Stone Soup: New Perspectives on Existing Resources

By Amanda Huminski

There’s an old fable about a small village that fell upon hard times. The harvest season wasn’t as fruitful as the villagers had hoped and the days were getting shorter and darker. Where once the villagers had shared in feasts and festivals, each family was now protective of their meager food stores as they prepared for the winter ahead. Two strangers passed through town one day, hoping for a bite to eat. At each door they knocked on, they were told that there wasn’t anything to share, that the town had nothing. The travelers sat in the town square, dismayed. It was then that one of the travelers saw a large stone on the ground – nothing special, just a cold, grey rock – and they were struck with an idea.

Brushing off the stone, the travelers hurried to one of the first doors they knocked on. “I told you,” the woman who answered the door said, “I’m sorry, but we don’t have anything to share.” The travelers assured her they weren’t looking for food, they just wanted to borrow a large pot. “But you don’t have anything to cook,” she said. And they showed her the stone. “This is a magic stone,” said the travelers, “we just boil it for a few hours, and it makes the most delicious soup.” The woman was incredulous, of course, but curious. She found a pot to lend the travelers, and watched as they carried it away. “You and your family are welcome to join us when the soup is finished,” they said, “but you know, if you could also add just a few carrots to the pot, it would make the soup even better.” The woman, intrigued by the travelers and their magic stone, handed over a small basket of carrots.

And so the travelers visited every home in the village, inviting the hungry townspeople to their stone soup feast – along the way, gathering a few onions from one family, some potatoes from another. They built a fire in the town square, and added the stone to the bottom of the pot, followed by the vegetables, beans, and herbs they’d gathered from the townspeople.  In just a few hours, the stone had worked its magic, and the pot was filled with a hearty soup that the townspeople enjoyed together.

I was reminded of this story while working on a client project last year. Partnership with Children (PwC) is a New York based nonprofit delivering in-school social work services to low-income youth and families. They had recently expanded to 30+ sites and as the organization grew, there was a worry that service delivery may become inconsistent across sites. In our very first conversations with staff, both at the home office and from sites across the five boroughs of New York, most informed us that the absence of organization-wide policies had contributed the lack of alignment. This made it difficult to train staff, who might be placed at different sites year after year, difficult for managers to oversee the work of multiple sites that functioned differently, and difficult for the organization to consistently track impact data.

Over the course of a few months, we held numerous conversations with a group of staff representing multiple sites. What we found was not that PwC lacked processes altogether, but that processes manifested differently in different contexts. Where one site had excellent client intake processes, another perhaps lacked structure around intake, but had great oversight of goal-setting and follow-up. It wasn’t that the organization as a whole lacked processes, but that each site was so concerned with the urgency of their particular caseload that the implementation of processes (and improvisations on those policies) varied greatly across sites.

By bringing the right people in the room, and facilitating a conversation about what was working at what sites, and what needed improvement at others, we helped the organization standardize their processes and provide greater consistency in service delivery. As consultants, like the travelers in the story, we had no silver bullet, no magic stone, but with a bit of facilitation and conversation, we assisted in bringing together the resources already present in the organization for the greater benefit of everyone involved. As one employee from PwC described the process, “rather than simply pulling something off the shelf that was put together by others, PwC was able to tailor its program by leveraging existing strengths, by learning, questioning, and understanding why certain things were not working, and to develop our own program model based on best practices and evidence-based models.”

When organizations have disparate sites or programs that exist in silos, it’s often not a matter of creating solutions from the ground up, but providing a perspective that allows the organization to see how the resources they already possess can come together to form something better.