People are doing new things in the food banking world. In our search to ‘shorten the line,’ we are getting involved in areas that we had not been involved with in the past – educational programs, anti-poverty or pro-community development work – not to mention all manner of strange new alliances and partnerships.
We are discovering that our existing organizational structures are not necessarily the most efficient vehicles for getting us where we want to go. ‘Feed The Line’ and ‘Shorten The Line’ can be like two sticky gears in a truck and if you are constantly crunching between them, your engine (read staff) can become overstressed and your gearbox (read budget) may get worn out with all the upshifting and downshifting.
A standard food bank operation can feel like like tank, rumbling along, and when the situation calls for us to get all nimble and ‘ninja,’ we can find it hard to change direction. We’re brute force powerful, but maybe not so suited for the asymmetrical challenges of tackling poverty or helping clients build social capital. How can we build the nimbleness of being able to deal with both micro and macro interventions within our humble and creaky org chart?
We all hate org charts because they have this way of deadening a living, breathing thing (If you have any doubt, check out the chart of the educational establishment below):
Then of course there is the org chart according to the Executive Director’s view of the world, which is much like Steve Jobs’ view:
For us to figure out what is the best structure for our organization, we need to start by being clear where we stand in relation to the community around us. [Here you can download a good SSIR article on the ‘Networked nonprofit‘]
When I am explaining to Foodbank supporters about the evolution of our mission, I talk about how we can no longer avoid looking ‘upstream’ of where we are, to try and understand and deal with what is driving so many people to our doors – typically situational or generational poverty.
I then tell them we need to consider what is ‘downstream’ of where we are operating – this means what are the true outcomes of our interaction with clients? It may be that their long-term health has not been affected as beneficially as we hoped. These ideas are summarized in the graphics I developed below:
So, how can we restructure to meet this enlarged understanding of how we are affected by, and in turn affect the world around us?
Let’s look at some ways in which food banks are organized around these elements of the mission.
THE CLASSIC FOOD BANK
The first model is the ‘Classic’ food bank. Unreconstructed, proudly focused on the core mission and seeing no need to evolve further. Not only is it structurally unsuited for any expanded mission, it doesn’t even want to consider the possibility of one.
Typically this food bank will be in a high need / low resource area, where the only mindset accepted is ‘running faster and faster to keep in the same place.’ (Yes, I know my food bank is in hoity-toity Santa Barbara, but we serve the whole County, and of the 58 California counties, only 14 have more food insecurity than ours, so I should be at least be allowed an opinion…end of self-justifying whine!)
Another factor is that whatever food bank we are in operates the way it does for a million historical and community reasons – many of which may be hidden under the surface. ‘We’ve always done it this way’ can be a common refrain. These food banks will probably carry on much as they are, shrinking a little in size as ‘recession sympathy’ dries up further. The lack of desire to face shifting realities may be failure of leadership at the board or ED level or it could be just a lack of strongly voiced desire for anything more from the community.
Lets look at two other structural models that are currently out there in food bank land.
The Remodel is basically taking the old structure and trying to add on a few additions. It might be teaching some nutrition education classes or having some involvement in SNAP outreach.
There are many food banks are in this grouping. Whatever gets added might be as a result of ED interest, community stimulus or Feeding America encouragement. The problem here is that because the organization was not structured for this additional mission, then the new initiatives can be like vestigial limbs hanging off the org chart or they shoved in some department that feels like its original remit has become distorted.
This can lead to new initiatives being left to die by staff who feel they are already overworked, or that the program will be starved of resources once it has been there a while and is more noticeable for the problems it is causing the organization as opposed to the ‘new program paint smell’ that was so useful for fundraising in the early stages.
THE SHINING CITY ON THE HILL
Of course the polar opposite of the ‘classic’ approach to food banking is what we might call the ‘We do it all’ or even the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ food bank. They stand out from all around them. They can be like a giant snowball rolling through town, picking up all manner of diverse activities: community gardens, job training, process kitchen etc etc. These activities are typically run by food bank staff. As someone remarked at the recent Feeding America ED forum, you’ve heard of ADD, this is called EDD.
