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!
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?
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?”
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.
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 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?
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.
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.
What happens to fundraising if we follow the preventative healthcare model that has been expounded on this blog? What if, in a few short years, our programs are demonstrating wonderful health impacts? How is that going to play with our existing donor base?
Would it mean that our direct mail might have to stop looking like this:
Our operators are standing by for your calls.
And start looking like this…
Now we all know that the Ghost of Food Banking Past (yes, I’m exaggerating to make a point) helps keep those donations flowing in, so that we can get food out to people who can truly benefit from it. Yet once we begin to focus on that same food leading to health outcomes, are we going to be able to pull on the hunger heart strings in the same way?
I don’t think so.
We asked our direct mail company why some recent mailers had brought soft returns, and their response was that our mailers were too positive. The kids looked too happy.
Tricks of the Photographic Model Industry # 234: Hop em up on Mountain Dew and then switch out the Hot Cheetos for fresh fruits and vegetables right before the cameras start clicking.
We all know it.
In the hunger business, negative sells.
Positive is understood by a different type of donor or foundation, looking beyond immediate the immediate need, towards a long-term solution.
Nevertheless, I guarantee that whatever organization you represent, in the next 3 years you are going to have to come face to face with the need for an increase in …EARNED INCOME.
Much as you want to wear the garlic around your neck and make crosses out of two rolled-up annual reports, you are still going to have find more money from non-charitable sources – there is simply no way around it in the world we find ourselves in.
I attended a workshop with noted nonprofit consultant Andy Robinson last week, that focused on this very area. Andy is the author of Selling Social Change (Without Selling Out) – and the title suggests that he understands a little of the ambivalence in nonprofit organizations around this subject. I’d like to share some of the things that came up in the session.
Nonprofits need to decide what is the best mix of resources that is going to make them sustainable. We all agree that the old borders between non-profit, business and government are eroding. Businesses acting like nonprofits, nonprofits acting like businesses and the government…well that situation has always been fluid.
Let’s consider the pros and cons of generating earned income, starting with the positive:
• Diversified funding base – a key to sustainability
• An expanded prospect pool for individual gifts – doing business can be a great way of meeting people who can be inspired by your mission and give.
• It reduces reliance on grant income and also provides unrestricted funds.
• It provides new publicity and advocacy opportunities.
• It builds new skills and leadership with the organization.
That sounds great, but what about the downside:
• Most obvious is risk – sometimes you are going lose money. Research by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that nearly six in ten businesses shut down within the first four years of operation. You could bring your nonprofit down with your business if your comb-over is not as impressive as Donald Trump’s.
• The up front costs – it takes money to earn money, so the lower the start-up costs the better.
• Mission creep. If your commercial empire takes off, you may find the tail wagging the dog.
• You already have enough work to do, so this will need dedicated staff time. Otherwise it’s a hobby and hobbies don’t make money.
• One other concern is the potential tax liability. if you are a charitable organization and are charging for services that are directly connected to mission, you don’t have to pay tax on that income. However, if you set up an unrelated business, you may have to pay UBIT (Unrelated Business Income Tax). Finding that connection can be important. The YMCA used to regularly get sued in different states by other for-profit health clubs saying their charitably subsidized clubs presented unfair competition. However, the Y won every one of those cases because they could clearly point to their actions as a way of delivering on their mission statement. Girl Scout cookies get away with the same thing, because they teach leadership – girls track product, log payments, use merciless sales techniques…
• One key area of concern that I voiced to Andy at the workshop, was the need to educate contributors so they realize that you as a charitable organization still need donations.
It is clear that market research and feasibility studies, no matter how simple, are a vital first stage. As a nonprofit you need to consider what services could you sell? What publications? What cause-related marketing? What goods (wholesale preferably).
There was naturally some pushback from workshop attendees about the notion of charging for services, many of which in one form or another would have been offered free by the organization. Andy referenced a study that looked at vocational training courses that were either free or charged a modest fee. Far better outcomes were identified amongst those who paid something for the service. They valued it more. Whether this is a sad reflection of our society or not, it is a reflection. People value what they pay for and do not value so much what they get free.
