Six happy years ago, the Hunger into Health blog was born. 2012 was a different time for food banking and for most everything else. I had 5 kids, not 6 and the world seemed a simpler place!
The blog is focused on looking at any and all strategies for improving long-term health and food security. We considered a wide array of different ideas: from using public health strategies to community leadership; empowering clients to how to raise money in new ways.
This month is my tenth anniversary at the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County, and I figured now was the perfect time to write a book drawing on many of the lessons learned and lessons we are still struggling to learn.
I’m very excited what I’ve been able to pack so much into a highly-readable book. It’s a full color extravaganza with plenty of ideas and strategies for you to try. I’m putting in a few spreads from the book so you have an idea of what to expect.
You can purchase the book or the Kindle version at Amazon, at this link:
Today I will be attending the third biannual Closing the Hunger Gap conference. This is a group that comes together to explore, test and execute sustainable food security strategies and to build a national movement to enact systemic change.
I went to the first one, six years ago in Tucson and at that point we were the ‘wild-hearted outsiders.’ Today’s conference, with well over 500 attendees is much more like a gathering of the clans. Things are happening, and those things are speeding up.
I have been posting less frequently on the ‘From Hunger to Health’ blog over the last couple of years. Part of that is a recognition that these mediations – about the future of food banking, emergency food and the role of our organizations in making lasting improvements in people lives – have gone mainstream. They are no longer a ‘that would be nice’ consideration, or something that only ‘organizations with money coming out of their ears’ have the time and resources to undertake.
Only organizations who truly have their head in the sand can avoid conversations at some level about “what happens beyond the food.” These are the opportunities to take complementary approaches to building and maintaining long term food security in a communities, whether they be rural, urban or increasingly, suburban.
In this blog, I have been encouraging us to leverage this food machine we have created, and invest our food and networks in more long-range ends. Simplicity is so appealing and we clung to it for so very long, but the world is not getting any simpler. The lives of those we work with and the maze they face to try to find a way out of poverty or poor nutritional health are ever more complex.
If you think I’m sitting in my rocker with my corn cob pipe looking back on a job well done, then I’m not. The work is only starting. Now is the time to dream bigger and enlarge the nature of the discussion about what it is possible for us to do together.
In the past, I had hoped for a national campaign against poverty with organizations cooperating at a local level to help people with an interconnected range of life challenges. At the same time we would hold the local/national politician’s feet to the fire. This would force the political infrastructure to understand how tens of millions of their fellow Americans are living now, and that we can’t just continue blaming them for everything about their situation.
Movement in this direction still seems slow, retarded by individual national organizations’ desire to maintain their ‘USP’ (unique selling point) with supporters and to stand out from others occupying a similar space. We still need to continue this work, but to succeed, I think we cannot purely rely on the moral indignation of Americans – who once aware of the need – will approve swift action to end food insecurity and create pathways out of poverty through living wage ordinances, health and child care subsidies. If the last nine months have shown anything, it is that the way people receive messages around poverty and food security are more complex than we imagined.
This was focusing on a national movement about a negative. What about a national movement focused on a positive: helping each other be healthy.
This means a partial pivot to a focus on the positive advantages of maintaining and improving your health through good nutrition and related activities. In our work in Santa Barbara, we’ve seen the benefits in terms of empowering those we work with by changing the daily conversation of our interactions to be about ‘how can we help each other be healthier so we can live more joyful lives’ (sorry, I live in California. Joy is not an option.)
This approach has shaped the steady evolution of how we deliver services from the ‘here’s your bag of food, thank you for waiting and good luck!’ of previous times, by the wrap-around education and services of our Healthy Community Pantries. These will be gradually superseded by the ‘place-based’ community-building activities of Community Food Access Centers. At each stage, the relationships with those we serve have deepened – not as a way of fostering dependency, but as a way of building healthier communities.
We always knew that the food alone was only part of why people came to us, but we have also discovered that empathy is only a starting point. How can we be truly empathetic if we are not trying to help that person change their situation. I am not talking about the proud senior taking a food box or the mentally-ill homeless person who is desperately struggling to keep things exactly as they are. I am talking about the vast majority of food insecure families who are one slip-up or financial setback away from eviction, bankruptcy or incarceration.
Empowerment is hard to give someone. Ultimately, they have to take it for themselves, but we can create the conditions where this is possible. In one of our ‘Nutrition Advocates’ groups (peer to peer nutrition education and leadership) the group really wanted to be ‘led’ as opposed to figuring out what their focus project might be. So empowerment is also a process where people have to see what is possible and dip a toe in before jumping. Especially in situations where jumping never worked out well in their lives in the past.
