it just does not look like the same child. On the before side, if you would put this child in school they would never ever learn anything. This child can. That makes a difference. That is one. How a mom will look at you. I can just think about my own mom and they stare right through to your spine. But for a mom to look at you because she now has food for her kids and most of the times you have a skinny mom because she is going to give everything she has to her kids. But maybe watching her children struggle and maybe not survive. What a terrible thing. Now that changes completely and she is watching her kids thrive and moms say any number of things from God bless you for saving my babies. Well, I didn’t save them. That is what the volunteers did. Just recently a mom said, “My children are so smart. I never thought my children were smart. They are eating this food. They are in school. They come home and they tell me what the have done and my kids are so smart.” Well of course they are! They are healthy. Just powerful things that I take away and say how can we not get up everyday and say we just have to do more of this.
(0:32:22) KL: You mention 18 months of planning in some areas to deliver means and figure out how are we going to get it there? How do we get it past the bad guys and the logistics and those things? I think as leaders that is one thing that we don’t do enough planning for. Big challenges, whether it is personally or professionally. Walk my through a little bit of 18 months of planning actually means. Does that mean you are in conversations with partners? What happens over the 18-month period? Are you finding out that there might be challenges that you have to abort mission and start over, or what types of things are happening?
(0:32:54) MC: Well, from strategic planning overall, we kind of start at that level. We do three year planning, so we just started… We are in year 18, 19, and 20. We are in the first year of our new plan and what that calls for with continual growth and everything. You have your annual planning and you do all of that stuff. We have scorecards. We have KPI’s. When you think about what do business pay attention to? All of that stuff keeps our focus on the right things. We measure and we monitor things all of the time. Then you get to the distribution side and you say okay, we are not on the ground doing the distribution. We do that through are unique partnerships that are there and are embedded. If you have been in Haiti for 25 years and you are still getting things done I think you know a few things. Those would be the organizations and people that we would look to partner with. Lots of good people there doing a lot of good things in all of these countries but who are the ones who are the best? I would tell you a lot of it happens on their part and with whatever is going on on the ground. It is everything from; we would make a commitment to you, for a minimum of a year at a time. Some of it is longer. How many meals do you need? When do you need them? Another thing partners tell us is if I had a nickel for every promise somebody from some organization made me. Or if it is a lot of, “Here is some stuff, Kris, good luck when it is gone.” How far does that get me? For us to say this is a relationship. This is a long-term piece. You actually make a commitment and then you keep it. We can build our programs around this. Always they are in a state of change. Whatever changes are going on on our side you can double it on theirs. Everything from what is going on at the port and can we get there and what kind of security do we need? How do we safeguard this food? How do we continue to distribute it in the way that we want? Do we have to change some of that? When you think about disasters and you think about other issues. Haiti is our number one country. When you look at that long term, we have been there a long time. The food is making a huge difference in that country, but you throw in a hurricane or an earthquake and this fragile country has tremendous problems. So how do you adapt to that and move on knowing that you just took a major step back and now you have to rebuild. Our partners will have to rebuild and we will have to rebuild. It is a lot of working together and then we have to leave room for God to do what He is going to do in our lives. He is going to put an individual or a country. I will tell you, sometimes people ask, is there a common issue, phrase, something? I would tell you for me it happened early on in this part of my career. On a long term, my first trip to Haiti. I am at the end of this trip and I am with a missionary who has been there for 25 years. I am seeing all of the need in our country, which is so overwhelming. We are together one night and Bobby looks at me and says, “Mark, all of these children that you see that are suffering. They are going to die one at a time. Save them. One at a time. There is going to be this kid. This orphanage. Save that one and then go on to save another and another. If you try to save the whole world it is not going to work. Everyday, just save some more kids.” That is what drives me.
(0:37:03) KL: That is great advice. Save one at a time. I think so often in life we try to solve these massive problems instead of simplifying it down to something that is actually achievable, we try to save the whole world and then the next thing you know, we don’t accomplish anything.
(0:37:16) MC: We are driven. We want results.
(0:37:18) KL: Oh yeah.