This is a stimulating challenge for us in non-profits. Sliding scales, scholarships, are both possible. Andy suggest we do some testing with any charge for services and track the results. From my perspective the difference between a business and a nonprofit charging for services is that the non-profit is not afraid to potentially put itself out of business, by providing a product which can help the recipient move beyond the need for those services, or into a place of new possibility where they can generate more for themselves and their families. That ‘more’ might be money or community or advocacy for improvement in their neighborhood. In contrast, a for-profit wants to keep you endlessly coming back to buy ‘newer, better’ versions of the same thing.
As a food bank, we are looking very carefully at earned income. We have always been in the earned income business, in that we charge a very modest shared maintenance fee on some food items that we provide (which prevents agencies from just taking more food than they can effectively use, and which goes some small way to defray the costs of running the warehouses). This is a clear case of putting a value on something that would be valued less if it was free. We also do our own attempt at social engineering by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on purchasing fresh produce and making that available with no shared maintenance fee, because we want to drive agencies to provide more fresh produce to their clients.
We are already expanding our resale food selections (where we buy food and resell to agencies), charging a modest 10% mark up, with the stipulation that we will only charge this if we are able to provide the food cheaper than they could source it via a local wholesaler or superstore. We want to expand this to make more food and non-food (cleaning products, paper goods etc) available to the full range of local non-profit organizations. (Member and non-member alike).
This approach is already happening successfully with Second Harvest Food Bank of Central Florida’s Power Purchase program. The CEO, Dave Krepcho, affirmed this morning that their purchase program has the dual role of providing lower prices to agencies and netting surplus revenue. “If they can get it cheaper somewhere else, we suggest they do so…This year the net revenue number will be approximately $250,000 on close to $3 million in sales. We are designing a Community Kitchen program now so that it will be economically self-sufficient in three years. I affirm your looking into entrepreneurial programs, it’s the direction we must go.”
I also recently looked at a study done by another urban food bank that examined at the feasibility of undertaking such a resale program and decided it would not be successful for them. There were a concentration of Catholic agencies in their area who were mandated to purchase from a central purchasing agent (no jokes about the Pope getting his cut, please) and that there was a possibility of a similar arrangement being in place with local YMCAs. This negative report, which highlights all of the challenges (many of which would not necessarily apply to us in Santa Barbara) is extremely useful to us. If we move into a business area with a clear understanding of the challenges we would face, as opposed to clutching starry-eyed dreams of flowing streams of golden sustained income, then we will be far more likely to be successful.
The number one challenge identified was the issue of pricing. Most ventures fail by not knowing how to price services effecively. We don’t know how long it will take us to do something, and often the cost of a unit of service remains opaque to us. Andy believed that nonprofits almost always underprice the value of the services they provide.
When looking at your business proposition, you need to consider whether it represents a ‘market push’ whereby you need to convince the market of the need for your service (like the electric toothbrush vs. the old school manual) or ‘market pull’ whereby there is enough existing demand, that if you provide enough services, you can meet currently existing needs.
The other painful reality is that being a nonprofit is not going to get you any free pass on the customer service side. If you don’t get things right the first time, they won’t be back again, no matter how compelling your mission is.
It is helpful to consider case studies, so we can consider a range of approaches nonprofits are taking to make earned income work. At one end, you can take an organization like Minnnesota Public radio which after 25 years was spun off as a for-profit subsidiary for $175 million dollars, most of which went to their endowment. Another interesting organization is the Okanogan Highlands bottling company, which you can find at www.purewater.org.
It is a fascinating case study, because they had a specific ‘ill’ that they were fighting against, which was a gold mine. It would bring pollution and they provided studies which showed that the value of the water they could bring out of the same site in the form of bottled mineral water would actually be more valuable than if it operated as a gold mine. They did this by commissioning studies that demonstrated how much water was used to extract the gold. You should check out the video they have at their website, because they show how the empty bottles can be repurposed as advocacy tools to send to our representatives at the congressional and senatorial level, to convince them of the efficacy of their course. Perhaps there is a way your agency could incorporate the same approach to get the message across.