The next stage of evolution for our organization is contained in the slogan: ‘EDUCATION FOR ALL, FOOD FOR ALL WHO NEED IT.’ We are proposing a pivot where the Foodbank becomes the recognized hub of food literacy, food knowledge, cooking and general health knowledge. To make a change in the health of our service area, we offer to help everyone in it.
That’s enough to give everyone the shakes. However, I don’t really see any logical alternative progression for the road we have already begun on. The idea is that we would provide both online and in-person training for kids, families and others. If you can pay, you pay. If you can’t, your training is free. If you want to pay it forward, then you sponsor others as well as your family. Each interaction would contain a service element and some general education about the local food system as a whole.
People are always complaining about donor fatigue. So here is a good way of engaging donors from an early age in the joy of food, the joy of working alongside each other and the joy of helping others. (See, there’s more of that joy creeping in…)
This is not something that be launched immediately, it needs to be built up to. Groundwork is required to build knowledge and receptivity to the Foodbank’s expanded role in the ‘food life’ of the community. We already have the trust of people – donors, volunteers, local infrastructure and services – and that is something we can use as a strong foundation. Our first stage in this ‘change the conversation’ about the Foodbank was our leadership in the Santa Barbara County Food Action Plan. This groundwork will also include increased partnerships with schools, children’s museums, farms.
The word will be out there that the Foodbank cares for the nutritional health of all, and they put their food where their mouth is (or some other unfortunate metaphor) by providing food for those who need it. The total package.
But, you scream, this will muddy our USP, and people will stop donating to our organization because they don’t want to pay for the education of those who aren’t ‘needy,’ ‘indigent,’ or any other of those ugly, ignorant words. Our experience thus far is that we can operate successfully in two spheres. We hit the food insecurity message strong and trumpet the work through the usual channels. These other messages use different channels, sometimes requiring the creation of new ones.
New ‘public health’ funding models are required too for an endeavor that will be nothing if not expensive. Think what success looks like though. Nutritional health becomes a common endeavor, not just for the well-off. It becomes something that binds the community together, rather than one more thing that splits it apart.
Call me a dreamer, but the dream starts today. In 2008 we began this journey, at a time that people told us to ignore those distractions and focus all our energy on the urgent challenges of today. In 2017, the same calls are going to come again. SNAP is on the chopping block, there is a basic lack of understanding of the drivers of poverty by those clutching the levers of power. Surely, now is the time to retrench and struggle with now, now now.
If history has taught me anything, now is the time to strike out anew.
Now I find myself four months away from having served nine years in the CEO position and I guess I’m in danger of becoming part of the woodwork myself. Consequently, I thought it would be a good time to consider what strategies the leader of any nonprofit organization can utilize to avoid becoming stale.
The challenge that we may face is that our organization might be humming along perfectly well. We might be steadily increasing service by whatever measure we use and so why would we mess with something if it isn’t broke?
Yet, leaders are like sharks. They stop moving and they can’t breathe and begin to suffocate. Leadership has to constantly evolve or else in a world that never stops changing it can do nothing else but start to stagnate. That is bad for the organization and bad for you as a person.
So, what are the strategies you can employ?
1. First you need to conduct a simple audit of where you are as a leader.
Do my staff feel challenged and stimulated by my leadership?
Do I have a cozy ‘identity’ in the community which has not changed significantly in years?
Am I enlarging the world that my organization is operating in?
Are we perceived as a forward looking organization prepared for the challenges of the next decade?
What are the real areas of challenge remaining for my organization?
What is the tangible legacy I want to leave behind me?
Hopefully thinking seriously about these questions will reveal an area for you to either concentrate or taken a new interest in.
2. Do the Opposite of what you are currently doing.
In my own situation, my focus as a leader has always been on the strategic and programmatic side of what a food bank can achieve in terms of shortening the line. I wanted to turn hunger into health. I’ve never been a trucks and facilities kind of guy.
What better way of forcing me out of my comfort zone than to move the organization into a capital campaign for a new facility? Sure I will already leave a legacy of a major pivot in the function and community perception of the organization – but the next CEO could screw that up in a year! A new facility will last. (Earthquakes, mudslides and forest fires permitting).
So, maybe this is a time for you to explore what is the yin to the yang of your current focus. If you are more interested in the mechanics of how the machine runs, then how can you unleash energy in the organization to enable that machine to take those you serve in a new direction.
