A Fork in the Yellow Brick Road to Oz

The CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County describes an approach to strategic choices that has us singing, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”

A Fork in the Yellow Brick Road to Oz
6 mins read

Is it time for your nonprofit to pivot toward a different path?

So you and your nonprofit stepped out onto the yellow brick road, hearts full for your hopeful march to achieve your mission. So why is it that the Emerald City doesn’t seem any closer now than it was a year ago, or even five?

Maybe because there is a fork in the road you are missing. Maybe you need to pivot onto a different path. Here’s how we partnered with Dorothy, Toto, and her friends to do so:

The Foodbank of Santa Barbara County has been known as an essential organization providing emergency food to 300 local nonprofits who in turn provide food to thousands of people in need.

But we’ve changed. We’re still providing emergency food, but we now see ourselves as a preventive health organization, raising the health of low-income people in the cheapest way possible: through what they eat.

Our first step in this new direction was to work to outlaw candy and soda. We’ve gone from working on a problem seen as one that could never be solved to one that tackles institutionalized malnutrition: lack of food access for healthy food and easy access to poor quality food. Here’s a “traveler’s guide to Oz” based on our experience.

A hot air balloon ride

Start by taking a hot air balloon ride to see what you are doing from a wider perspective and how it fits in with what else is being done in your area.

We did extensive stakeholder and user interviews and found that our end users had different perspectives on our services than we necessarily had. At the Foodbank, hearing from others helped us move from focusing on a simple one-way charitable distribution to messy, awkward exhausting — yet sustainable — community engagement.

This was exemplified in a program like the award-winning Healthy School Pantry, which replaces an old model of food distribution (poor kids go to a room and pick up a bag of food while everyone watches) with a mutually supportive healthcare model that engages the whole family in helping each other stay healthy with food.

So instead of just “How do we get to Oz?” try thinking “How do we get a community where… (fill this part in)?”

Going from our goals to the community’s needs

We had to go beyond what we know we’re good at doing to what our community needs us to do. And that leads to the question: What chunk of the destination goal could our organization take on and what could others do with us?

Your pivot will fail if local circumstances are not in favor. For the Foodbank it meant we would have failed without donor and client interest in healthy food for all, and without foundations making grants to support the change. Another reason to pivot may be to avoid a big bad tornado of a change in the outside world that is coming toward you.

We’re “evolving”

It may be easier to describe your pivot as an evolution as opposed to a sudden turn. It will cause less unease for all parties. And with some people you may just have to pretend nothing’s changed!

Data is a big neutral help in winning over allies. Ask yourself: what research will help move our agenda? Who can help you compile and interpret this data?

Look for key influencers

Who are the key influencers that can help you make the case for a pivot? Look for individual champions on your board, volunteers and funding community to influence others. Balance between when to ask permission in advance and when to ask for forgiveness after you’ve acted.

Internally, you’ll need influencers and champions as well. You may have to operate like an internal start-up within your larger organization. This will be a core group of believers who can steer change.

You need money

Money greases the most painfully grinding of wheels. We were able to secure partial funds to hire a dietician. Outside funding can let you take on some small initial facet of your pivot can speed internal change and demonstrate to those on the fence that your pivot can draw new forms of support.


Make peace with the fact that your pivot may require you to be a “two-faced” organization for a period of time presenting either the old or evolved mission in different ways to different people.

It will take time, education and persuasion for donors supporting your original mission to come to understand and embrace your new mission.

What is that verse from the Bible… “For what shall it non-profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his… funding?” When I am talking to donors, I know within 30 seconds whether I should be having a hunger conversation or a nutrition conversation.

Culture eats mission for breakfast

Finally, it’s not all about the outside world. Pivoting the mission is a lot easier than pivoting the culture. What is your plan for making this kind of shift internally? Identifying and empowering champions is one way. Firing or “freeing up the future” of people who cannot move on in their thinking is another uncomfortable but vital tool. The culture is going to be the last thing to change and it will take years.

“You had the power all along, my dear.” As long as you remember Glinda’s words and you will get there just fine.

About the Author

Erik Talkin is CEO of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County. His background includes film and television directing and corporate relations for a civic light opera. Around the Foodbank he can often be heard whistling, “The Merry Old Land of Oz.”

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *