Some great ventures start with a grand plan. For Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, the founder and CEO of Mary’s Meals, the global hunger charity that provides a daily meal with access to education for over 1.6 million of the world’s most impoverished children, the job found him instead of him planning to start a business. It began with a simple idea over a beer with his brother in the Scottish highlands.
Recently a guest on my podcast, Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, shared his experience founding Scottish International Relief, which empowers communities to volunteer their own time to cook and grow food, a model now replicated across 19 countries. We also talked about his second book, Give: Charity and the Art of Living Generously.
Beyond feeding hungry children, Mary’s Meals attracts kids to the classroom where they can gain a basic education that provides an escape route from poverty. In 2020, CNN named Magnus a hero for his role. Time Magazine featured him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world in April 2015.
Magnus’s first book, The Shed That Fed a Million Children, is a New York Times and Sunday Times bestseller.
Over a Pint Saturday Night
In 1992, Magnus was a salmon farmer in his homeland of Scotland. On the way out to the pub one Saturday night, he and his brother caught a news story on the war in Bosnia. It was the height of that conflict, and they were struck by images of the refugees’ suffering.
Bosnia had special meaning for Magnus and his brother. As teenagers, they had traveled together to a small Bosnian village where the Virgin Mary was reputed to appear. The trip was memorable and transformed both of them. Memories of that time brought the Bosnian refugees close to their hearts.
Over pints, they talked about taking supplies to the refugees. Magnus asked his father if he could use his shed for the supplies. A week later, Magnus found himself in a Land Rover packed with food and clothing on his way to Bosnia.
“I had no idea at all that was going to be a life-changing thing. I only took one week off work to make that first delivery, and I expected to go back to work at the salmon farm as normal. It’s interesting to look back and try and make sense of it. In a way, I am grateful I did not have an awareness of what could happen. I think it would’ve frightened me, if I’m honest. I was a very shy person at that stage. I would never have dreamt I would be doing work like this,” shared Magnus.
When Magnus came back from that first trip, the shed was full again with a mountain of food and clothing. That’s the moment he decided to quit his job at the salmon farm, for a time at least. Someone else donated a truck he could use for the deliveries. It felt like an adventure, something he was meant to do.
The World Shows up
What I enjoy about Magnus’ story is when he had that inspiration with his brother over a pint, he had no idea it would grow to feed 1.6 million children a day. Many people let their doubts shut them down from taking that first step.
Magnus’ book Give highlights how it is vital that we step out to do something to help someone else. Even if it is minimal, even if we feel unqualified, just by stepping out to do what we can, we never know what will happen or how we will be enriched by it. Even if it’s just that one small act, that can be good, too, but things tend to happen when people step out of their comfort zone.
When you do the thing you’re supposed to be doing, the world shows up.
Before he wrote the book, Magnus was thinking about how any authentic act of charity involves some level of risk. You could run out of money or look stupid because someone misuses the gift. However, if it is the right thing to do at the time, then you answer the call when it comes.
Driving trucks back and forth between Scotland and Bosnia, Magnus realized he didn’t know how to do a lot of what he needed to, including driving big trucks. It was a steep learning curve.
He met his wife, who was a nurse working in Bosnia. She joined his cause, and was a better truck driver!
Spending time with people in the camps, he realized a danger in becoming a professional aid worker is you can think of yourself as the giver and the other person is a passive receiver. You can mistake a temporary situation as a sign you’re superior.
He quickly learned that many refugees were better educated than he was, and many had rich life experiences. Yet, in that moment, they happened to need some help. Magnus asked himself, how do we do this work so it respects the person we are serving?
Today, more than others, we all know the suffering of others is not only far away, as we’re now dealing with the strange times of COVID-19. The new needs in our communities bring that home.
We aren’t just a giver in life; sometimes, we need help as well. None of us are independent and self-sufficient. We are all in this together.
A Child’s Ambition
By 2002, Scottish International Relief had been active for 10 years. The project that Magnus and his brother started in Bosnia continued as they were invited to other countries. For example, they helped find homes for children with AIDS in Romania and did primary health care projects in Liberia.
Malawi in east Africa, was experiencing a terrible famine in 2002. Scottish International Relief was involved in a straightforward emergency feeding program to take food into certain villages.
There, they met a family of six children in a small mud-brick house. The father had died not long before, and the mother was dying as well with six children sitting around her. Edward, the oldest boy was about 14 years old. Magnus asked him, “Ed, what is your hope, your ambition?”
Edward’s answer was to have enough food to eat and to go to school one day.
Magnus had met lots of kids like that before who were hungry, working, begging, and missing out on their education. He’d thought about it before. However, when Edward said that, Magnus thought about that link between hunger and missing education.
It was only a few months after that they served the first Mary’s Meals in Malawi, drawing on what they’d learned from the 10 years prior.
The basic model of Mary’s Meals grew out of what the team had learned before.
They started focusing on two critical things.
- It had to be owned by the local community. Mary’s Meals only moves forward in communities where people are willing to volunteer.
- Help the local farmers by purchasing local food as much as possible.
When they are invited to a new location, Mary’s Meals first establishes with the community that they must be willing to take responsibility for the program. Mary’s Meals helps where needed. They can buy the food, transport it, and help the community build a kitchen and storeroom. However, the community does most of that.
Mary’s Meals monitors the program and makes sure the food is being used as it’s intended. They train people in health, hygiene, and safety. They also collect data on school attendance, enrollment, and academic performance.
It’s a very simple model they’ve already replicated in 19 countries and in very different environments and cultures.
Stay Connected to the First Purpose
We have a huge responsibility in how we organize charity or how we honor the gifts of donors. It has a broader impact on people’s trust in the impact of their dollars and their willingness to give.
Problems inevitably arise when charities allow a disconnect to form between the organization and the people it is serving.
That’s why Mary’s Meals stays focused on one single thing. The way we work is just as important as the results. Magnus keeps focused on Mary’s Meals’ identity and culture, aspiring to be the best version of Mary’s Meals and not comparing themselves to any other organization. As an organization grows, we really need to pay attention to that as leaders and take the time to share it with people who join the organization.
As Magnus said, “We do not have to believe we are good to do something good.”