3. Consider a new approach to your leadership
Yes there are plenty of seminars and conferences and billable by the hour consultants waiting to suggest to you the latest approach to leadership. It’s great to be open to this, it is also worth considering a more significant revamp of your leadership.
A few years back I took a year-long set of retreats called Courage to Lead, Run by Leading From Within and developed by Parker J. Palmer, Ph.D. and the Center for Courage & Renewal, the Courage to Lead retreat series model focuses neither on technique, nor on society’s needs, but on renewing the inner lives of leaders.It also helps provide you with a peer group of other nonprofit leaders. I found the series so rewarding that I invited all of our leadership team to attend, and they have been able to utilize the benefits.
This is just one example. You could find something else that would give you a new framework to operate within.
3. Take a Helicopter Perspective of the Issue your organization is engaged in.
We get so caught up in the day to day of our ‘mission’ and how to fund it that we often miss the bigger picture. Are we being truly effective? Are we caught up in competing with those who have similar missions? Are we doing what we are good at doing rather than what needs to be done? Presumably if you have been running your organization a while then maybe you can afford no to be so insecure about branching out and trying to convene discussions on a higher level where the day to day needs of your own organization become secondary. This will enable you to build new partnerships within the community and beyond, which will enable your organization to grow in the years to come. We did this with our leadership of the SB County Food Action Plan.
4. Take a Micro Perspective of the Issue you are Working On
Change the world by changing your understanding of it, and do this by connecting with those who you serve in a more intimate manner. Get to know the true situation of clients or those affected by your issue. Understand their needs, not your perception of them. I tried this in a small way with my yearly Food Security Challenge, when I live on food stamps for a month and meet clients and promote their situation. You could find some other way of getting into the same weeds you’ve been carefully avoiding these past few years. We all forget why we’re doing what we’re doing, and we need to be reminded.
5. Make a list of things that don’t work and systematically fix them
Every organization has programs or initiatives that seem to function despite themselves. They grind along and kind of get the job done, but you have the feeling that they could be done better with better results. One of our challenge areas has always been our Brown Bag senior nutrition program, providing groceries and produce to seniors in need. There are conflicting needs: for efficiency and standardization from operations, the need for long-term volunteers to do things their own way, the need for the USDA to ask for overbearing reporting! We actually brought in a knowledge philanthropist a few years back, a skilled project manager, who analyzed the problem and we implemented the recommendations. And yet the world refuses to stay fixed for long and here we are again. What are the thorny areas in your organization that you could take an interest in?
These are just some of the approaches you could take to reinvigorate your leadership and cast it in a new light. I will just say that all of this is secondary to the primary business of identifying and growing new leadership within the organization to replace yourself.
Be kind to yourself. Your energy and focus will ebb and flow. Sometimes we are giving 120% t the organization, and at other times it might be a less than dynamic 72%. As long as you think these are balancing out on a monthly basis, then you are probably in good shape.
Leadership is tiring in a way that people who do not have such a great responsibility do not always understand. You are just the person sitting behind the desk who other people have to be vaguely nice to and who smiles badly when a giant (sized) yet modest (monetary value) check is presented to the organization.
Good luck with whatever new changes to your leadership the new year brings.
Of course you can just let things go on and on as they are as regards your leadership, but remember how that turned out for Ned Stark!
Hunger is always perceived as a hyper-local issue. Smaller scale cash donors within a city or town in your service area are often very concerned that their dollars are spent for food within that community. They don’t want it to go to those folks fifty miles away who might as well be in a whole other universe. We might consider this as a parochial attitude and believe that these people don’t see the bigger picture like we do.
But, what if they’re right?
What if we’re so obsessed with total impact / poundage / meal gaps and systemic change that we can’t focus on the type of grass roots neighborhood level work which can be truly successful and sustainable?
That’s someone else’s job, right? A partner agency who can get into the weeds while we keep that big food machine humming. But we used to say that about a lot of things, like SNAP outreach or nutrition education. I’ve also always been concerned that we’re accidentally creating a ‘new norm’ of food security in that people will get increasingly used to saying: “Yes, of course I’m food secure, because I can go to this pantry on this day and then that pantry on the other day.”
In Santa Barbara, we are ready to pilot ‘Healthy Neighborhood’ programs designed to be sustainable local solutions to food security and food literacy at the micro level. They represent the next step in the (occasionally painful) realization that we can’t make or keep a community food secure by only working with those who most need our services.