This mode of operation tends to develop in places where the food bank is very much the ‘only game in town’ in terms of dwarfing other nonprofits, or having a large geographical area and considerable financial resources relative to the local nonprofit eco-system.
The general challenge with this approach is that it is expensive, difficult to sustain and challenging to coordinate. Also if you’re throwing a ton of programmatic outreach at the wall hoping some of it sticks, how do you know what element is really moving the needle, and what is well meaning but ultimately ineffectual?
CATALYST FOR CHANGE MODEL
I would like to suggest one additional approach –one that I believe our food bank is evolving into, which is more of a bottom-up ‘redesign’ and which could be called the ‘catalyst for change’ model.
The ‘Catalyst’ model means we create an uber goal – in our case ‘ending hunger in our service area AND transforming the health of the community through good nutrition.’ This goal allows us to partner with a full range of local health and service organizations and hunger relief becomes part of a positive goal that can be measured using public health indicators.
In reality, we still have our fingers in a bunch of pies, but the difference from the ‘we do it all model’ – and this is crucial – is that the food bank needs to remain value neutral over whether things are done either by them, by their existing agencies or whether achieving something requires new forms of partnership.
The overriding thing is that your organization commits to making sure that it happens one way or another, will evaluate the results and keep the process moving forward.
We expand what may already have been a long-term role as the encouragers of an ecosystem of community partners working to improve health and food security. The difference is that this time we want results and we want to be able to measure them. It could also mean that everyone’s programs might not be adjudged as wonderful as everyone else’s.
FB’s are perfectly positioned to be the catalysts to make sure that the things that are going to help solve food security and promote health are being done in coherent and interconnected fashion.
• We’re not going anywhere soon, so we have stability.
• We have respect to broker partnerships and coalitions.
• We also have detailed knowledge of the range of programs in our service area and through our existing agency reporting we have some crude idea of the outputs of service.
• More than anything, we have the food. That has always been our ace card, but we’ve never really played it as hard as we could. We really need to leverage every pound of food we distribute to effect lasting change.
This is all based around evolving the role of food within the organization. It is still central (relax…), but now it is not the end in itself. We are not only the food sourcers, storers and distributors – we are the food investors. We are going to leverage every nutritionally dense pound of food to bring significant long-term impact to the good health of our service area.
The price of doing business in the leverage is to provide good service to those who will always need food assistance as a result of challenges of age or faculty – yet even these folks can benefit from involvement in holistic service. Nevertheless, I am putting them lovingly to one side and saying that we will always find a way to source the food needed for these folks.
That leaves people whose lives we can impact significantly – children, families, those with chronic health conditions, those who question their limited voice or power in the community, those who want to share the skills required for good nutritional health with others in their neighborhood.
Being a catalyst sounds easier than doing everything yourself, but really it is just a different kind of difficult.
The below graphic shows the resources that we are providing in our area to stimulate effective nonprofit agency responses to local nutritional health issues:
If we have a traditional org structure then provision of the above services is going to look like the many-headed hydra. It also means that it is only a matter of time before one head or other gets lopped off, because it is not sustainable.
Let’s look at an alternate structure. Enter, if you will, through the doors of perception…
The doorway is a good metaphor, because people, food and resources can pass through it in both directions. So imagine your Foodbank in the center of the community (because it’s hard to escape from our self-obsessions) and further imagine four doors around you that lead in from and out to that wider community.
I am suggesting that this kind of restructure requires you to shift how you do business to facilitate the most efficient methods of stimulating two-way traffic through these doors. It means you have to inspire and join with and prod and poke your partners in the community (starting / but not ending with your member agencies) into embracing impact and sustainability and rigorous evaluation of their activities. And if you the food bank are going to initiate something new, you need to find a way to make it sustainable long term which means planning from the start of the process how the community will have assumed ownership of the project by the time it reaches maturity.
