What Nonprofits can learn from Panera’s CEO

This autumn I had the pleasure of listening to Panera Bread CEO Ronald Saich speak about his Panera Cares initiative. As a business in the food industry, his company gave away fresh baked goods daily. Even though he was making huge in-kind donations to food banks and shelters, he felt disconnected from really making a difference.

Because he “goes to work to learn” (me too!), he thought about how he and his 8,000 employees could make a significant difference. He wanted to utilize and leverage his company’s strengths in service of others. He also wanted to raise awareness about food insecurity in the U.S., so he researched community cafes that fed the hungry. He also worked in food pantries, and experienced them as a customer – which he described as very powerful.

He did not want to contribute to the negative energy of people looking for help, feeling powerless and ashamed. Rather, he wanted to create an uplifting environment in which people were empowered, and no one would know if you needed help or could provide help to others less fortunate. The Panera Bread Foundation was born, a charity that would run Panera Cares, stores that look and feel just like any other for-profit Panera Bread. The only difference is that people contribute anonymously into a donation box, in any amount, or none at all. The goal was to for the Panera Cares stores to be self-sustaining, rather than make a profit.




Panera Cares cafes now serve 1 million people in five different states. They are indeed self-sustaining. How did he make it work?

1) Ron had to explain it personally to people. You can’t expect people to read a manual or directions and understand a new concept.

2) He had to work with his staff and let them take ownership of the idea and its implementation/           success.

3) He had to learn how to deal with volunteers (a good lesson for every nonprofit!). Volunteers wanted to help clean the cafes, to pay back their free food.

What can we learn from his bold experiment?

1) People respond to a higher purpose. Is your mission statement lofty and understandable?

2) We need to respect individuals’ choices (to give, not give, or give partially).

3) You earn people’s trust through transparency – do you give regular community reports on your          outcomes?

4) Acknowledge that the majority of people are good and will choose to do the right thing!

Happy Thanksgiving. During this holiday season, don’t be afraid to ask people to join with your worthy mission, after being clear about how they can make a difference.