Ouch, what did I just say?
Do you think we have resources to just spray around? Unlike you, we’re not in ritzy Santa Barbara with sun and sand and aging movie stars. We live in the real world and we have to concentrate resources on those most in need.
Yes, I get that perception, but we are a medium-sized food bank with a modest $4 million cash budget where cash is always tight. It would be easy for us to walk away from such an approach, but we can’t. Let me make clear that our food resources unquestionably go only to those who really need them. But educational and community building resources are going to have to be offered wider than that. Those that can pay will pay or subsidize others. While this creates short-term financial pain, it will also broaden and deepen the donor base and introduce new perceptions of the organization as a good for everyone in the community, not just those ‘disadvantaged others.’ (aka ‘the needy,’)
Consequently, Foodbank of Santa Barbara County’s Healthy Neighborhoods Initiative marks a major pivot in approach, transitioning our work in neighborhoods of high poverty and food insecurity from a client-based to a family-based model. This initiative is designed to bring together a whole neighborhood of families in the effort to build a resilient and nutritionally healthy community, where food and health become the focus for community engagement, education and economic development.
Each pilot will be based around key physical locations, operating as Community Food Access Centers, which are place-based, food-centric neighborhood revitalization efforts, uniting multiple educational, nutrition and community development functions. These centers will have a family-based focus. You may be familiar with The Stop in Toronto Canada. At this stage of the initiative’s evolution we don’t have the luxury of building one of these or utilizing a facility just for this purpose, so we have to make use of existing places with their own range of activities – community centers, schools etc.
Initially, the center will only operate one day a week, but it will be intensive. Food and age-appropriate education will be provided for the whole family to attend at a time convenient to them. Childcare and basic food literacy training will be provided for young children; culinary skills will be provided for teens. Education will be culturally as well as age appropriate.
Though there is one day per week where education and services are focused, other satellite activities will happen at other times. There will be regular communication across a number of media and communication platforms to keep the neighborhood informed and involved in the effort. Centers in targeted neighborhoods will provide low-income families with a specific place to go, where people that you know and trust will be teaching and learning with you. The idea is to break the cycle of poverty and food insecurity by including all generations; they will also work to channel partner services in a more culturally-appropriate and culturally-tailored manner, in an environment in which families and neighborhoods feel comfortable coming together and learning with each other.
Providing the life-blood of the Community Food Access Centers and supporting community involvement are neighborhood networks of volunteers – Nutrition Advocates – that provide bi-lingual peer-to-peer education, empowering community members to improve their health. Food-related programs offer the “idea bridge” for others to provide skills and knowledge training.
Other elements of this strategy are:
Small Food Business Incubator – Encouraging entry into local food economy by providing business, food safety and marketing training to Nutrition Advocates and food entrepreneurs, and the opportunity to develop small businesses.
Food as MedicinePrograms – Diabetes Education/ nutrition education/diabetes specific food support programs.
This approach builds on existing geographically local impact groups that we have been working on for the last couple of years and the relationships that have come out of them.
Collective impact projects come and go. Funding comes and goes. The idea here is to find a low-risk approach, because it involves empowering the community to help itself. Networks and relationships will grow, increasing community cohesiveness and requiring less outside stimulus.
Ultimately, a neighborhood approach does not rely on the desire to help ‘others’ but on the practical need to help ‘each other,’ by living in a neighborhood where mutual support to obtain and keep good health reframes how people engage with each other. This is incredibly challenging to our ‘big’ way of operating, but it is also exciting, representing the opportunity for a much more inclusive and empowering approach to our work, and the opportunities for new approaches to how we fund that work.
I’ll let you know how we get on.
In the meantime, why don’t you consider taking a walk and building food security street by street.
Last time on ‘From Hunger into Health’ we visited with some experts on the nationally evolving situation around funding the non ’emergency food’ side of your activities, those that are designed to move communities on from a state of dependence on food pantries. Wally Verdooren looked at how you can begin to align your strategies with those of funders, and Barbara Andersen gave us a peek into the mindset of funders and how it’s never too late to begin a whole new relationship.
As a follow-up from ‘the trenches,’ I am sharing some of my own experience in shaking the money tree – what has worked, what hasn’t, and how you can move forward the whole happy band, including board, different internal departments and the community itself toward a shared vision of a healthy and food secure future.