(0:37:19) MC: That’s how we are. I like that part, but then I get taught by so many other cultures and people that there are some differences here. This is a marathon, not a hundred yard dash. I better understand that. We listen to our partners. They drive a lot of what we do. This is not about going there and saying, okay, I can solve your problems in country X here. I really can’t. We better listen to the people. What do you most need? How can I best help you? We do food. We are very vertical. We do food and we do it really well. We have multiple formulas. The rice formula is the biggest. That is 90% of what we produce but we have specialty for cholera and Ebola. We have food for infants. But that all came from our partners saying this food is great for this, but we don’t have anything for the little orphan kids and we can’t get our hands on enough formula to do that. Do you have something you could do? Okay, go back to the scientists and figure all of that out. Come back and say try this. It might take 26 formulas to get it right but we are going to drive to success. For us, obstacles all of the time. All of the time. It doesn’t matter. We are going to drive through those and eventually get to a point where we can say, now this works. I think this is common for a lot of leaders.
(0:38:48) KL: The thing that has really attracted to me everything you are doing is something that you just mentioned. It is how crystal clear your mission is and how you said, “Food is what we do.” I think too often non-profits and business try to do too much. They try to be all things to all people. Obviously with the relationships and the network you have there has to have been times there has been an attraction to doing all sorts of other things. How do you stay disciplined in what you are doing?
(0:39:16) MC: Kris. That is the $64.00 question. I call it mission creep. You are here and this is important too, and this is too. There is nothing wrong with that if you want to do that. You are completely horizontal and you are doing all of those different things. We just work against that all of the time. Do we care about clean water? Of course we do. Do we care about sanitation? Yes. How about good agricultural practices? Yes. School? Yes. Building homes? Yes. All of that stuff is important. Do we have to do it? No. That is part of the relationship with our partners. If you are an organization in Uganda and need to drill a well and a borehole, we don’t need to get into that business. What we need to do is to find the very best organizations that are doing that and use some of our capacity and horsepower. Then when our partner says, “Oh, gosh. Here is our need.” Here are three organizations we have already prescreened. You can use them or not, but basically we have taken a lot of that work off of your hands. Maybe it is the good seal of approval from FMSC and not that we know everything about everything. That has made a big difference to say, let’s partner with an organization that does clean water. That does education. That does other things. Then get our partners working together. You might say why would four different organizations in Kampala all work together? Well, because they all have blinders on and they are all just trying to survive. They frankly don’t have the time to look at what another organization ten miles away might be doing. Let’s work together. We are going to bring you together. If we just spend some time together and just bless each other then that is okay. You do education really good, Kris. Maybe I do health care really good. All of the sudden we get in the same room and we are talking to each other and we discover, oh my gosh, would you help me and I will help you? It sounds simple but it is really tough to do. We work on all of those things too.
(0:41:28) KL: Mission creep. That is a real thing, not just in the non-profit world, but in the real world too. We tend to get distracted and lose focus on all of the things we are really trying to accomplish. That is a really good takeaway. Hiring the best people. You mentioned this earlier and that is really everything. Without the best people or the right people you can’t accomplish something nearly to the level Feed My Starving Children has. How do you find the best people?
(0:41:52) MC: You have to work at it. When I think about learning all of the time, I think about Good to Great and StrengthsFinder. Those are things that we actively use at Feed My Starving Children. I am a big believer in that. Who do we want to find? Who is on the bus? What seat are they in? It starts with our HR folks but it is indoctrinated into the organization. What is going to set you apart? I can assess this side of your resume that says what is your skill set, what is your experience, what is your education. That is pretty obvious. That is the other side for me that is equally important. Maybe more important to me is that you work and play well with others. Do you have a passion for what we are doing? When we find people that have both of those, and we work hard at it, we get results that when we talk to others in our industry they look at us and go how do you do that? That doesn’t make sense. I would say yeah, it doesn’t, but when you get passionate people that are dedicated to what you are doing and they see they are making a difference. It is not about working a hundred hours a week. It is about a focus and a passion. I surround myself with some really good people. People that are smarter than me. When you do that, you have to work hard at that, and you empower them and you enable them and you develop them, then you get results that defy all of the other stuff going on.
(0:43:24) KL: The people are such an important part and the passion piece. You can do a lot of really big things in this world if you have the right people in the right seats on the bus and they are passionate. You can just feel it. I walk into your organization and I can feel that passion that exists there and if you have people in your organization or you have a team or company or where ever you are at in leadership, if you can’t feel that passion when you walk in something is off because you can accomplish far more, to you point, the resume and the skills… It is very rare that I read a resume that doesn’t look great. Most of them are polished or put together. You can hire someone online to write the best resume in the world. It really comes down to those other things, so that is super smart. So traveling to 50… how many counties did you say you have been to?
