Connect with us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Join our LinkedIn Group Subscribe to us on YouTube Share with us on Google+ Subscribe to our RSS feed

July 02, 2010

Industry with Heart

Paying It Forward: Tastefully Simple gives with gratitude

by Rosie Blankenship

giving with gratitudeEven before she founded Tastefully Simple Inc. in 1995, Jill Blashack Strahan, now CEO of the company, was already practicing “giving with gratitude.” Her simple philosophy to recognize the abundance in her own life, and in gratitude to give back to others, became the foundation on which she built Tastefully Simple.

Since its beginning, the company has given more than $5 million to worthwhile causes and organizations. But Blashack Strahan doesn’t do it for the glory or positive public relations. (In fact, for the first five years, all of the giving by the company was done anonymously.) She does it out of gratitude.

Jill Blashack Strahan“At Tastefully Simple, we have a strong belief in pulling others up as we climb, and we believe that creating giving opportunities for our consultants and headquarters team will result in a team spirit of generosity,” Blashack Strahan says. “It really is a theory of attraction, not promotion. Our goal is simply to inspire others, including our own team members and consultants, to pay it forward… to reach out within their own communities.”

Latresse SneadLaTresse Snead, Community Relations Team Lead, doesn’t believe the company does charity work for any reason other than that. “It’s not a marketing activity,” she says. “It’s just the right thing to do.”

Tastefully Simple has more than 28,000 independent consultants nationwide with more than 350 employees at its headquarters in Alexandria, Minn. They offer more than 60 easy-to-prepare products, from soups and sauces to desserts and beverages. The company earned $128 million in sales in 2009.

Abundance in Everything

Jill has suffered many personal hardships, which she talks about in her book, Simply Shine, Stories That Stirred the Fire. Yet, despite her challenges, Blashack Strahan exudes a positive spirit. This spirit comes from what she calls the Law of Abundancy. She uses the word abundancy deliberately, saying it’s “abundance in action.” She says it means there is always more than enough to go around, which means we can afford to be generous.

“Abundancy thinking takes more effort because it’s not something we often observe,” she says. “You’ve heard it before: You can choose to see the glass half-empty or you can choose to see it half-full. I’ve learned: Find a bigger glass.”

Her philosophy of giving, as well as living with positivity and gratitude, is built into all aspects of her company—from how she trains her consultants through how her teams operate at company headquarters.

“At Tastefully Simple, we have three principles—the Law of Abundancy, the Law of Magic and the Law of  Realness. The Law of Abundancy is about win-win attitudes and believing there’s enough to go around for everyone. The Law of Magic is about creating positive energy through celebration and excellence. And the Law of Realness is about building trust through humbleness,” she says. “These principles are more than sayings on a wall; they are truly the heart and soul of our company. Every day, we train to them and we live them with our consultants.”

Blashack Strahan’s positivity and desire to help others reap the benefits has led to Tastefully Simple creating and sponsoring the Impact Alexandria annual event. The event draws world-renowned motivational speakers to the small central Minnesota community. Featured guests have included Zig Ziglar, Jack Canfield, Stephen R. Covey and other authors and speakers. The event’s mission is simple: to motivate, unify and inspire the community to positively impact people’s lives.

Fighting Childhood Hunger… with Cookies?

In much the same way that Tastefully Simple’s business goal is to nourish people through quality foods that are easy to prepare, their charity goals are about nourishing communities.

This is another goal Blashack Strahan developed as she grew her company.

“During Tastefully Simple’s early days, we sat down and decided what we did—and did not—want to be known for as a company. We established a list of our core values, including nurturing the community in which we live,” Blashack Strahan says.

To this end, Snead explains that the company focuses on three main areas: strengthening families, empowerment of women and entrepreneurship.

For 10 years, the company searched for a corporate partnership where they could work to raise money for an organization that fit well with Tastefully Simple’s own goals. Snead describes reviewing more than 40 organizations in search of that partnership. Finally, the “perfect” partnership fell into place with Share Our Strength, an organization with the very specific goal of ending childhood hunger in the United States by 2015.

“They are committed to ending childhood hunger in America. It’s just going beyond what you would typically expect,” Snead says.

“We have a very distinctive attitude, passion and sincerity in our company to make a good product and to provide a good product. The people at Share Our Strength have the same passion to end childhood hunger in America. We don’t think we have this problem in America, but over 17 million kids are at risk of going hungry in our country right now.”