For a number of years I have been somewhat of a parrot, repeating endlessly that ours are community health organizations. In that case, the first job of a doctor is to ‘do no further harm.’ In a fundraising sense that means making sure that you do not lose your current funding base as you reach out for some bright shiny new funding opportunity.
It’s a numbers game. 70% of your existing supporters are locked into the hunger / charity message that you have been espousing for years. They want to help ‘the needy’ and we have relied on their love, generosity and donations of aging cans of weird food since the beginning. You should accept their lack of desire to hear a new approach and keep pumping out the old hunger message. You should take their money and keep using it.
This calculation still assumes that 30% of your supporters will be open to something new. This is a beautiful flower you must nurture and grow. These supporters are typically younger, more interested in getting directly involved, and want campaigns with end results that they can feel good about achieving.
As you begin to think through your new approaches, don’t feel you have to have everything figured out before you take it to supporters. They want to be co-creators with you. Consider having visioning lunches or events that could bring in a third party expert/speaker to validate your new approach. Consider program tours that take your supporters to programs run by other organizations that you want to emulate. You needn’t be afraid they’ll jump ship. If you have the relationship with the donor, they will appreciate you being honest that you don’t have all the answers and be excited about the possibility of learning from success elsewhere.
FIND NOVEL PARTNERS
As your aspirations to do new things become known in the community, you have the opportunity to build novel partnerships that will enhance your legitimacy about venturing into health or community development or nutrition or any other area. One new partnership for us was with CEC, an environmental nonprofit. We came together to seek funding and community interest in a local Food Action Plan that would look at the possibility of food as an economic and health driver in our community.
These novel partnerships are going to excite funders because they are a more realistic response to the total picture that they see out there rather than us staying burrowing away in our one little corner of expertise.
One thing that many of us have to base new relationships around, is our access to clients/friends/neighbors (whatever term you like to use) who come to our programs because they trust us to not let them down. You have the potential of offering access to this clientele for health screenings or the provision of other services for low-income people.
You will get your fingers burned with some partnerships, where some groups might not want you ‘invading’ their area, so it is important to have limited objectives that allow trust and true partnership to grow over a period of time.
NEW TOOLS TO MARKET YOURSELF
You should be ensuring that your strategies for the community involve the input of the community itself. These can be stakeholder interviews, meetings with other non-profits or public meetings. You will get a clearer idea of community priorities and that is gold with funders – you have done your research and are not guessing what people need.
So in our case, part of this strategy includes utilization of our ‘Guide to Nutrition Programs’ a GIS mapping solution that shows areas of need on a neighborhood level, as well as what services and programs are provided by our member agencies and others. What information do you have about the community or needs of it that might be valuable at establishing your credibility?
REBUILD YOUR NARRATIVE
The research that you have done in the community will reveal a new narrative, one that is not just based around ‘we need your help and more and more of it.’ Communities have found ways to come together and help each other through hard times for millennia. If your new narrative focusing on Asset Based Community Development (ABCD), then there are many positive narratives that can fit into your new view of the world.
If you are not familiar with ABCD then here is a helpful powerpoint: Asset Based Community Development, Health Warning: Guard your eyes and souls from the hot pink text on turquoise background…
Realistically it will take years for the community as a whole to view your new mission differently. Every Thanksgiving, people give you a frozen B-52 bomber of a turkey and press the mental reset button as to what you can do as an organization.
Don’t panic. Keep engaging journalists and providing more positive client stories that show the self-sufficiency that arises out of other programs that you may be running.
You only need one foundation or major donor to give you a bit of money for you to hold this win up to the naysayers and to show them that your plans are the wave of the future and that the money will surely flow if you build it. When I wanted to hire a dietician to move my organization towards embracing good nutrition as our most basic value, I was able to get a single grant for $7,500 from a foundation for this purpose. This was nowhere near enough to cover the whole cost of the salary for even a year, but I still hired the person and kept pushing the process forward. It was the dietician’s job to be ‘singing for her supper’ in a variety of local funder settings. Here was proof that we were doing what we were talking about, and money followed this ‘proof.’
Your first efforts are going to deeply imperfect, but as Barbara suggested last month, the more you can share your process of evolving and learning with foundations, then they will appreciate your honesty and flexibility.
It comes down to having a larger vision of a food secure community, to engage the community to add to that vision, and to clearly articulate it to funders and donors. I know you can do it!
New opportunities to make long term impact on health and food security require a fresh approach to fundraising.
