Are Non-Profits afraid of Competition? How can we tackle the root causes of hunger in America? Tough Questions from a Community Grantmaker – A dialogue with Mari Ellen R. Loijens, CFRE.

Mari Ellen Loijens

Is there a life after food banking? Apparently so. Mari Ellen Loijens worked in development for Second Harvest Foodbank in Santa Clara and San Mateo County from 2000 to 2004, and is now the Chief Philanthropic Development and Information Officer for the Silicon Valley Foundation.

Of course it is every fundraising professional’s secret fantasy to then go on to work at a foundation and give it away rather than have beg for it. (Without appreciating the challenges that go with such a responsibility). So what’s the difference between your time in the food bank looking out, and outside the food bank looking in?

When I was at the food bank, the needs were constantly growing. There was no single year where we had to feed less people than the year before, and I had a strong sense of urgency about the growing need. Now that I’m outside, it seems like it’s endless and I’m more anxious for real solutions to the issue.  It’s sort of like being an emergency room doctor, and your concern is how to bandage all the wounds for those who need immediate assistance. Then when you walk outside the emergency room, you think, “How can we avoid the people going there in the first place?”

That’s a question a lot of food bankers are asking themselves. Like me, they’ve seen the capacity of food banks grow with their success at fund raising and their ability to bring more food in to their service area. This has created more ongoing demand, so it’s kind of a spiral.  How do you think that food banks could get out of this demand spiral and move towards a long-term solution?

We really need to look at some policy changes.  We are a very wealthy nation and the notion that we have so many people who turn to others for such a basic need is troubling.  Clearly there is something wrong with a system in which many children go to school hungry.

Food banks and other nonprofits are always very reluctant about stepping into these waters, because they worry about offending donors whose political slant may lead them to believe that we are just ‘enabling’ people.  How can we navigate these waters?

Want to dip your toe in…

I think that the problem is that we focus too narrowly on just food.  If you only think, “I need to feed people,” and you think, “That’s my only issue,” then we’re back to the doctor in the emergency room who would be saying: “I’m trying to get people to stop bleeding, and it’s so expensive to keep using up all these wound dressings. So the solution is that we need more money for more wound dressings.”  It’s a symptom he’s dealing with, not the cause. In the same way, hunger is the not cause, it is the symptom of a greater problem in our system. This comes down to something like minimum wage.  Do we have a living wage?  Are people able to earn enough where they live in order to take care of something as basic as food and shelter? We have got to move beyond pushing for increased SNAP (food stamp) benefits and into the bigger issues like: How do we make sure people, who are able, can earn enough money to feed themselves and their families?

So, are you saying that hunger is a symptom of the condition of poverty, or of something else?

I think poverty itself is also a symptom. I’m not a socialist or a communist. I don’t believe that everyone should make the same money, but I do believe that Americans, if asked, would say it’s wrong to have a system which forces people to constantly be in abject  poverty and unable to get out of it, even if they are working hard, perhaps at multiple jobs.  At some point, we are going to have to make decisions about how we pay for our beliefs and values. In the same way we are asked to make tough decisions now about taxes and how we want to pay for the things that we believe our country needs, such as roads or to provide the fire and police services that we want. In the same way, we have to ask ourselves the question: if we think it’s wrong for a child in a developing country to make a dollar a day sewing t-shirts, how are we going to provide an adequate minimum wage so that people in America who work a whole day can feed themselves and provide at the most basic level for their families?

And so how do you see the situation in America now?

I think we have an unspoken social contract in this country which prevents people from moving up out of poverty, and much of that is as a result of not have a living wage in most places.  We also do not have systems in place that update the minimum wage as the cost of living modifies in an area.  The systems that we do have reward the wealthy and do not help the poor.  This means we have to really look at our whole social contract as a country and our value system and say, “Have we set in place laws that support the values that we claim are American?”

Bumper sticker seen outside Santa Barbara’s swankest hotel.

This is the point in the conversation where people begin to squabble about the meaning of the ‘American Dream.’ I see an unspoken fear in many donors I talk to. I would preface my comments by pointing out that these donors are caring and generous people who sincerely want to ‘pay it back’ and provide some level of support for those in need within their communities. However, they may have a voice deep within them, that reminds them how hard they had to struggle and sacrifice to get where they are, so why should they make it easy for someone else? They often don’t see the incredible daily sacrifices and struggles of those in poverty who can find no success story on the back of their struggle.

Whatever the sentiment, Uncle Sam gets pressed into service to wag that finger.

This is why food banks have been so successful, because there is a lot of interest in ameliorating the symptoms but a deep fear of taking the plunge to actually deal with the causes. Either donors are concerned that they will be heavily taxed and lose what they worked for, or they fear that the fabric of American society will change and everyone will expect things to be provided for them without working for them. Consequently they see America losing its ‘can do’ spirit of entrepreneurship and resourcefulness. The type of change that is required to actually deal with a problem is too scary. The same thing is true for issues of immigration, health care and the rest of the sad litany. This means we have to stand around with our hands tied or else harken back to some previous time in our country’s history where these problems were better hidden.

I think a new consensus for action needs to arise that returns the much-loved but threadbare teddy bears of left and right political philosophy to the nursery shelf, and for us to admit that we have grown out of them. They’ll always have a fond place in our heart they were both great in key moments at getting us to the point we are now at as a nation, but now they are getting in the way as our nation enters maturity. These security blankets are getting under foot and gridlocking our ability to do what we do best as Americans – which is to fix something in a no-nonsense straight-forward way.

“I’ve been manhandled so much, I don’t remember whether I’m Republican or Democrat.”