The partnership resulted in Tastefully Simple creating a cookie mix called “For the Love of Cookies.” The company donates $1 from the sale of each box to Share Our Strength. Since March 2009, the company has donated more than $284,000.

“When a child goes to school hungry because their parents have been unable to provide for them, that affects their ability to concentrate and do well in school. In turn, that affects their confidence,” Snead says. “How can you blame a child for going hungry? There is just no way you can.”

During regional meetings held for Tastefully Simple consultants at 16 locations across the country, the company also organized protein drives through their partnership with Share Our Strength.

“Each child needs 5 ounces of protein a day for proper nutrition,” Snead explains. “We challenged each consultant to give 25 ounces per person in each city.”

The Giving with Gratitude Protein Drive held in 2009 exceeded the company’s goal of collecting 100,000 ounces of protein and instead gathered 106,300 ounces, which translates to enough protein for 21,260 meals.

These protein items were donated to local food banks in the 16 cities where the training days were held. From Boston to Anaheim, from Seattle to Tampa Bay, and points between, the teams donated canned meats, canned fish, peanut butter, nuts, beans and lentils.

In addition to the “For the Love of Cookies” mix donations and the drives organized for Share Our Strength, the company also feeds others by donating discontinued products to organizations who work with those in need, as well as to U.S. troops serving overseas.

Tastefully Simple engages in another national partnership with the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. Snead says that, in a survey designed to gauge the interest level of consultants participating in different causes, the group had a passion for cancer-related causes. “A lot of times, they have a loved one they have lost to cancer or are battling cancer themselves,” she says.

Because the American Cancer Society addresses all types of cancers, Tastefully Simple chose to engage in fundraising opportunities for that organization. Relay for Life is the American Cancer Society’s signature event, with more than 4,000 event locations across the country. Events begin at 6 p.m. and end at 6 a.m. “because cancer never sleeps,” Snead says.

In 2009, consultants and other team members organized 209 teams across the country and donated a total of $291,000 through Relay for Life. This year, Tastefully Simple will also participate in Relay for Life as a national corporate team.

Nourishing Communities Through Giving

The company encourages their consultants to “give with gratitude” within their local communities. By the same token, while this national corporation has giving commitments to national organizations, Tastefully Simple also focuses a lot of charitable attention on its home community of Alexandria, Minn.

Blashack Strahan, who grew up in a small community near Alexandria called Villard, has many hometown causes important to her, including environmental concerns.

“One of the other causes near and dear to my heart is preserving our woods and wetlands. In 2002, we purchased 100 acres near Tastefully Simple, including a lake we renamed ‘Lake Bountiful,’ to preserve it from future development,” she says. “Our team members are welcome to use the property with their families for hiking, canoeing and more.

“We’ve also embarked on awareness campaigns regarding everything from littering to water pollution, and we even have our own ‘Green Team’ at our headquarters who are always looking for new ways for our company to reduce waste, recycle, reuse resources and rethink our processes.”

Tastefully Simple seems to give to their local community in a very involved way—it’s obvious from the way their team members talk about the organization that it’s about far more than just writing checks. Snead explains that she and others at Tastefully Simple are on community task forces and boards and have worked with local nonprofits on everything from developing leadership to creating marketing materials.

Mary MischeTastefully Simple has a unique way to support nonprofits in the local community through their paid volunteer, Mary Mische. Mische is a full-time paid employee of Tastefully Simple whose job is to serve as a volunteer with local nonprofits. She spends one day a week at three different nonprofits for a year and one day a week back at headquarters developing volunteer opportunities for other team members.

“I admit, it’s a little unorthodox,” Blashack Strahan says, explaining how the company came to the idea of having a paid community volunteer on staff. “When brainstorming more ways to give back to our community, we came up with the idea to establish a full-time volunteer—a paid team member to help nonprofit organizations that can’t afford to hire someone for their staff.”

During the last seven years, Mische has worked for 26 nonprofits (with some repeat performances). She just finished a yearlong stint at the new YMCA, which didn’t yet have enough office staff, so Mische helped with processing donations and related work. She also is helping the Douglas County Historical Society create a digital archive of community buildings. “I’ve taken 1,000 photos and have barely scratched the surface,” she says. She works in the local United Way office and just started a year in the Minnesota Lakes Maritime Museum, building a digital archive of their artifacts.