Nativeseeds.org is a great website to look for the kind of nonprofit that recoups 30 to 40 percent of their income through sales of food, crafts and products.
As organizations, we often have fabulous ideas at the programmatic level. How can this be monetized? Check out www.swop.net to look at how they developed their ‘products’ to move from a text book on Chicano studies (which had resulted from a ‘market opportunity’ they identified, because this area was being ignored in traditional history programing). So they created a text book, which then became a DVD, a coloring book, a mural magnet series, a t-shirt etc. This is a pretty politically-minded right-on organization and they’re selling refrigerator magnets? Maybe it’s time we questioned the stereotypes! If the content is solid, the expression of that content can play out across a number of media.
Another example organization is www.globalexchange.org. They are a human rights organization that focuses on tourism. Their proposition – both a value proposition and an advocacy proposition is “What would happen if we brought the people who were interested in an international social cause to the place in the world where that cause is actually playing out. A week in the jungle with the Sandinistas? Not quite. Nevertheless it has resulted in an organization that has 3 million dollars a year in tourist income. Is there a way we can involve people in the excitement of our day-to-day mission? And then charge them for the pleasure?
A food bank was also considered in our discussion, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. www.foodbankwma.org. They used a CSA model for a farm they purchased. The plan involves CSA shareholders paying the full cost of $200k per year but only taking half of the food that is generated. The rest goes to the food bank.
One final example was www.pedalpower.org, which was a community bike organization that had a fascinating business proposition. Rather than upset the existing marketplace, which you could argue something like the CSA proposal might do, they presented themselves to existing business organizations an entity that would build the market. They would focus on the low-end of the market and offer people sliding scales of rates. They could either fix their own bikes with supervision or with Pedalpower stepping in with physical help. They sold this to the other businesses in the market with the explanation that they were drawing people in at the bottom end of the market. Once people entered the market and wanted to find more sophisticated bikes, they would seek out the other businesses in the market. It worked and the other businesses began to offer them free spare parts and other help.
The final example we considered was www.farestart.org in Seattle. Like Catalyst Kitchens and other organizations, they focus on teaching culinary skills and how to hold a job. They also help with job placement. This was an organization that acutually switched from being a for-profit to a nonprofit organization.
We have all been victims of workshops with consultants who want to draw you in with the promise of education, which is really a promotion for their services or their books. I have no reservation in letting you know that Andy’s book is simply essential for any nonprofit hoping to focus energy on new sources of earned income. It will make you think long and hard about how earned income could work for your organization.
Good luck, and let’s start shaking up the old nonprofit/business divide even further. We have much to learn from each other.
Jan Poppendieck’s book on the emergency food provision system, entitled ‘Sweet Charity?: Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement’ was released in 1998. It is a book I only came across a year or so ago, and for me it was like discovering some secret artifact that confirmed all the things I had come to believe after six years of running a soup kitchen for the homeless and four years running a food bank.
I now ask new leadership team members in our organization to read the book as background to why ‘charity’ alone cannot solve the nutrition issues we are facing. Jan has been active both as an academic and also serving on the board of Why Hunger? in NYC, amongst others. She has most recently written “Free for All: Fixing School Food in America,” . I spoke to Jan last week.
How have things changed since you wrote Sweet Charity?
Not enough. Nevertheless, foodbankers are escaping from the emergency mentality. They have been in this business so long now that they know that the short term emergency is not the whole story. The implication is that if we are not feeding people for only the short term, then we have to pay much closer attention to the nutritional impact of our actions. This means there has been much more awareness of the need for fresh produce within the network.
Sue Sigler, the ED of the California Association of Food Banks recently told me that she thought ‘Sweet Charity’ was almost single-handedly responsible for bringing food banks into the public policy realm, which was an area considered best avoided prior to 1999.
That’s flattering. I hope I helped move the discussion along. Certainly, the food bank network is more visible and active in public policy advocacy now, especially in the fight to protect TEFAP and SNAP. There is lots of room for more engagement too. I imagine the foodbanking network as a sleeping dragon that if it could mobilize all of the soup kitchen and pantry staff and clients and volunteers and supporters and board members, we would have a very loud voice in public policy. It is a huge challenge of course, but even mobilizing some of them could be very effective.
