December 3, 2017; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service
When the strategic vision guiding an organization’s operations is driven by a founder, what happens when that founder steps back? This seems to be the story now being written by Milwaukee’s Growing Power, a nationally recognized urban farming organization that finds itself fighting for its life in the wake of its founder’s retirement.
From its founding in 1995, Growing Power was a pioneering force, bringing to life what has become a booming urban farming sector. The organization was energized with a vision to inspire “communities to build sustainable food systems that are equitable and ecologically sound, creating a just world, one food-secure community at a time.” Over two decades, the organization grew locally and nationally. Their Wisconsin farms produced more than 1 million pounds of food annually, and their restaurant was a mainstay for Milwaukee’s inner-city community. With funding support from the Kellogg Foundation, Growing Power expanded nationally to “develop and grow operations…that will produce fresh, locally-grown food, train new farmers, and provide healthy produce for children and families in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.”
But when Growing Power’s 68-year-old founder and CEO Will Allen announced he was stepping down, what remained to sustain the organization through such a major shift was, at least at the moment, too frail. A look at its tax filings by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that “from 2012 through 2015 [it was] running deficits…some years in excess of $2 million” and owed its creditors almost a half-million dollars.
Not all of this, of course, can be laid at the founder’s feet. The board and staff are responsible for making sure the organization has enough distributed intelligence, social capital, and awareness to carry on—if the mission is relevant, of course, which it certainly appears to be in this case. This is shared leadership, and organizations that do not nurture it place their future and that of their collective vision at risk. But we also know that this is easier said than done; shared leadership often relies on the founder being willing and able to accept challenges to what he or she has built so it may be carried forth by others.
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When he announced his decision to retire, Allen told the Journal Sentinel that “we haven’t decided what’s going to happen next.” Shortly after that, the immediate pressures forced Growing Power to cease operations as they searched for a way to reorganize that can allow them to continue to fulfill their important work. “Operations at Growing Power halted last week because of the reorganization. It is not delivering produce to customers, its Milwaukee cafe on N. King Drive was closed [November 20th] and its main telephone lines are disconnected.” Allen said a plan, led by Growing Power’s board of directors, would be forthcoming; key to that plan may be an alliance with the recently launched Green Veterans Wisconsin.
The impact of Growing Power’s troubles has been felt outside the organization. As the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service noted, “Several people lamented that Milwaukee will lose a face that brought positive attention to the city. But at the same time, they expressed confidence that the urban farming movement in Milwaukee would continue. Allen’s legacy of urban farming will continue in the city.”
And that is a very good sign indeed, implying that Growing Power’s legacy is powerful, and its future may see it again blossom. Still, the troubles in which it’s now enmeshed offer some powerful lessons from which other nonprofit leaders ought to learn. The operational difficulties that Growing Power faced, challenges that resulted in significant red ink, might have been outside their control and difficult to predict. But managing such stuff while still keeping vision and mission central is how we make our organizations sustainably vibrant and relevant.
The link between that kind of sustainability and growing power within the organization will soon be the subject of materials to be published in NPQ’s print journal.—Martin Levine