That Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal Thing

by Glen

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Today is our “BHAG” day, and, if successful, it could play its own small part in helping our city of London, Ontario to claim its own future.  And if it doesn’t succeed as we had wished, it will still represent a real desire in our community to redefine itself along more equitable principles.

The term “Big Hair Audacious Goal” (BHAG) first appeared in the 1994 book, Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, written by James Collins and Jerry Porras.  Its premise was to dream big, go for the gold, in ways that would assure long-lasting profits and success.

We at the London Food Bank are attempting to turn that on its head.  Yes, we have a plan – a huge one – and, yes, we are reaching for success, only it’s not for our own future but that of our community. It is the BHAG of taking a publicly supported agency and transcending it for a community win.

The London Food Bank started 28 years ago as a temporary solution to what was believed to be a short-term social situation.  A recession had crippled communities and various governments and companies pulled back from previous commitments, leaving those communities with more hungry people than agencies were able to feed.  London’s food bank was born during those difficult and challenging years, and from the beginning local citizens and companies rallied to the cause and supported highly successful food drives.  

Back then we were helping about 600 families per month, and the belief was that once the recession ended the larger players would reinvest back into their communities.  Except it didn’t happen and growing hunger and poverty became permanent parts of the Canadian landscape, even during our most wealthy years as a nation.  Our food bank numbers grew until they reached their present 3600 families per month.

It’s a repeated phrase in our town that, “It’s too bad we have to have food banks.”  Except we see it as more than just a mere observation; it’s a wish in our community.  Starting today we are going to make it a goal.

You’ll hear lots in the next while about the London Food Bank closing its doors on the poor or how we just made some kind of arbitrary decision.  Neither are true.  We have decided to work with community groups and the City of London to spend the next six months researching the possibility of providing cheaper food in our various neighbourhoods that will be available year-round and will guard against the indignity of a family coming to the food bank for assistance.  It’s been a desire in our city for years, where numerous agencies have expressed a desire for that goal and our own city council recently passed a food charter to open the door to that possibility.  Steps are underway to establish a Food Policy Council in London and one of its key goals is to provide cheaper quality foodstuffs in all parts of our city.  That’s not new; numerous cities have passed and enacted such plans across North America and around the world.

So why not London?  Yes, we’ve been hit hard and, yes, our lingering unemployment numbers have been dispiriting.  But all these initiatives mentioned above have occurred during those difficult times. Citizens and groups have come together to fight for a future that is their own and not someone else’s ill-fitting design.  The board of the London Food Bank wants to be part of that community innovation.

So, we will spend six months undertaking research with our community partners to see if there is a more equitable way we might help those living in poverty by helping them acquire cheaper food on an ongoing basis – something they can purchase themselves and discover personal empowerment in the process.  If that research turns up some clear possibilities, we will seek to enact that model over the next three years to transition those families back into their neighbourhoods in which they live.  If nothing turns up, then we will continue functioning as we do now.

But the other side of our operation, where we warehouse food that the public and companies will continue to donate and that we give out to over 25 other agencies in the city will continue as usual.  In other words, the warehousing portion will remain, but those families coming directly to the food bank for assistance will now be able to afford it in their own neighbourhoods.  That way the public can stay involved, helping all those other emergency agencies through the London Food Bank.  No family will need to go without because the food bank will continue to help those agencies that provide such needed services.

Look, this isn’t an easy thing for us, and we know we’ll be criticized.  But this is about our belief in this city and its good citizens, and their ability to take care of their own in a more equitable and just fashion.  London doesn’t have to do what everyone else does.  We can innovate our way into a new future.  We concur wholeheartedly with the conclusion of Collins and Porras in their book:

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit.  It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”

The food bank’s goal can serve as a rallying call, a “focal point of effort,” for our robust community spirit, where our “finish line” ends in the dignity of the human family.  It will call our citizens, companies, and governments to a higher level, where we no longer have to say to one another, “It’s too bad we still have food banks.”  It’s the world we want; let’s just create it.