You’ve had enough of me mouthing off about my views – even if I am moving perilously close to the mainstream with the passing years. This time From Hunger to Health is drawing on two experts in the field to look at how we can take a new look at that money tree.
Wally Verdooren was until last year working as head of foundational relationships at Feeding America. Keen to see action in the field, Wally has joined Roadrunner Foodbank in Albuquerque New Mexico as their Head of Development. He is the perfect person to have a clear picture of the national situation and how the focus of foundations is changing.
We also have the opportunity to peer behind the curtain and speak to a former grantor. Until last year, Barbara Andersen, was head of strategic partnerships for the Orfalea Foundation, an influential local foundation that focused on food literacy. Barbara is now the Principal at All Points North Consulting ( email@example.com) and she will be considering how you can develop your relationship with funders.
In the second part of this lavish two episode ‘mini-series’ of a blog post, I will look at what hard-won lessons have been learned by one food bank (my own) in order to give you practical tips on shaking the money tree.
THE CHANGING FUNDING SCENE
At the recent Closing the Hunger Gap conference in Portland, Oregon, Wally Verdooren took part in a workshop with me on this issue. He looked at the national perspective, considering how we can broaden and expand philanthropic support for ending hunger.
Wally believes that expanding and deepening your donor base does not require a shift in mission, but a broader expression of an organization’s identity/profile and a fluid and responsive advancement of your mission.
And it’s not just how your organization presents itself to the outside world. You need to eliminate an understanding, assignment, and evaluation of fundraising staff members as principally donation solicitors.
That’s a change of mindset for many of us. We want to keep poring the pressure on the fundraisers to live or die by last quarter’s figures. Wally argues that successful fundraising has become far more demanding and complex than simply preparing for and conducting requests for philanthropic contributions.
We need to advance and support an understanding and assignment of fundraising staff members as being:
Wally sees the need for this as having been heightened and accelerated by the 2008 Recession. It has also been spurred by both the admitted and unacknowledged failings of past financial support received from foundations. Now the desire is to emphasize OUTCOMES rather than OUTPUTS. More than ever, foundations are seeking new systemic, sustainable, and scalable strategies and solutions to persistent problems.
You know, like food insecurity.
Wally provided a thought-provoking ‘Golden Rule’ for Expanding Philanthropic Support:
“Whatever you’re buying, we’re selling.”
While that might initially sound like desperation or the first symptoms of mission drift, what Wally is really suggesting is that you focus FIRST on the donor’s/prospect’s motivations and goals for giving and not giving towards your organization’s needs, interests, and programs.
You should also go long and go deep in your prospective funder search by assessing motivations and goals for giving generally and specifically and then aligning them with what your organization actually does. This requires not only knowing your organization well, but not letting others define it.
What then are the fundable activities that are interesting foundations these days?
Key Trends/Priorities in Philanthropic Goals and Motivations:
Advancing Community Economic Development
Providing Direct Services to Stabilize Vulnerable Populations
Engaging in Collective Impact
Building and Strengthening Networks
Conducting Data Tracking and Evidence Building
Advocating for Public Policy Reform
Ensuring Environmental Protection and Sustainability
Our job is to build cases for how these Trends/Priorities align with both current and planned anti-Hunger Work.
Wally put together a matrix that took some of the newer ‘evolved mission’ food banking activities and put them into buckets that foundations are going to be receptive to funding.
THE FUNDER PERSPECTIVE
That’s what we think funders are thinking…but what is really going on in their minds? At the same conference, Barbara Andersen, previously of the Orfalea Foundation http://www.orfaleafoundation.org and now the Principal at All Points North Consulting (firstname.lastname@example.org) allowed us to peer inside her cranium and consider how to develop your relationship with funders
THE FUNDER PERSPECTIVE
The day to day reality of the funder can be overwhelm from the sheer number of inquiries and applications for resources. The dilemma is that most programs deserve support. One way that you can break from the hungry pack is to demonstrate:
Your initiative is Strength-based vs. deficit-based. The former are positive, community-driven efforts that go behind the behavior to look at the drivers of that behavior. Deficit based efforts just respond to the behavior. Research has shown that strength-based interventions are sustainable, whereas deficit based activities are ineffective and may make the situation worse. This is all fruit for another post on Hunger into Health, as to how it applies to our specific work around the ‘deficit’ of hunger, but for now, those interested can also check out this short monograph: strengthsvsdeficitrb.
Open and honest communication is vital. We all want to wear the happy face for foundations, but if there is a ‘situation’ then they will appreciate being kept in the loop, even having their advice sought. You can also offer your perspective as a peer, on the broader nonprofit environment in your area.
One of Barbara’s most helpful pieces of advice is that failure is an option. If you go back to a foundation and say, ‘we tried this and it didn’t work, but as a result of what we learned, we think this will be a better approach,’ then that is something that they can get behind.
Barbara also did us a service by teaching us the meaning of a few helpful phrases in the language of funders;
FUNDERS ARE PEOPLE TOO
It’s all about the relationship, so if your organization has evolved, you need to re-introduce yourself:
“I would love to share with you our new vision for ending hunger…”
“Your support has been so valuable to us. It would be very helpful to hear your thoughts on how our organization should position itself with other funders…”
“I would love to hear more about your new initiative in school food reform…”
“Congratulations on your new position! Can we grab coffee? It would be great to learn from your past experiences in nonprofit management…”
WHEN IT IS A DEAD END
Sometimes it is important to understand when you need to move your efforts elsewhere, say if you have a foundation that is repeatedly shifting its focus or if you have to do too much work to apply for the grant compared to the support you would be receiving.
And ultimately, if you organization is compromising its values, mission and/or program objectives to chase after some random dollars, then you need to be able to let go of those crumpled bills and watch them blow down the road.
STAY TUNED FOR THE NEXT POST, DEAR READER
Now that we’ve looked at the bigger picture and the new opportunities to gain support, it will be time to consider what strategies we as organizations can enact to shake the money tree.
In the past, food banks often treated non distribution-based activities as ‘window dressing.’ Something bright and shiny for the pickier funders who don’t love trucks.
These programmatic activities were often viewed with some suspicion. Their outcomes were harder to measure than pounds. They were too ‘summer of love,’ while we were up to our necks in hunger, trying to deal with the ‘winter of discontent.’
The situation is changing, and you don’t have to be blissed out to be aware. These feed the line activities are moving increasingly into the mainstream.
What’s going on? Has someone slipped something into our pallets of Capri-Sun?
What has changed became clearer last month, when I attended the second biannual ‘Closing The Hunger Gap’ conference in Portland Oregon. The name is misleading – designed to lure in wary food bankers with the reassurance that the traditional language and attitudes towards hunger relief will be maintained.
But don’t be fooled! Read the small print.
The main focus of CTHG (the name’s even worse abbreviated) are all the initiatives that don’t fit into old school meat and (sweet) potatoes food banking. This includes food access / food justice / systemic change / food as medicine / nutrition / gardens / food hubs and more.
These areas are touched on in passing at other conferences, but at CTHG they’re front and center. This also means the event draws a wide variety of small and large organizations who operate in worlds beyond emergency food distribution.
It was a chance for us to come together to better understand and leverage the ecosystem of organizations trying to make progress in this field. The vibrancy and range of other organizations now working in the food access/justice and nutrition field is staggering. These organizations never had a warehouse of food to base their interventions around and so have had to develop different strategies. We have as much to learn as to teach.
The outside world has changed to move ‘shorten the line’ activities from the periphery to the leading edge of many food bank’s activities.
How’d that happen? One uncomfortable fact is a lack of sustainable success. We are not in the starvation business, where volume of food has a life or death impact. We are in the food security business. And plying that trade, we have largely failed to move the needle on national levels of food insecurity, despite heroic increases in the quantity of food distributed.
It’s not a stretch to conclude that classic food banking is an ineffective tool to sustainably lower food insecurity. Rather we have increased the levels of ‘food dependency.’
Food banks and member agencies have become de facto grocery stores for an increasingly poverty-ridden society. Instead of money, you pay for your food with your time by standing in line. Consequently we have carved ourselves an increasingly large niche on the lower tier of the national food chain. We are an artificial correction to the system.
I have seen this ‘new normal’ solidify over the last few years and not to mince words, it sucks. I didn’t sign up to be a tool to facilitate the depression of wages to maximise shareholder value. Are we asking people for money to feed people or to fuel the business of those who do want to , or believe themselves able to pay their workers enough money to survive on?
Whatever your feelings on this issue, the reality of the situation is that food banks have benefitted enormously from this situation. It has meant more resources and more security for our organizations.
We have felt good about bringing more food into the system figuring we will eventually reach saturation point and ‘solve hunger.’ I’m not convinced that we will ever get to that point with our current strategies.