(0:44:11) MC: 41 counties.
(0:41:12) KL: 41 counties. You mentioned earlier than one of the things that has made a big impact on you is looking in a child’s eyes and looking into their mother’s eyes. What other things have you learned being in all of these different counties? Most people listening aren’t going to be in a position to travel to 41 countries, so what types of things are you learning and seeing in these parts of the world?
(0:44:34) MC: A couple of things. So the first is that there isn’t one solution here. What is going to work and make a difference in Uganda is different than Guatemala is different than the Philippians and is different than Haiti. If you go in with a mindset that says first of all, either I have it figured out, or this is how we are going to solve world hunger or these other things. I am shaking my head and saying no. Now, are their similarities or things that will work in several counties? Sure. But if you don’t understand or you are not going to immerse yourself in that culture and realize what is going on and what you have to contend with. When we team up with those embedded organizations that is where get that interaction and that ability because they are there. We are not there to tell them here is what you need or here is how you need to do that. We are there to say what do you need? Here is what we got. Does this make sense for you? How does this fit into your programs and what you want to do? That is one thing. Other things are in so many parts of the world think so differently. I would tell you there are countries where I have been where they are not thinking about this month and this quarter. They are thinking in decades or longer. What is the result from this going to be 100 years from now? Wow. That is so different from how we think here and what we do. It is just so different.
(0:45:59) KL: How about advice. Out of everywhere you have travelled, is there something that sticks out that someone gave you advice and said, you know, this thing or if you do this or do that it is going to change you, and to this day you still remember that moment? You shared one that stuck out to me that I will remember forever is that the children will die one at a time and to save them one at a time. I will never forget that you shared that with me because it is really great advice. What other small things or things have you learned along the way that you could share with our listeners?
(0:46:31) MC: I would tell you because what I deal with is sort of the boots on the ground. I am there with the missionaries and the NGO’s that are caring for the people directly. They are running the school, the orphanage, the rescue center. You are at that level. You are not dealing with bureaucracies or necessarily with other folks. What I hear from people and I don’t think we get this often enough in the US is from those folks, from the moms, from the kids, their admiration and their thanks to the United States and the thanks to us. I don’t understand Kris; I am a 90-year-old woman in Tanzania. I have no idea why you would ever care about feeding me but the gratitude is huge around the world and we don’t always hear that. Now, could we and should we do more? Yes. But I think it is much greater than people are lead to believe. I think that is one piece. I think the other thing that sticks for me so much is when you are talking to parents. They love their kids every bit as much as you or I do. Many times they are put into these terrible situations where parents have four kids and they only have enough food for two or three. What is going to happen? Are they bad parents? No, they are not. They are desperate. A parent should never, ever, be put into that situation. A mom should never have to choose. When I look at that and just say if they have the basic things, then the mom, for example, isn’t going to get up every single day and be in this crisis mode and my whole day isn’t going to be about how do I keep my kids alive today? Wait a minute. I have food for my kids for today, for this week and next week. For our feeding programs, it would be very common for a mom to get a month worth of food at a time on an ongoing basis. Most of these people have never had maybe even two days worth of food ever in their life and that is so hard for us to understand here, but all of the sudden you do that and it radically changes their world and it gives them hope. We talk about that a lot. If you can restore hope, then other stuff can happen. You have parents. You have moms who can say I want my kids to go to school now. I was in Mali recently. We were in a primary school and the principal said… so this is a 1-6 grade. Rural school, very poor, 2,000 children in this school. The principal comes up to me and he is excited. We have been feeding these kids everyday, a school lunch, for two years now. He said, “I have two things to tell you. Number one. There are 200 primary schools in this district in Mali. Two years ago, our school was number 187 out of 200. We were at the bottom of the pile. This year, on our testing, we are number 8. Same kids. Same teachers. Same curriculum. What is different? These kids are being fed every day this nutritious meal.” Second thing. He shows me this piece of paper. He said, “There are 2,087 kids in this school. This has never happened before. Look at this piece of paper. There are more girls this year in this school than boys. That has never happened.” You know, the girls are going to kick the academic butts of all of the boys anyway.
(0:50:20) KL: That is the truth.
(0:50:22) MC: But, to have 1,103 girls and 900 and some boys, he just said, “People are sending their girls to school.” They never did that or they didn’t do it very often. They are doing it because they are being fed. Now they are healthy and now they are being educated. As a dad with four daughters. That is a cool thing to see.