The four doors are:
1. Partner Organizations
2. Food Bank Programs
4. Community Leadership/Volunteers
Let’s look individually at each of these ‘portals’ for food, energy, time and collective will:
Partner Organization Doorway
This is always going to be the biggest door. If we’re going to maximize our impact we need vibrant relationships with other nonprofit organizations. Yet we need to shake things up a lot in terms of how our current partnerships work.
We are already monitoring member agencies, but because our focus has been about ‘maxing’ poundage, we have not pushed/encouraged agencies to embrace a ‘shorten the line’ agenda. Agency segmentation has been helpful for us in seeing who can be the best partners for ‘shorten the line’ services, but at some point, tough decisions need to be made about what relationships need to be prioritized for the good of the community.
We are in a time when traditional donated food supplies are tight and we are all working hard to find the next ‘wave’ of available product. Consequently this is the perfect time to make every pound count and leverage existing relationships by expecting more of our partners that turning our inventory for us.
If the relationship with community partners is to become more about impact and not just poundage, then you might find yourself with a different set of partners. Some of our most successful new partnerships are not based around agencies distributing food for us. We are working with American Heart Association, who are providing some educational components to our existing educational structure with our Kid’s Farmers Market Program.
We also are working with a local ‘cradle to career’ school initiative called Thrive, where our educational programs are helping them meet funding-mandated nutrition education requirements. We are in discussion with other potential partners around working together in community building and in food systems reform.
Our educational programs typically include a distribution element, yet in at least half of them, this is really a micro distribution compared to the ‘here’s 20lbs of broccoli, good luck with your life’ approach of the past. You might feel that this is mission drift, but I know that each one of these partnerships will have more long-term impact on increasing food security then setting up another mobile pantry.
Your existing agency relations structure may not be able to work with this expanded set of partners. For us there is already a challenge in how to work with two different types of partner within our existing agency structure. We need to do more to reconcile these types of partnership, so that the ‘non-food distributing’ partner does not become the poor relation (or vice versa). Close links between agency/partner relations and the work of the development and program departments now becomes crucial. The old siloed approach to information of the past can be disastrous in this kind of relationship.
FOODBANK PROGRAM DOORWAY
We are increasingly looking at pushing out our award-winning ‘Feed the Future’ children’s programs through our member agencies as a way of bringing them to scale and thereby meet our vision objectives. The programs are run by ‘super-volunteers’ and therefore are sustainable. Tapping into other agency’s ‘super-volunteers’ will enable this sustainable scale to increase. This represents another big element of the catalyst relationship – we can develop and evaluate programs and then our agencies and partners become the natural conduit for scaling these programs.
We need to make these programs (which all include both ‘feed the line’ and ‘shorten the line’ elements) so attractive in terms of curriculum, training and food availability and so effective that agencies will want to run the programs. Do agencies pay a license fee? Do we give them away? Do we ask them to provide some shared maintenance for the food element? For us, these issues are still to be decided.
We’re not big brother, but if they want to run a different program that is fine, as long as the evaluation and data connected to their program are broadly comparable so we know they are getting the impact.
A food bank running programs and fundraising to deliver them is not really sustainable in the long-term. Yes, you can always find a donor to pay for one nutrition ed program or another, but unless you have found a way to let the community take ownership of the program long-term, it will eventually languish. Which leads us to who should be running the programs.
COMMUNITY LEADERSHIP / VOLUNTEER DOORWAY
I believe the closeness of the relationship of volunteers to non-profit organizations is cyclical. At one end of the cycle, the focus is on an all-paid workforce with an overlay of marginalized volunteers to manual tasks or food sorting or packing. This can lead to disconnection from a large part community – especially professional people who have a lot of other skills to offer. One way of telling whether your use of volunteers is truly able to help you build impact is to imagine if all your volunteers fell away – could you continue fairly easily with your mission? If so then volunteers are really window-dressing for you.
At the other end of the continuum is more of a volunteer-driven organization. Aiming to become this is a major element of the ‘catalyst’ approach for us. We have a special category of volunteer, called a ‘community leader’ who is a super-volunteer that is treated pretty much as a paid employee would be. They are typically there to focus on a particular project, but others may have long-term loyalty to a specific program.
