Local nonprofit cultivates corporate network.
By Ret Boney
Every month, the Food Bank of Central & Eastern North Carolina collects and distributes more than 2.5 million pounds of food through its 883 partner agencies to feed more than 400,000 people.
To do that, the Raleigh, N.C., nonprofit relies heavily on a network of hundreds of corporate supporters, including grocery stores that donate food, transportation companies that contribute trucking services, and local businesses that give cash, organize food drives and loan employee expertise.
“Food, money and volunteer time — those are the three things that make the Food Bank go around,” says Jane Cox, executive director.
Part of the America’s Second Harvest network, the Food Bank raises almost 20 percent of its $5.8 million annual budget from the corporate sector, not including food donations.
The bulk of corporate support comes in the form of food donated by manufacturers and virtually all local grocery-store chains, including Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Lowes Foods, Kroger and Wal-Mart, all of which contributed to the combined 31.1 million pounds of food collected last year, valued at about $1.68 a pound.
“So we’re a $50 million corporation,” says Cox.
Cash also is critical for an organization with about 65 employees working in 100,000 square feet of warehouse space spread over five sites, Cox says.
The group last year raised $680,000 from local companies, including sponsorships, as well and free media time from local newspapers and television and radio stations.
Another big sponsor is the Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation which donated $1.5 million over three years to provide programs and staff for the Food Bank’s Kids Café, an afterschool program currently in 12 counties for children at risk of hunger.
And last year alone, volunteers logged more than 90,000 hours, or the equivalent of 45 full-time employees, with most of those hours coming from local business and civic groups, support that often means more than just free help.
“Money follows interest,” says Cox. “To whatever degree you’re able to involve people – they’re the ones making the change happen.”
Cox says the fact that the Food Bank operates like a business, and communicates with corporate supporters on those terms, is critical.
“There are synergies between the corporate mentality and the way the Food Bank operates,” she says, noting its attention to tracking, accountability and its efficient use of funds.
For example, 96 cents of every dollar donated goes to food or food-related expenses, she says, and for each dollar donated, the Food Bank can distribute $10 in food.
The Food Bank’s most involved corporate supporter is Cisco Systems’ local Research Triangle Park office, which contributed $450,000 in unrestricted cash each of the last two years, well over half the nonprofit’s total corporate cash support.
But money is just the beginning of Cisco’s support.
Following the lead of its board chair and former CEO, John Morgridge, who challenged all employees to support the Second Harvest movement, Cisco at RTP has adopted the Food Bank as the main beneficiary of its charitable efforts.
“When you look at the numbers, we know that our money is going to be used to address hunger issues,” says Joe Freddoso, director of site operations for the local office. “It’s highly efficient, well-run, well-managed. And they are great stewards of the money that we do donate.”
In addition to cash donations, Cisco organizes a series of fundraising and food donation efforts each fall to support the Food Bank’s Heart of Carolina annual food drive.
The company holds raffles, a five-kilometer run, and an online auction that raised $25,000 last year.
And two years ago, company executives took bids to dye their hair, with Freddoso earning $5,000 for the Food Bank by shaving his head.
Cisco also sends groups of employees to the Food Bank to sort food and build team spirit.
“We wear a badge on our belts that talks about Cisco culture,” says Freddoso. “We’ve built fun events into it and people look forward to it.”
Every dollar a Cisco employee donates to the Food Bank is matched twice, once by the Cisco Foundation and once by Morgridge from his personal account, so the $150,000 raised by employees each of the last two years resulted in a total of $450,000 after matching.
In 2001, during its first and only layoff, Cisco gave a group of employees the opportunity to work for a nonprofit at reduced salaries and full benefits, and two went to the Food Bank to assess its technology infrastructure and help automate business processes.
Cisco later formalized the loaned executive idea and now calls it the Executive Leadership Fellowship program, which allows employees to take a three-to-six-month leave to work for a nonprofit at full salary and benefits.
Two of those leadership fellows have gone to the Food Bank, and with $120,000 worth of donated equipment, they networked the various systems, allowing all employees across its five sites to communicate with each other and access the inventory and management systems in real time.
“We’re all tapping into the inventory control system at the same time now, which is faster, smoother and more efficient,” Cox says.
But the Food Bank’s corporate support may hit a snag this fall as businesses across the country respond to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.
“Right now, companies are donating in such large quantities, there’s nothing left over,” says Lindsey Graham, the Food Bank’s public relations coordinator. “Even grocery stores are harnessing those supplies for disaster relief.”
The Food Bank has already sent six tractor-trailers of food in response, some to the Gulf region, and some to local agencies caring for evacuees in North Carolina.
And Cox spent two weeks in Texas and Louisiana helping out and has sent two drivers down.
Empty food pallets in the Food Bank’s warehouses are a symptom of the redirected corporate gifts, but the group is hoping corporate donors will remember ongoing local needs too.
Cisco, for one, still has the Food Bank on its radar screen.
While the company has pledged a total of $5 million for Katrina relief, including employee contributions and matches, and is providing technology assistance in disaster areas and shelters, Cisco’s Freddoso is optimistic.
“There have been disasters in recent years and we’ve still been able to maintain our giving,” he says. “My hope is that we won’t see any degradation in what we do for the Food Bank.”