(0:50:42) KL: Yeah, we forget sometimes how different it is here versus other parts of the country and how we take food for granted. We have such a surplus of it and we really forget what that means. It has been helpful for me to put me and my daughter in situations like that so I better understand what it would be like. I think we forget if it is not our son or daughter or grandchild and it doesn’t feel quite the same.
(0:51:10) MC: If I was hungry, Kris. There are a dozen places I could go. I could go to my neighbor. I could go to my church. I could go to other places and say, “I am hungry. Could you make me a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” If you are in so many of these countries that simply isn’t an option. There is no food shelter. There is no safety net. The pastor doesn’t have any food. He is as poor as you are. Your neighbors don’t have any food. What do you do when you are in that situation? It is a different thing. You can fundamentally change that cycle and then all of the other things can happen after that as a result.
(0:51:45) KL: So much of what you have shared in this interview has really been about gratitude and being so thankful for your partners. Being so thankful for the network. For the volunteers. For the employees. You mentioned a word before we started that is really your focus, which is hospitality. When I think about the last event where I really experienced this was actually one of your events and it was Martin. He gave me this clay mug, which was put together by the kids. I’m not sure which country it was from.
(0:52:13) MC: From Haiti.
(0:52:13) KL: From Haiti. Like I told you it is a moment I will never forget because it was the hospitality. He went way out of his way. He didn’t have to provide me with a mug. You mentioned that the focus for you in the future is really on this hospitality thing. Early in the interview, you mentioned Walt Disney. What types of things are you focused on from a hospitality standpoint?
(0:52:37) MC: So, if we start with the volunteering process. That is the lion’s share. That creates everything. That creates everything. Everything from the moment you go on our website or you contact us and say I am interesting in coming and volunteering. Okay. What is our interaction? What kind of response and things do you get there? Once you come here for your two-hour volunteering session, now we have got you. From the moment you walk in and how you are greeted, all the way through our educating and are motivating people well? Do they have clear enough instructions? All of those things. We look at that continually to the point where you leave and we do the wrap up and you leave feeling like you have made such a tremendous difference because you have. I would say the before and after there is a lot of work on that side. So after you leave, we say, one of the things you did today is the food you packed today is going to Haiti. Great. What if, and this is what is right in front of us. We are almost there. What if two weeks later you get an email from us that said, “Hey, Kris. Thanks for coming in. Guess what? That food you packed just got loaded on a container today and is on it’s way to Haiti.” Three weeks later you got an email that said, “Hey, Kris! Guess what? The food you packed is in Haiti. It is now at the Love a Child Orphanage. It is being fed to these kids. Here is an example of the kid that is eating the food that you packed. This is making an impact in their life.” These are the things that we are looking at. While we have you there, and before and after to determine how do we complete this process? If we could take someone… and I do this all of the time. If I could take all of these volunteers and put them in my spot when I am standing in front of that mom or missionary or feeding the kids myself, if they were here right now with me I would never have to worry about raising another dime because they would be like, “Oh, my gosh. This is the most powerful thing. Here, take my wallet.” Now, we have to be good stewards and we are. You know, on Charity Navigator, we are going to be coming into our 14th year of using them. That puts us in the top 1% of charities nationwide. .22 cents a meal. 91% of the donations that you donate goes towards the feeding program. Are we good stewards? Are we smart about this? Yes, yes, yes, yes. That all goes into the packet. So if you want to ask, “What are you going to do with the $100.00 that I give you?” What about if I have a younger kid and I am trying to get them engaged in this. Or, they don’t want to put the hairnet on. What am I going to do? Is the staff handling that in a really, really good way? Did they said, “You know what? I have a special hair net for you.” We had taken some magic markers and marked it up and then said, “This is one I have been holding specially for somebody. Would you like this one? A hundred little things like that.
(0:55:45) KL: Those little things make such a huge difference.
(0:55:47) MC: Special needs kids. Every day at all of our sites we have special needs folks come in. That is a huge blessing. Generally they are on the receiving end of having care. We have a packing session simply with this organization that deals with special needs. It is a bit different and the pace is going to be a little different but they get to give back and that is so powerful to watch.