Do you think this group should be mobilized around what to enshrine or include in a specific piece of legislation like the Farm Bill, or do you think it has to be a wider, less specific mobilization around a cause.
That’s an interesting question. Like most others in the policy world I live from crisis to crisis or opportunity to opportunity. Fighting cutbacks on SNAP while the economy is suffering like it is now is something that has to be done, but it tends to draw all of our energy and attention. It is harder to move from responding to an immediate threat to a more visionary approach to public policy, where we are looking downstream at what kind of country we want to live in, and what kind of people do we want to be. Emergency food provision can be a tough place to start this discussion from.
That’s exactly why some are trying to find a new and powerful place – the public health arena – from where food banks and their network of 64,000 member agencies can have a fresh kind of leverage and credibility to operate from, one that is underpinned by a long-term preventative health approach. I believe this path can be less divisive within our political landscape where ‘division’ seems to be the current approach to problem solving. If we look back at the fight against tobacco, it was not couched in terms of ‘haves’ giving charity to help ameliorate the conditions of the ‘have-nots’, but in terms of what was smart for the future health of the country. We need to take that same approach with nutrition.
One of the great things about the history of public health is that it has always stressed interventions that would target hazards or sources of ill health in the population and in the environment, as well as changes in individual behavior. On your From Hunger to Health site, where you run through the ‘Lovely Leptin’ and the ‘Ghastly Ghrelin’ – that is the clearest presentation I have seen about why distributing highly processed foods leads to hunger and obesity. The education with food approach that you are taking is right, because if it leads to us to being able to draw in the grass roots – the little church food pantry in the low-income neighborhood – it could produce a massive movement for change that would lead to a demand for healthier food, and public policies which would promote the production of healthier food.
The public health community often has a top-down approach. They indicate that they’ve done the research and know what is bad for us and are busy getting the word out through all sorts of messaging. But somehow they don’t encourage a process whereby people are able to discover this out for themselves and deduce what kind of changes are needed, for instance in what is available in their local store at a fair price. If food banking could become the pathway by which food insecure Americans began to assert their power towards a healthier food supply, it would be fantastic.
That is what an increasing number of food banks are beginning to promote. Outreach in the past often meant drawing people into our programs, then it became more focused on promoting SNAP. If you look at what Santa Cruz are trying to do with their Ambassadors Program or we are trying to do with our Nutritional Advisory Committees, it is moving things to the next step of empowerment.
Certainly there is more specific interest from Feeding America out of their new strategic plan, in what is possible by ‘mobilizing the public.’ Though I believe there is still a little too much emphasis on that mobilization being focused on people ‘telling their stories’ to the end of helping us highlight the continuing seriousness of food insecurity, rather than taking the next step and empowering them to move beyond their stories and become more involved in creating a local food system that truly looks after their health. It’s hard work, but it’s the kind of ground-up work that leads to true transformation.
I think that this is how things need to happen. We can’t end hunger with more and more food. Mounting inequality means that our public policy is typically made by those who can afford private schools and boutique medical care and gated communities. They are the ones making decisions about how much to invest in the public solutions that are there for the rest of us. They need to hear the voices of those who they are there to serve, or we need to replace them with people who share our interests and problems.
Your most recent book “Free For All” looks at another puzzle palace of American nutrition, the school food system and the need for it to be reformed. Is there a link between the subject matter of these two books?
Both books are all about how average families get by. School food is so important, because the more human needs we can have met through normalized situations like the provision of a healthy school lunch, then the less people have to become marginalized and forced into seeking emergency solutions.
Also, school cafeterias used to be instructional and have an educational function – to teach kids how to eat well. I would say this is something we need more than ever, to compensate for the distortions in diet that are a consequence of the fortunes spent in selling non-nutritious food-like products to kids.
We are hopefully past the days when human services programs are ‘done’ to people via a one-way transmission of goods or services by well meaning and sometimes efficient program staff.
