Tough strategic choices

Tough strategic choices
October 11, 2011 Betsy Stone

What guides us: concern for clients like this little one

Ninth in a series

In the wake of what we would eventually learn was arson – part of a string of fires in Midtown and not targeted at destroying River City Food Bank – our Board of Directors faced a series of difficult strategic decisions:

  • Is there a distinct need for a Midtown-based food bank, and a food bank that serves the entire county with regular weekday hours, regardless of zip code?
  • Should River City Food Bank lease or buy space for a permanent location?
  • Should River City Food Bank formalize a capital campaign?
Reaffirming need
Nonprofits can and should evaluate whether they can sustain their mission as an independent organization, and whether they have a distinct reason for being that does not duplicate what is already being done well in the community.
River City Food Bank’s main program is straightforward: it provides compassionate food relief in the form of healthy, three-day emergency groceries to people in need.  Those people can live anywhere in Sacramento County.
There are other food banks, but they either don’t serve some zip codes, or they have very limited operations (for example, only one or two days per week).
Serving over 4,000 clients a month in mid-2011, River City Food Bank is not the biggest hunger relief program, but it is an important part of the food safety net in Sacramento.  We also try to distinguish ourselves by offering more than empty carbohydrates; our goal is to help our clients be able to provide healthy meals that include fresh vegetables and fruit, as well as protein.  Quality of food, not just quantity, is important — especially since one in four families with children now struggles to put enough food on the table.
With more children hungry, and the recession far from over, the need for River City Food Bank is evident in the growing numbers of people turning to us for help.
Lease or buy?
It sounds like a simple business decision: what costs less over the long run — leasing or buying?  In the case of River City Food Bank, however, that decision was related to the plans of one of its most important and valued partners, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California. Until the fire,  the Diocese allowed us to operate from one of its small buildings on 27th Street.  The Bishop’s office, located next door, was also destroyed by the fire.
As the Diocese looked forward, it hoped that RCFB would become part of its long-term plan to replace the burned buildings on 28th Street with a new building.  How could River City Food Bank secure a permanent location while keeping open the possibility of a future location with the Diocese and Trinity Cathedral?
In the end, depressed real estate prices opened up a possibility that no one could have expected in the aftermath of the fire: buying a building outright without need for a loan.  Tony Whittaker (CB Richard Ellis), Doug Bayless (Bayless Properties) and Todd Stone (Ray Stone Inc.) conducted a survey of properties in the Midtown/East Sacramento area that met the organization’s criteria list. A building that conformed perfectly to RCFB’s current needs was on the market due to a bankruptcy.  The sellers were eager to negotiate before they lost the asset to bank foreclosure.
Of course, it took a little process… submitting for a use permit and gaining the support of the City of Sacramento Planning Commission, while reassuring some anxious neighbors that the area surrounding 28th and R would be better off, not worse off, by our location there.
The opportunity to purchase the 1800 28th Street building came up so quickly that River City Food Bank didn’t have time to plan and mount a capital campaign, a natural opportunity after the fire.  It would have been a wonderful opportunity to secure a strong financial base that enabled RCFB to fully develop its program of compassionate relief from hunger.  For example, RCFB employs the only full-time food stamp outreach coordinator in the community, Edith Martinez.  As wonderful as Edith is, we know we are only scratching the surface – especially when it comes to vulnerable low-income seniors.  We’d also love to be able to expand our innovative BackSnacks program, through which we provide weekly supplies of healthy snacks to kids on Fridays, so that they have the energy they need to stay healthy, participate in activities and do well in school.
Thanks to spontaneous donations, RCFB was in a strong enough position to purchase the building without incurring debt, debt which would have cut into funds available to supplement its stores of donated food.  The organization postponed consideration of its long-term needs for capital investment and operating funds.
When someone accepts an appointment as a voluntary member of a Board, there is always the possibility that he or she may be asked to step up in a big way.  Every member of the RCFB came through for the organization and its mission. Besides the many extra meetings and conference calls, Board members took on individual projects in the face of pressing deadlines.
The organization is deeply indebted to the officers and Board members who shepherded the organization during the Fall 2010 and Spring 2011 Board terms:
Susan Timmer, Board President
Chris Swanson, Past President
Pam Kepler, Treasurer
Jordan Blair, Vice President
Britt Olson, Secretary
Bill Coyle
Kevin Davis
Bill Edwards, PhD
Sheila Hard, J.D.
Harry Hills
Norma Lammers
Diane Cummins
Joseph Mendez
Michael Rivera
Marion Welch
Tony Whittaker
Next: Last in the series: getting “Inspired” for our new building, and the one year anniversary of the fire

Posted by @philanthrophile, also known as Betsy Stone
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