I started my career in food banking in Portland OR in the early 1980’s. Fresh out of graduate school with a masters-degree in public health and clinical nutrition, I moved to Portland. Then two-weeks later I narrowly survived a house fire that consumed everything I owned. Ronald Reagan was just elected president and the public health sector and worker rights were being dismantled. Hunger relief quickly became a booming business. It was a dark time.
The Dawn of Food Banking
This was the dawn of food banking. I was hired by Oregon Food Share (now Oregon Food Bank) and was the third employee – part time and in a grant funded position with an uncertain future. My task was to write and illustrate the first food banking handbook and convene a statewide conference of emergency food providers from around the state.
During our first year we distributed 250,000 pounds of food. My full-time job at the food bank was to supervise 15 VISTA volunteers who were to do local organizing and build the first statewide food banking system in the country. I was also responsible for soliciting food from grocery companies and food manufactures. It was not unusual to drive a warehouse forklift in the morning, and put on a suit in the afternoon to have meetings with corporate donors and other supporters.
Soon, soliciting money became part of my responsibilities, and like so many, before I knew it, I became a fundraiser. I left Oregon Food Share after six years as its acting executive director, the year we distributed more than 20 million pounds of food to a network of more than 600 agencies. We also had created the first statewide “Hunger Factors Assessment” research study with University of Oregon, which became a model that is still used today.
Hard Times Are a Two-Sided Coin
I share this with you for two reasons. First – even during hard times, great progress can be made that may endure for decades. Second – we are now living through one of those times when a very large segment of society is focused on survival and another smaller segment is trying to find ways to help.
Nonprofit organizations face these opportunities and challenges as well. Advancement officers and other executive leaders and volunteers must find a path to both financial survival and fulfillment of mission. This means different things to each nonprofit sector and each organization within it.
Be Present While Looking to the Future
Our common strategy, that which we must all do, is to be in the present while looking to the future. We must be creative, bold, efficient and practical about the challenges of today, and spend as much time as possible learning from others about how to successfully and creatively move forward. Reach out to your colleagues. Participate in webinars and read articles related to your sector.
Do these things even if, and especially if, you have been furloughed. Stay sharp, write down your thinking and ideas, and construct strategies that can be helpful to your organization when you return, and to other organizations. These will be some of your discussion points when finding new opportunities.
The dark times can feel impassable, but they are not.
Stay safe and find funny!
For strategies: Fundraising in the Time of COVID-19