An Interview with Richard McCarthy, Executive Director of Slow Food USA
Slow Food is a grassroots organization founded by Carlo Petrini in Italy in 1986 and has since spread to over 150 countries. Offering an alternative to fast food, it strives to preserve traditional and regional cuisine and encourages farming characteristic of the local ecosystem.
In recent years, Slow Food USA faced an enviable but daunting challenge. The organization’s priorities, once radical, had become increasingly mainstream. How could Slow Food USA continue to be vital and relevant? Additionally, Slow Food had historically been supported by a large grass-roots membership. But the attraction of membership was waning in the United States among members of all types of membership organizations. How could the organization adapt its revenue model in response?
Recently we spoke with Richard McCarthy, Slow Food USA’s Executive Director, about how the organization navigated these challenge to find a new path forward that focused on convening and inspiring their audiences.
Wellspring: How would you characterize the challenges that Slow Food USA Faced?
Richard McCarthy: “The context for Slow Food USA was what happens when you start to succeed. The ideas that Slow Food pioneered and our unique belief system have evolved into a complex ecosystem of competing organizations in part because of our success. Our ideas are no longer marginal and crazy. They are now main-stream. We are a brand, and a body of ideas. By recognizing that, we clarified that our role should be a nexus, not a club.”
Wellspring: Slow Food USA had historically been a membership-based organization. How would you describe the challenges Slow Food faced with its membership model?
Richard McCarthy: “With changes in technology and social media, individuals’ expectations of how they interact with groups have changed. Mobilizing civil society in America has become a real challenge because people have too little unstructured time left. We work too hard and travel too much. There isn’t enough economic security and time, so an old-school member organization based on strong social ties is really difficult to enact in the US. Now, people tend to move into and out of organizations, to touch them and occasionally engage. Getting people to make a deep commitment to strong social ties is asking a lot.”
Wellspring: You looked at other organizations’ models during strategic planning with us. What stood out as most useful or interesting?
Richard McCarthy: “The real a-ha moments for us were learning about Alcoholics Anonymous and Burning Man. Alcoholics Anonymous is an extraordinary organization—it’s global, very flat, and based on a set of values that are replicated all over the world with little assistance from a central body. We realized that’s how Slow Food functions—we’ve never had a centralized and fully capitalized mother ship. That gave us insight into considering the nature of our organization, which has strong values and loose structure. Regarding Burning Man, people don’t engage with their events for rational economic reasons— Burning Man’s crazy idea is a visible, tactile, authentic experience. Their example helped us to realize what people look for in Slow Food— a tactile, meaningful experiences where details matter. This pointed to the core of what our future could be.”
Wellspring: What was one of the most exciting moments during the strategic planning work?
Richard McCarthy: “Fairly early on in the process, we came out with an understanding that we inspire people. While measuring inspiration is not easy, it landed in our laps that, ‘oh my god, this is what we do.’ When people described why they came into our organization, inspiration always came up. That is different than most people’s interaction with social change—it’s often from fear or anger. Inspiration is not that typical. Realizing that we did this well was quite exciting. We found a strength that we had not valued previously and identified a path that was within our reach and allowed us to harness that strength.”
Wellspring: You decided to pursue a model of convening people and organizations nationally. Why?
Richard McCarthy: “Convening a vast array of other organizations and people relieves us from having to be active in every space. For instance, if one group is good on food and labor issues, we can rely on them as partners without having to have an answer for everything in that space. We can support others, and maybe even lead from behind. The business model for civil society is really vulnerable. It would be so much easier to let big organizations do their thing because their scale would help them perpetuate. But at the other end of the spectrum, there can be a balkanized society of organizations. You want a biodiversity of organizations, but not so much internal competition that we end up cannibalizing each other.”
Wellspring: What advice would you have for leaders facing similar challenges?
Richard McCarthy: “One of the under-recognized and underutilized fuels for organizations is passion. Passion is the glue that often keeps organizations going during difficult times. If there isn’t much passion, then no strategic plan can facilitate a shift. So in some ways, passion matters more than the soundness of the business model.”
Wellspring: What thoughts or advice do you have for organizations focused on issues like food, in these times where there are a number of politically charged issues taking precedence in the media and national conversation?
Richard McCarthy: At moments like this, where the conversation is not about excitement that a new garden is going in at the While House but rather building a wall around our country that keeps out people who grow, harvest, and serve food, it is easy to be distracted and feel like we have to join someone else’s conversation. I think it requires extraordinary discipline to ignore that white noise. In such times, it is important to revisit the mission to see if it is still relevant and still makes sense— and that the right outcomes are being measured. If things are not aligned, an organization can go astray.”
Wellspring: What would you want others to know about strategic planning and pursuing new paths forward?
Richard McCarthy: “It was an extraordinary process. It ate up a lot of time, but at moments it was fascinating. What was most difficult was maintaining a public face during the process— we were still open for business, but were questioning why we exist. Also, it took our historic network of members and chapters a long time to adjust because they weren’t living the strategic planning process every day. Making a culture shift and building the staff and skills for a new organization is a lot of heavy lifting.”