(0:56:14) KL: That is powerful. To share where those meals go and to really get to know here is where those meals went and here is where they landed and here is when they were delivered. It gave me a different emotional experience than everything I have experienced. The reason that is, is I think about the world that we are in and we can crowd fund around causes and people that are in need. Non-profits have evolved too. How we contribute money. How younger generations contribute money with all of the technology and social media. What are some of things you are doing at Feed My Starving Children to evolve into this social media world that we live in?
(0:56:53) MC: When we look at the sheer number of volunteers, we have a ton of young people. We better understand how they communicate. Social media is a huge thing for us. How do you want to give? Well, do we have online? Do we have mobile friendly device stuff? If we don’t, we are going to be in trouble. That is a part of continuing to change as well all of the time. Okay, do we still send out a direct letter to folks? Yeah, there are a whole category of people who love to get that and they get that and they respond to that. But, you better not do that for the 18-30 year olds because that is not going to work, but they are a powerful force for us. The majority of our staff are young people. They keep me on my toes trying to keep up.
(0:57:45) KL: Of course! That is good for you.
(0:57:46) MC: We just listen to them. I always say, if we are going to wait for all of the great ideas to come out of my office, wow, we are in a lot of trouble. Are we listening to our staff? Are we doing that well? Do we survey the staff? Yes, yes, yes. We do all of that. Lets make sure we do this well and involve them. This is how we need to communicate.
(0:58:09) KL: People like to communicate differently, right? You might have someone in the younger generation that says I only want a Snapchat message or a Facebook message or a text message. I always use the analogy that you can call someone in the younger generation and they won’t answer, and then they will send a text back, like, “Hey! What is going on?” Then you have someone who grew up when cellphones were not a thing and they say, “Just pick up the phone and call me. I just want to talk to you.” Make sure whatever business you are in as a leader that you understand that your customers are going to want to communicate differently. That is really, really good advice. You have built this amazing community. It makes sense to me that you have all of these younger people who want to be apart of your organization because they want to be apart of a community. They want to be apart of something bigger. How do you continue to build this positive and fun community as you scale to the size you are at?
(0:58:58) MC: That is probably where most of my time and energy is. How do we continue to evolve? We have to continue to do things that we do well, but how do we also adapt? Whether that is in fundraising or production to this younger generation and how do we do that when we are in Dallas versus Minneapolis versus Seattle. What is unique or different geographically as well? It is a prime concern for me as well when I think about what are my key goals and the things I am working on? Also, for the staff as well. For the staff around me I have a mixture of staff there because I need that. I need all of those different views. Where are my blind spots? I would look at our HR folks and say okay, you just keep me out of jail. That is a good thing. That is a joke.
(0:59:56) KL: Of course.
(0:59:57) MC: So, how do we continue that? All of the sites we have. We have these incubators. So if one in Phoenix wants to experiment with something. Maybe it makes a lot of sense for the community they are in, so guess what? In the summer in Minnesota, that is our slow time of the year. We are busy all of the time. I go in Star Trek terms. We are in warp 4 instead of warp 8, right? Mesa is super busy in the summer. Let’s do something with the kids. Well, it is 115 degrees out, I don’t know. We can go into this air-conditioned thing and we can do this great and powerful mission for two hours. Okay, lets do that. So, they have some things to adapt to and do differently down there. Yet you are going in and the process is still the same. It is a really intriguing and exciting thing for me to watch happen.
(1:00:49) KL: Blind spots are such a big thing in leadership. If you do not have people around you that cant either let you know what your blind spots are or fix and fill in those spots, you need to get someone. I have a ton of weaknesses and without my leadership team we would not be where we are today.
(1:01:05) MC: I couldn’t agree more. If you have ever done a 360 in your organization, for yourself, it is not the most fun thing to do. Let me tell you, folks, but it is a powerful thing. Then, sit with this person you have hired and for three hours they are going to tell you all of the misconceptions and all of the things about you that everyone think. You have to have that self-awareness and I have to have people around me that I tell and give permission to say, “No, no, no. You can come into my office and you can tell me all of the things you would never want to tell your boss.” Please. Come in and say, “Maybe, you are not seeing this, but…” I have some staff that do that. That is invaluable as a leader.
(1:01:44) KL: Allowing and empowering people around you to be honest and transparent is really important as a leader. If you are in an organization and you are leading a group of individuals make sure you give them the permission to give you that constructive feedback because it will help you grow and it will help the organization grow as well. So you mentioned mobile pack events in some of the areas that you are in. If people are listening and they want to be a part of your organization and they want to help our and they want to make a difference, what is the best way to do that?
(1:02:11) MC: Well, we have launched a new website this past year. You simply go on FMSC.org and the website will take you through all of those things. If you want to volunteer you go to the volunteer tab. The sites are on there. The mobile events. If you are in Virginia, you punch up Virginia and it will tell you what events are coming and where and when in Virginia. If you are in Minnesota or Chicago or Phoenix, you have lots and lots of opportunities.
(1:02:40) KL: I want to make sure listeners hold me accountable. I truly meant that I want to go with, as many people as I can that have not been before. I don’t even care what state or city it is in. So, just reach out to be at behindthebillboard.com or send me a message. I would be honored to be invited with your group to go. Just to changing gears to wrap up here. I have a couple of final questions that I always like to ask leaders and high drivers such as yourself. What does a typical day look like for you? If there is such a thing as average.
(1:03:11) MC: That was my thought. Average? There is no average. I would tell you that the size and scope of us, I mean I used to, when I started I would get off the phone with a partner or a donor and I would go out unload the rice truck. That is what you did. I do the group in the evening if the staff person was sick. Now, I hired everyone. They don’t allow me on the forklift anymore. It is really about empower and setting the goals and keeping focus on the values and the things that are critical. The vision for the organization. Empowering others to carry that out. Doing different media and pieces. I get to travel. It was myself, or it was Matt, who is our international operations guy and myself running around the world doing that. Now, there are more people to do that so I can cherry pick a little bit more, but when we are developing new countries or new programs, that is something I do. There are a couple of very sensitive countries that I still handle and it is because they have been with me for a long, long time. Talking to media. Talking to supporters. Certainly the board as well and working with them. And then getting around to the sites. It is kind of a little bit of the Walton experience, which is saying I have to get out and see what is going on in Aurora, or what is going on in Richardson, or in Texas. Spend time and meet the new staff. I have to meet every single new person we have at some point and learn about them and talk about Feed My Starving Children so they understand what is really important for us and what are the things that matter?
(1:04:54) KL: Do you have specific morning routines or any ways that you start your day consistently to get prepared for your day?
(1:05:01) MC: I do. So, I recently shortened my commute. I had a hour and fifteen to an hour and thirty minute commute each way. It is now less than half an hour, which is a lot in itself. I have got Sandy. I have this unbelievable assistant and I would crash and burn in like twelve minutes without her. She is there to help organize all of that stuff. I have a daily sheet that I use that has key emails on it. It has my key appointments for that day. I have a sheet that says okay, what are the 5 critical things I need to accomplish each day. Now, something might get added. Something might get taken off, but that keeps my focus. Then there is room to add other things as well. I use my phone more and more but I am still a paper and pen guy. We have a morning devotional at 9:00 where the staff gets together. We pray for our partners. A different partner everyday around the world just for their safety and protection and the kids they are feeding. We pray for anything else is someone is sick or if we have a new baby or whatever. We just spend some time as a staff together doing that. Then my day is ready to get started after that.
(1:06:13) KL: I just want to say thank you so much for being on this episode. I want to share with our listeners, if you loved this episode, make sure to give us a five star review. Include any feedback or takeaways that you had. I always love listening to our listeners and what they take from our interviews. I also want to remind people that we actually transcribe the entire thing by hand. If you go to behindthebillboard.com you can read the entire episode if you are of interest. One special thing that I wanted to do is if you art listening to this episode right now it means it is posted on the Behind The Billboard Facebook page. For every single comment or like that we get on this episode, we are going to donate a dollar back to Feed My Starving Children, so I really want to encourage everyone to share this with as many people as they can because there are some significant takeaways in this episode from Mark and from Feed My Starving Children. It has been fun to watch the success of your entire organization. It is so incredible what you have built and what you have done. Congratulations to everyone there. Also, just a quick special thanks to Martin for that gift as well. I mentioned that story earlier but I didn’t get a chance to say thank you. So, I do really appreciate that. Thank you, Mark, so much for being on.
(1:07:24) MC: You bet. Kris, thank you very much. For all of those likes, every dollar is going to feed 4 kids. So go out there and like this program a lot so we can feed a lot of kids.
(1:07:36) KL: That is great. Thank you so much!
(1:07:38) Exit: If you loved this episode give us a great review. Subscribe and share us socially so we can spread the word and build the community of difference makers. If there is a leader who inspires you, send your suggestions for future guests to Kris’s team at behindthebillboard.com so we can get better.
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