I know from over a decade of working to assist either the homeless or the struggling, that the amount of people sitting on their gluteus maximus and freeloading their way from society (amongst poor people, anyway) is absolutely tiny, just as the amount of people defrauding SNAP benefits is a minuscule amount in relation to the total. Are we going to allow an obsession with preventing the enabling of a few who don’t want to help themselves hold us back from making huge achievements as a country for the vast majority of Americans who work so incredibly hard?

Sounds great, we should import that stuff to America! (Cheaply, of course)

Can you imagine what greatness we could achieve as a nation if we weren’t all so consumed with fear about being able to get affordable medical help, or that we will be living in abject poverty as senior citizens? Modern free market economies are driven by so much advertising and marketing, that are showing people all the things they need to have in their lives to be happy. These forces provide a huge encouragement for people to produce more and earn more. If we can provide a counter-balancing support safety net for all Americans, it won’t extinguish this desire for more – which is equally part of the American temperament. The two can complement each other perfectly well. It’s not exactly a shining city on a hill, but it’s a workable system where we can all move forward at our own pace and to our own ability.

Forgive me for that. As a food banker, if you see a pile of pallets, then your natural inclination is to climb on top of them and start spouting off…

That’s quite all right, Erik. Keep breathing. Seriously, though, I think food banks need to get get braver about legislation. You need to move past the daily problem of feeding people, and start to collaborate with others that can focus on solutions and really start to ask the difficult questions of, “What’s the issue?”  Yet for reasons that you mentioned, like when you referred to SNAP fraud, I think food banks are very afraid sometimes of moving in that area, because if you did a survey of people you feed and even one person said, “Well because I don’t feel like working.”  That’s a terrible, terrible fear of food banks. Suddenly, no one might want to fund their food bank, because there is one person whose is working the system. So essentially, we are ready to punish and live in fear of that one person.  Well, there is always going to be someone working the system.  There are people who go to emergency rooms, because they don’t feel like paying for a doctor. We absolutely can’t set up systems to deal with that one person. We look at the big issues in our country like educations reform and how healthcare reform and you hear about those things all the time. I would love to hear our country talk about poverty reform.  How we are going to help make a sweep of changes that would impact the base line of our country and help bring people who are essentially stuck because it’s impossible to move on or move out.

So, who do you think are the right people to lead this movement or does it need to come from a ground swell at a local level?  

I think both. That is how the civil rights movement happened.  You start with that real grass roots movement from people who are experiencing the issues and people who support those people.  Then at some point you get the attention of people in a power position with legislation to be able to move those issues forward.

You mentioned that food banks are timid on the public policy front.  What else do you think food banks could do to make this happen? 

Well, I really like the ideas espoused in your blog about how your food bank is working on regarding entering the preventative healthcare arena. I do think that when you start to see yourself as part of a wider system rather than just an individual issue, then you are able to address bigger issues that have bigger impact. Poverty is not the root cause.  People became poor for a reason. The fact that they are poor is not the issue.  The fact that they became poor and can’t get out of being poor is the issue.

This requires food banks to build broad coalitions with other social service agencies in their service areas, some who may be member agencies and some who may not.

That is a challenge, because there is often reluctance for everyone to sit down and have a substantive dialogue about how do we move things forward?  The subtext from non profit leaders can often be: “I don’t really want to be in a room with them.  I don’t want to compete with them.”

Hey, you’ve been in some of the same rooms as me!

That’s the truth about a lot of nonprofits is they’re just completely uncomfortable with the idea of competition, and if I had the answer to this issue, I’d probably be able to save the world.

Nothing wrong with a little friendly competition.

Well, we’re non profits. Competition is way too business-like and vulgar for us, right?

Yes, you’re very sensitive souls. But, it has to start with non profits admitting it is an issue. Then I think, speaking as a funder, that there is a clear role for funders in facilitating this issue. I think it’s all power dynamics. The one with the power has the obligation. Foundations really have the obligation to reach out to the nonprofits and say, “I really want to know and I really want to understand what’s going on.  Why is this collaboration and conversation not working for you? Where they don’t have to sit in front of their competitor and say what their fears are. We can ask who would you want to collaborate with and how, on what terms?”  I think having an honest dialogue is what moves things forward. This sort of thing needs to occur one on one or in small groups. Large gatherings can neutralize everyone’s desire to make anything happen.

I think what you say about the competition angle is very interesting, because it’s kind of taboo to talk about nonprofits competing. To be a good non profit citizen, you can only talk in the language of shared impact and collaboration. It might be very liberating for people to also have a conversation about competition and to say it is absolutely all right. I presume there is fear that we would be acknowledging duplication of service if we acknowledged competition. Certainly something for people to consider starting a discussion about in their service area.

How do you think food banks and other human services and nonprofit should be thinking about evolving their funding streams over the next few years?

I think if you are looking for systems change, at some point that goes against the grain for sustainability, right?  You want to be working towards your services not being needed anymore. The ideal is that you want to be able to talk about what system changes are you creating, so that you should have to provide fewer and fewer services every year?  That should be the big boast.  “Last year we fed 200,000 people, but this year, thanks to our hard work, we only have to feed 150,000.”

But every nonprofit organization in the world is afraid to do that, because then they assume that the funders will come back and say, “Oh, you need less money this year.”  And so the organization declines.

I think that there is a new generation of funders that have a very different way of thinking, and that what people really want to see are problems solved.  People are tired of the same problems staying around for generations and generations.  You’re right, though. Every nonprofit I know like to boast about how they did even more; served even more. It is a treadmill. But this new generation of funders comes from a very different way of thinking that would say: “No, no, no. The metric I care about is not how many people you serve, but that you made systemic changes so you will have to feed fewer people moving forward.“ It is a way for your organization to evolve to be truer to its mission.

Mari Ellen, thanks so much for your ideas and for your work supporting non profits.

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