Lessons for Non Profit Boards from the rise of OzHarvest and “Food Fighter’ Ronni Kahn

Sitting in the dress circle at the state theatre on the 3rd of June, we were treated to a wonderful documentary about the work, life and passions of OzHarvest’s Founder and CEO, Ronni Kahn.

Aptly titled ‘Food Fighter’, the movie followed Ronni through three years of her life while chronicling some of the significant events that have shaped OzHarvest into the leading organisation it is today.

From shiny yellow headquarters in Sydney to a visit by the Duchess of Cornwall, to New York, Bangkok and South Africa, we saw a determined and passionate leader in Ronni spreading the message and doing something about the global problem of food waste.

In the Q&A after the premiere, Ronni said she thought the movie was going to be about food waste, not her, but the fight on waste is now inextricably linked to her name and presence.

Passion & Purpose

It’s extremely interesting to understand what passion and determination it takes to build an organisation that is 100% focused on its purpose. It is easy to look at OzHarvest and say ‘well it’s easy for them, they get so much coverage and have so many celebrities on board’, but the saying that ‘it takes years to become an overnight success’ is so perfect here with Kahn having kicked off OzHarvest in 2004 with only one van.

Success for her comes from the relentless belief and action directed towards her purpose. As not for profit Chairs, presidents and board members, what lessons can we derive from this story?

It wasn’t evident from the movie how hard it was for her board to keep on top of her many exploits and huge dreams, but I would imagine there would be a few head in hand moments as they all try and stay on top of the organisation, ensuring oversight but not stifling creativity and passion.

Succession Planning

A board that has a strong leader in their CEO, who is switched on to the cause, can be in an enviable position of utilising their time, expertise and networks in more macro pursuits such as strategy and building patronage. Looking from the outside this is certainly ideal, but the board will have other challenges around succession planning and ensuring the long-term sustainability of the organisation beyond the tenure of the charismatic founder.

I am sure this is one item that is firmly on the boards radar.

Managing Income

As a non profit organisation grows, so too does the need for cash flow to keep it going. Of course, the more funds you can generate the more good you can do, but like many non profits I am sure they are constantly looking at ways to diversify income and ensure all their eggs are not in the one basket. In this ever-fickle social media filled world, staying ‘sexy’ and relevant is a major task for any non profit, even one as successful as OzHarvest.

Growth can be a slippery slope

The other notable thing to come out of the movie was the ambitious growth plans set down to take the message to the world. It was wonderful to see OzHarvest gain the patronage of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall and Ronni’s personal connection to Johannesburg where she lived before coming to Australia.

As a board going from local to global is not an easy task. Deciding to expand into other countries would have come after a lot of discussion about how much to invest, how long to give it a go and where are our decision points. The other question is who the champions and leaders in these new markets will be.

Finding a replica of your current CEO or management team is not as easy as it sounds.

For any non profit, even if you are looking to replicate your model in another suburb or town, it must come with a logical and rational assessment of investing funds in expansion away from immediate core activities. Woolworths and Coles can lose a few million overseas with failed expansions but I’m not sure many non profits can afford it.

Planning is Paramount

The story of the rise of OzHarvest is extremely inspirational and sitting in the audience I certainly started to think about the work I do with other non profits across many industries and sectors.

My advice to all organisations about being successful is that they need to not only dream but to plan. Take the time to work together as a board and senior team to create a strong foundation that drives and supports your core purpose.

Keep your eye on the end game, keep thinking ahead and don’t be afraid to dream big.

Disclaimer: None of the views expressed above are derived from any current or past OzHarvest board members or staff. All opinions and commentary are from the author drawing on information in the public domain and using his experience in the sector.

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robert @ leadingforpurpose . com . au

Amplify Me Pty Ltd trading as

Leading For Purpose