These community leaders are paid – just not with money. This ‘payment’ might be with the provision of written references, or with respect, or with being given leadership responsibilities. These Community Leaders are held to account for what they have committed to do and reassigned or fired if they do not produce. This has helped us scale our programs significantly.
I can’t pretend this has not lead to cultural strains within the organization, which naturally wants to shift back to just having paid staff. Employees find it easier to lead people who are getting paid to listen to them, rather than having to go to the effort of inspiring volunteers will listen if we communicate effectively the power of our mission and the direct impact that volunteer can have on moving it forward.
We are making significant progress, though. I think there is something empowering for our employees in letting them know that they are all expected to be leaders of multiple volunteers, no matter what their job function is. It is all about multiplying their ability to achieve impact. Yes, we all know it feels so much easier to do something yourself rather than explain to someone else, but that is not sustainable.
The changes that this means to a traditional food bank structure is that you need a lot more ‘relationship manager’ type staff – they might be handling relationships with community leaders, short-term knowledge philanthropists that are working on a specific project, or outside organizations that we are partnering with. These are all people who need more attention / coaching/ focus than just the usual volunteer management skills. You are managing outside talent and it takes tact, organization and a clear understanding of the shared goals. We don’t really have the experience or skills in this area (besides in the fundraising arena) so it is learning a new skill and introducing a new culture, but the expectation is that staff will be managing an increasing number of community resources and so multiplying their impact as an employee.
As regards impact on the warehouse staff, if you have a rash of small scale educational programs that might require small poundage of high-quality produce or purchased items that are needed to demo a curriculum-specified recipe, these can be extremely difficult for current warehouse structures to deal with. Online ordering by programs staff becomes vital. Skills at staging and coordinating multiple micro distributions have to be developed. Drivers are overwhelmed by the number and complexity of deliveries and pick ups of programmatic materials from sites. In this situation it becomes increasingly important for volunteer drivers with loyalty to specific programs or sites to become involved.
The other side of the community leadership equation for us is the way we can erase the dividing line between ‘benefactors and beneficiaries.’ Our Nutrition Advocates come out of our programs and are encouraged to work more closely with both the Foodbank and become self-supporting groups. They are trained in food literacy, can be SNAP advocates and we also provide community organizing facilitation to help organize around any local health and community issues.
Community Leaders and Nutrition Advocates represent two powerful and brand new volunteer forces that are having a major impact in how our organization develops.
THE DEVELOPMENT DOOR
These other doorways suddenly open up a lot of other opportunities for the development department. We have community leaders teaching in programs and having direct access to working with clients so we are building the kind of long-term support from motivated professional people that no number of trips to the warehouse can generate.
The mantra in food banking has always been ‘once they go to the warehouse, they get it.’ This is true in terms of comprehending the size of our operations and the fact that we are not a glorified food pantry. However, if you really want to build long-term loyalty, you need to not show them the ‘tool,’ but involve them in what the tool has built. That means involvement in direct service with clients. The old hunger dynamic made this an awkward situation for all concerned. Now that our focus is about health, this is a way that benefactor and beneficiary can communicate as equals – we all care about being healthy, we all have ideas about how good nutrition can help with this. Teaching once a month in one of our programs is a golden way of building a whole new levels of ‘getting it.’
I used to get jealous about ‘Habitat for Humanity’ and their ability to involve supporters directly in their efforts by helping build a house and leaving them with the tangible results of what they have wrought. Community involvement with our programs now brings us ever closer to this model.
The desire to take more leadership in the health arena with local partners is also creating brand new funding opportunities with foundations, businesses and individual major givers who are looking for long term social solutions not short term charitable fixes.
One size does not fit all, and I am not suggesting that your organization should focus on the catalyst approach, like we are. Nevertheless, I would challenge you to look at your mission and how it has changed and then start asking the tough questions around organizational structure, so that you can be ready to meet the challenges of the next twenty years as we work to achieve the long-term health and food security of our communities.
NOTE TO ‘FROM HUNGER TO HEALTH’ READERS:
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