CCG_logo_2015The group that gathers around Idaho nonprofit Create Common Good’s enormous family-style lunch table hails from every corner of the world: Pakistan, Kenya, Burma, the United States. Some are old, some young; some fled wars, others abuse; some speak Swahili, others Cantonese. But each of them shares one thing: The strength and will to learn.

Create Common Good (CCG) isn’t about helping people, but to help them help themselves. It’s culinary education programs provide international refugees and other displaced people the tools they need to build a new life in a strange land, with courses in cooking, serving, food prep, English language and other valuable skills of American culture. It then helps its students find employers in the food industry, although CCG often hires its own alumni to help operate a self-sufficient business that supplies pastries, soups, salads, salsas, granola bars and dozens of other delectables to restaurants, cafeteria and retailers around Idaho and the rest of the country.

Kelly Parker had a history in the banking industry when she joined CCG as Director of Community Development and Sales, and she knows that even in food service training, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. She said when the organization launched in 2008, right at the start of the recession; the newcomers didn’t need a handout to survive, but a trade. “Boise had hundreds of refugees coming in per year, and our economy wasn’t creating more jobs,” Parker said. “Whether it involved agriculture or cooking or serving, they just wanted to learn how they could use their existing skills to work in this country.”

At first, that model included catering, delivery, and even a small farm. Although CCG has refined these enterprises and narrowed its focus to food prep and products, it has expanded its clientele to include victims of homelessness, addiction and domestic abuse, and is continually innovating in terms of products and fundraising efforts. Parker calls this strategy “pivoting:” “Basically it means trying something and saying, ‘that worked, let’s keep it,’ or, ‘that didn’t work, let’s turn to something else.’”

In fact, some of the best ideas come from the students themselves, who not only came from every part of the world, but also brought something with them. Thus, CCG always works to find new and effective ways to build the community even as it trains its students.

Finding the perfect recipe

The nonprofit wasn’t doing poorly when it decided to engage with Valens Point on building a marketing and sales strategy. On the contrary: It had just moved into a large new kitchen facility and had more students, products, and events than ever. But the growth also meant internal organization, an improved fundraising structure, and constant marketing. With so many new ideas and possibilities, it was becoming more difficult (to put it in culinary terms) to see the salad for the leaves. “Everybody always had great ideas, but since we didn’t have a strong plan, we weren’t sure what we should focus on,” said Parker.

Valens Point consultant David Smith didn’t know much about food prep or production, but he did have recipes for sound business. Just as CCG does with its students, he began to teach the organization how to make the most of the passion and skill it already had.

Smith’s recipe called for three ingredients: clarity on what needed to be done, confidence in their ability to execute it, and finally the control to achieve the most with the resourses available.

The first step was simply getting everyone on the same page. “Whether they’re in the office or the kitchen, they need to be able to communicate our purpose clearly,” Parker explained. “We started with small steps to form a plan. These were meetings and assignments, which we called ‘tangible action items,’ which eventually became a set of documents that make the plan clear to everyone.”

Creating a plan wasn’t about finding new genius ideas (CCG already had plenty of those), but discovering how each existing idea fit into the nonprofit’s needs and means. Working with Valens Point the team put the priorities in order and could confidently determine which goals to pursue. A website overhaul, for example, went to the front of the line, while an idea for a fun-but-expensive new granola bar was put in the freezer. “Since we have things mapped out, when someone comes up with an idea I can say, ‘Yes, I support that,’ or, ‘Sorry, that sounds great but we don’t have the bandwidth.’”

For CCG founder and CEO Tara Russell, the change was clear. “David’s thoughtful guidance played a critical role in building a plan the team could embrace,” she said. “We have noticed enhanced confidence in Kelly and the whole team when it comes to communicating and delivering value to our customers.”

Once the vision and plan were in place, the team began to take control. Parker said the focus was moving from an internal to an external focus, shifting its momentum from internal organization to marketing its vision to customers and partners. Smith stressed the Duct Tape Marketing Hourglass™ model that calls for careful attention to every phase phase in → phase of the relationship, from introducing products and services to a potential customer to eventually solidifying an ongoing partnership in respect and trust. The Marketing Hourglass allowed us to view the relationship we had with our customers as more than just “marketing”. We now can visualize the “Know, Like, and Trust” but also how every interaction with our partners is directly related to repeating our relationship and having a great referral.

The Will to Learn

Lunchtime at CCG isn’t just a break in the middle of the day; it’s a time to share stories and experiences and grow together as a team. In a way, Create Common Good continually works to find its place in the community along with the people it helps, a process of growth and discovery that will continue one bite at a time.

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