“As we all know, nonprofits don’t always have large staffs, so I do the projects that they don’t have time to do,” Mische says.

And what does the community think? “To put it simply, the response has been phenomenal,” Blashack Strahan says. “She’s inspiring people and making a difference wherever she goes.”

A project that was important to both Mische and Blashack Strahan was the creation of a 10-year plan for a garden project at a local nursing home called Knute Nelson. The project was designed not only to beautify the grounds, but to encourage residents to enjoy nature and participate in gardening. “When you enter a nursing home, you give up everything you care for and become cared for,” Mische says. “It gives their clients a reason to get up in the morning and care for something else.”

Mische’s job during her volunteer stint was to get the garden project mapped out and off the ground. She helped finish the first of the five gardens, which was set up for Alzheimer’s patients.

“My mother suffered from dementia, and all she ever wanted to do was go outside. So I had a special place in my heart for these people,” she says. Tastefully Simple donated money for the project, as well as Mische’s time.

Blashack Strahan also had ties to the nursing home through her father, who was a resident for a short time.

“When he was dying after a courageous battle with cancer, I developed a deep respect for the team at Knute Nelson. They were compassionate, attentive and engaged. So I’ve been honored to contribute to special projects like the gardens. Not only does the team at Knute Nelson offer wonderful care and opportunities for older adults, they create even more reasons to be proud of our community,” she says.

Giving from the Inside

While the company has a corporate giving commitment, Tastefully Simple encourages employees (“team members”) also to adopt the spirit of giving with gratitude.

Each team member is given eight hours a year of paid time to volunteer with local organizations. Mary helps the staff figure out where they want to spend their time with the annual volunteer fair. This weeklong fair is held at headquarters in April each year to coincide with National Volunteer Week. More than 35 nonprofits are represented.

The different teams within the company are also encouraged to hold their own fundraisers or team volunteer events. For example, Snead says the technology team recently held a pancake breakfast and donated the money raised to the local Habitat for Humanity. And companywide, the 350 staff members last year raised more than $50,000 for the local United Way campaign.

An interest in inspiring children also shows among employees. Kids in the Community is a program to spark an interest among children to volunteer.

“Four times a year, we invite our team members to bring their own children or children they sponsor to volunteer for a local organization,” Snead says. The kids and team members partner on projects together, like building steppingstones for the gardens at the Knute Nelson nursing home.

“Every year, the kids do a garage sale and donate their profits to an organization. Last year, they raised over $800 and donated it to the YMCA,” she says.

Tastefully Simple is proud to participate in Minnesota’s Adopt a Highway program. Every spring and fall, team members volunteer to clean up litter along three miles of highway near the company’s headquarters.

Tastefully Simple is proud to participate in Minnesota’s Adopt a Highway program. Every spring and fall, team members volunteer to clean up litter along three miles of highway near the company’s headquarters.

Giving in 28,000 Ways

Tastefully Simple has built the culture of giving with gratitude into training for its 28,000 consultants. Blashack Strahan specifically encourages consultants to give in their local communities.

“You know the old saying: ‘Give a man a fish, and you have fed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you have fed him for a lifetime.’ I think giving works the same way. It’s about more than making a single donation. It’s about inspiring people to open their hearts, creating an amazing chain reaction and working together to make the world a better place,” she says. “We all have the power to make a difference today, right in our own hometowns.”

While the partnerships with Share Our Strength and the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life are made at the corporate level, the consultants are, of course, behind the sales of the For the Love of Cookies mix and the development of the more than 200 teams participating in Relay for Life.

During the annual consultants meeting in 2009, the company  organized a day of service. More than 100 consultants arrived a day early to the meeting, which was held in Minneapolis. They divided into five teams to give a day of service to five hunger-related organizations across the city.

Consultants hold fundraisers for many organizations in their hometowns, and often will donate proceeds from Tastefully  Simple product sales to favorite charities. The company established the Abundancy Award to honor consultants who make a positive impact on their communities. The 2009 Abundancy Award earner was Michelle Tait of North Dakota, who raises money each year for Toys for Tots, an organization that provides Christmas presents for children in need.

With so many working toward giving with gratitude across the country, it’s easy to see how Blashack Strahan and all of the team members at Tastefully Simple stay motivated.

“Not only do our consultants and headquarters team embrace the idea of giving with gratitude, they inspire us to do more and do it better—every day,” Blashack Strahan says.