The Akron-Canton Regional Food Bank is working to solve the problem of hunger and its root causes.
“To be most specific, we are a hunger-fighting agency, but hunger is derived from poverty,” says President and CEO Daniel R. Flowers.
And poverty is persistent. According to the Ohio Poverty Report issued by the state’s Development Services Agency in February 2014, 16.3 percent of Ohio’s population is poor — 1.82 million people — and that’s roughly equal to the national average.
“That’s huge,” Flowers says. “And it hasn’t gone down. Poverty increased every year from 2000 to 2012. It stayed the same from 2012 to 2013. So, throughout the recession and what seems like the recovery, although people have gone back to work, the number of people that are poor now is as high as it’s ever been. That’s what drives this.”
Though its mission is clear and it has its work cut out for it, the logistics of accomplishing its goals are pretty staggering: The Food Bank serves eight Northeast Ohio counties, supplies 500 food pantries, delivers 24 million pounds of food and manages $34.5 million in funding. To pull all of this off, the Food Bank needs good people.
“Because of the administrative complexity and sophistication that this Food Bank and food banks around the country have grown to operate with, the need for top-caliber professionals that come to the agency and stay at the agency is absolutely critical,” Flowers says.
Flowers and the Food Bank seek people who have experience in related industries, such as the food business, logistics, nonprofits and fundraisers who are better aligned with the organization’s functional activities from the start.
“But from my vantage point, that has always been second to relational qualities,” Flowers says. “We really are looking for highly collaborative, highly professional, highly committed people that are willing to work essentially constantly. Our staff culture is always on. We are very tethered to one another and we work a lot. And we work really, really hard all the time. That takes a certain type of person to sign up for that.”
To retain those employees, the Food Bank puts people first.
“People are drawn to the mission because they want purpose in their work. But if they weren’t being equipped with resources and if they weren’t being given an opportunity to express themselves creatively, if they weren’t being paid and compensated at a fair and reasonable and equitable rate, then you would not be able to establish a culture with continuity to maintain compliance. And I’ve always been focused on that,” Flowers says.
His view on caring for staff is a concept Flowers also sees as central to the relationship between any nonprofit board and its CEO.
“Take the care and feeding of your CEO and your staff very, very seriously,” Flowers says.
“The best performing nonprofits are always the ones that start with the board. It starts at the top. Hire a great CEO and hold the leader accountable and give him or her the staff resources to stay and do the work,” he says.
But for their part, executives of nonprofits need to learn how to work with their boards to make the organization as effective as possible.
“Sometimes the executive directors can be intimidated or scared of the boards,” Flowers says. “When you first start, (the board has) a lot of people, and an inexperienced or new ED might not quite know how to navigate that and it takes time to get comfortable in your own skin.”
Never walk alone
There may be good reason for Flowers to be intimidated by his board. It comprises leaders from some of the area’s largest companies: The J.M. Smucker Co., The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., Akron Children’s Hospital and The Timken Co., to name a few.
“And collectively, they have really brought resources and thought and innovation into the organization that, to me, you really would be missing the boat to not gain from that. So many people have invested their ideas, time and money and thought into this place, and it has really accelerated the way we operate,” Flowers says.
Further, hundreds of businesses contribute to the Food Bank in some way each year.
“The Food Bank is naturally an organization that speaks to business. Although a lot of people tend to, in their head, visualize the Food Bank as kind of the food pantry in the church basement, when you come into our warehouse you see a much different thing,” Flowers says.
“People from the business sector, when they walk through, identify strongly with what it is we’re doing. And our ability to, through our lean practices and efficiencies that we build into the structure of the operations, create more efficiencies that return more resources to the people in need has a really strong appeal to people in business.”
Flowers says many businesses that don’t support the Food Bank financially will provide training to its staff and consult on better business practices.
For instance, when the Food Bank was pursuing a third-party food certification, he says a quality team from Smucker’s came in and reviewed all the Food Bank’s food safety operating procedures, revamped them and helped implement all new food safety practices.
That kind of input has helped Flowers put his role with the Food Bank in perspective.
“I think, over time, you just kind of learn that you don’t have to have the idea,” Flowers says.
“A lot of times (nonprofit CEOs) feel that our contributions are our ideas. Certainly ideas are important to contribute. But for leaders, oftentimes the greatest contributions are making space for other people’s ideas. That is a lesson that takes a long time to learn, and you have to develop a lot of confidence. The longer that I have been in the job, the more I have come to this feeling like, ‘OK, I think I have a record to stand on and maybe I can learn to lead in other ways.’”