In the past, we often built elaborate self-justifications about why we didn’t get involved in what happened to distributed food once it left our care. “We just provide the food, we don’t get involved in all that complicated stuff.” If the member agency wasn’t poisoning or purloining and those pounds were going out the door, then we were good.
Our ability to get away with taking this approach has steadily, almost imperceptibly been slipping away. It started, strangely enough with SNAP outreach. Remember when food bank involvement in this venture was considered a sinister plot to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids?* That situation changed in a remarkably short time.
Of course, many food banks already have comprehensive plans linked to reaching poverty and health goals that are consistent with the real world need in their service area rather than traditional metrics or performance benchmarking. ( I can think of a couple of examples fromnortherly cousins in California such as San Francisco and Alameda). (Check out the links to these plans)
Just as it happened with SNAP, I think we’re going to see the same rapid uptake in other activities:
NUTRITION AND FOOD LITERACY EDUCATION at all levels and in all client ages and interactions;
INCREASED LOCAL COLLABORATION to allow food to leverage other longer-lasting improvements in people’s lives (building social and community capital, training and job creation, health and housing);
FOOD AS MEDICINE to keep health compromised clients living more productive lives, through the right type of food;
A NATIONAL ANTI-POVERTY COALITION. We will do the painful work to ensure that bottom up and top down efforts coordinate in powerful new social campaigns to address poverty and its root causes.
Are these my fantasies, or are they going to come to pass?
You only have to look at how Feeding America has pivoted to capitalize on this new situation.
The writing on the wall has been there from large national foundations for a couple of years now. They’re tired of supporting an endless war on hunger that had no end-game. The C4C (Collaborating for Clients) work and its offshoots is a direct result of this shift in funder priorities.
The food as medicine approach is gaining traction in the diabetes area and in other public health-style interventions. The affordable care act has provided a slow but seismic shift in the preparedness of healthcare providers to consider us as partners, however patronizing or wary they may be! The initial BMS funded study with FA foodbanks is bearing fruit around the country. At last our network has generated health specific data and we have to leverage it to the hilt.
The Feeding America network’s ‘meal gap’ focus has resulted in the conclusion that only fresh produce as can fill that gap. Despite territorial squabbles about who’s turnip is who’s. (And as a ‘net exporting’ county, I’m more of a squabbler than most!) this emphasis has already improved the levels of ‘Foods 2 Encourage.’ We are at a transitional point now where the new stats are being used as a fig leaf to hide the nutrient poor quality of other foods passing through our system. This situation will eventually correct itself as food manufacturers increasingly target the lucrative ‘health’ market.
As we were talking about gaps, there is still an ‘education gap.’ Given the increased emphasis on fresh produce, it demands a comensurate increase in the focus on the education that will allow people to want to cook more produce. Unless we do this, we might as well toss all this new produce away in the dumpster and save our clients the trouble. This represents an, as yet, unseized opportunity on the national level. To match the focus on produce with an equal focus on ensuring it makes it the ‘last mile’ into the mouth of growing child or shrinking adult.
The final of the four areas of the ‘shorten the line’ activities that I identified earlier in this article is the one that represents the biggest unturned key of all – the coordinated anti-poverty movement.
Feeding America has had a fitful relationship with frenemies like ‘Share our Strength’ and others. There was also the fear that by partnering in a deep way with non-food focused entities we would lose our USP (and the funding that comes with providing food – something that people riot in the streets about if they don’t get enough of . This has always focused the minds of politicians of all stripes.)
We have arrived at a moment of opportunity with a new leader taking on the CEO function at Feeding America. Is it going to be more of the same or are we going to have a leap of the imagination as to what is possible for us to achieve?
I encourage Diana Aviv to grasp this opportunity and run with it. CTHG has shown on the local level how food can be a way of leveraging other longer-lasting interventions in people’s lives. The same is true on the national level. Let us leverage the billions of pounds of food the network brings to the table, to forge a greater coalition of those who want to address the trap of poverty that so many are consigned to.
I’m sorry to give you indigestion, but this may involve issues such as minimum wage reform and campaign finance reform, so that people can provide for themselves and invest in their own communities, and also so we have political decisions that reflect the will of the many, not the road block of the few.
Sometimes the battles pick us.
I hope to see you at the next CTHG conference. Don’t just send your staff next time, come yourself. You will be inspired and stretched. There is a whole other world out there and it provides a key to improving the lives of those we serve and work with for the long-term.
Oh and don’t worry, the conference name is going to change.
* You win a free gluten-free Krispy Kreem donut if you picked up on the Doctor Strangelove reference.