Yet we do still operate in a nonprofit sector where organizations with wonderful development departments can successfully raise money for programs that can be packaged and sold easily, but have little impact beyond the short term.
Proving that impact, specifically the health impact, is a big part of the focus of this blog, but my concern today is the ongoing refinement or reconfiguration of programs – not by the program staff (who might want a quiet life after all the stress of getting the damn thing off the ground and keeping it from falling apart) but by those who are supposed to be the recipients of the program. You know, people.
So in the food area of human services, it comes down to things like having distribution programs at times of the day and days of the week that are convenient for the community, not for the food bank or food pantry; providing the kinds of food that people want (and that are still good for them); structuring the execution of the program in an empowering and sustainable fashion etc. It still comes down to people.
There is a little information on this people power in one of the standing pages of this blog, but here is a chart I recently put together which demonstrates the approach to community leadership and direction of programs that we are trying to engender here in the ‘paradise’ of Santa Barbara (remember, despite Ashton and Mila visiting us last week for a getaway from the white-hot intensity of the media spotlight, there are only 11 Counties out of 58 in CA which have more food insecurity than us. Funny, that didn’t make it into the travel brochures).
This is an early stage flow chart, so apologies for squeezing so much humanity into pastel colored shapes and spearing them with so many arrows. Such is the cruelty of the programmer.
(Double click on the picture to enlarge it)
Our whole deal is trying to build meaningful relationships with people to empower them to transform their lives and communities through a focus on nutrition and health. So follow the arrows up above and try and figure out what the hell is going on.
We have classic kinds of outreach in the community, where bilingual outreach staff are reaching out and trying to build trust. Trust is important in an area like CalFresh (or SNAP or Food Dtamps or…wait for them to change the name again next week) outreach, where there are a lot of fears around signing up for food stamps. (Will my first born have to join the military etc). We find that the food bank can be an excellent organization to build that trust, so that people’s only point of contact is not the (usually) monolithic structure of the local department of social security. We are also there at our own Mobile Farmers Markets and Mobile Food Pantries that bring food out to rural and poorly served area. But this is a very traditional level of contact. It is not desperately empowering, though the help can be beneficial with a combination of short-term (food) and longer-term (food stamps) help.
We don’t want people to be just recipients of services, we want them to be actively involved in helping to shape those services, so we have something called Foodbank Nutrition Advisory Committees, which meet a short while before the beginning of any one of the programs discussed. It can be a pot luck sometimes and is an opportunity for people to get together with one of our outreach staff and provide advice, maybe offer some volunteer support in the actual program, but also to feel comfortable providing critiques of what is working and what is not. Another important side to being on one of these committees is to be able to advocate for help that is needed and to also be able to include those in the neighborhood that might not be able to attend due to disability or looking after kids. As these sessions progress, people feel more comfortable bringing up nutrition issues and concerns and building their understanding and ownership of what is a shared program.
Some people at that point might be interested in getting involved with the local Promotores program and to train as health outreach workers for a number of organizations in the local community. Or they might want to progress on to being Community Nutrition Leaders. These are people who have a closer tie to the Foodbank. They are not just connected to one geographical site, but might be interested in getting involved with nutrition education and CalFresh outreach across a wider area. Stipends can be made available to those who show commitment, along with other acknowledgements, letters of reference for jobs etc.
I think we would be failing the community if we left things at that stage. We as an organization might have had a lot of our volunteer and outreach needs met, but we wouldn’t be doing much to promote systemic change. So the next step is to work with local groups in providing community organization training, so that people feel comfortable moving beyond issues of their own nutritional health and start to ask questions and seek solutions to other issues in the community. These might be nutrition related (like better food in local schools) or they might be related to other local issues. The main thing is providing people with the training and empowerment to decide what is important themselves. Until people own it and generate the power themselves, then it is never going to be sustainable.
As well as advocating over a particular issue, people can also get involved in community development (such as using the Assed Based Community Development model, which will be touched on in a future post). This may seem a long way from a food bank providing some groceries to people who need help. But if the goal is to solve some of problems that lead to hunger, then maybe it isn’t so far fetched.
Maybe a simple potluck can be the beginning of an amazing transformation for a community.