Boulder Food Rescue At a Year
It’s been almost exactly a year since I sat down and started filling out the paperwork to create a 501(c)3 nonprofit called Boulder Food Rescue. Since then, we’ve grown from the three founders (myself, Hana Dansky, and Becky Higbee), to a crew of more than a hundred folks in Boulder who are passionate about issues surrounding food: both reducing waste and getting nutritious fruits and vegetables to folks who wouldn’t otherwise have access to them. This week, we’ll hit 150,000 lbs of food rescued. Last month, we rescued almost 24,000 lbs. Every month, we have rescued more food than the last. And, perhaps most excitingly, there are food rescue groups in Oakland and Denver that are beginning to use our model. This, to me, indicates that we’re doing something right: we’ve developed a powerful model that supports a straight-forward idea. And, we’re addressing very real issues.
This month, Hana, who has been working as a full-time volunteer since we started the organization, took the position of Executive Director. Having a paid staffer is a big step for us, and I have great faith in Hana’s ability to lead the organization. We’re currently fundraising to support the position (contribute if you can!). Prior to Hana taking the helm, I’ve served as the defacto Executive Director. It’s been an absolutely enjoyable experience, from which I’ve had the opportunity to learn a great deal. With Hana taking over, I thought I’d write a little something about what I’ve learned, running an all-volunteer nonprofit. Maybe there’s a book somewhere that tells you to do these things, but I haven’t read it. These are simply the things that I’ve gathered, some of them seemingly by accident and some through a lot of hard work:
Be Uncompromising: When we started Boulder Food Rescue, we decided that we wanted to solve the issues of food waste and hunger (malnutrition) in our community. We wanted to create an idea that could spread to other areas. But, in hindsight, perhaps most importantly, we wanted to do it without substantial environmental impact—using bicycles to transport the food. In the first couple months, I fielded a lot criticism about this. Were we being too idealistic? Too stubborn? It couldn’t work in the winter, could it? What if there was too much food? Could food be transported safely when it got hot? Well, it works. And, more than that, I think that the uncompromising nature and sheer stubbornness of this goal is responsible almost directly for our success. Doing food rescue by bike draws attention to what you’re doing, it conveys your commitment and passion, it provides access to a ready set of natural allies vis a vis the bike community, and perhaps most importantly, it’s fun. In hindsight, I can’t underestimate how important that decision was to getting us where we are.
Don’t pay for anything you might be able to get for free: Time and time again I’ve been surprised at what other organizations and individuals are willing to give as a gift, when all we do is ask. People have donated bike trailers, tools, and a tremendous amount of their time and expertise. We’ve managed to survive a year on an extremely small budget and in part that’s because we’re frugal, creative, and crafty. Knowing what you can get for free, what you can ask to have donated, and what you must pay for, is essential for keeping costs down.
Be Persistent: Simply put, grocery stores don’t want to donate food. As profit-motivated organizations, it’s not immediately clear that it’s in their best interest. Their employees are overworked and distracted by other projects. They (often) hire communications personnel trained to convey their business in the best possible light (even when it isn’t strictly true) and to politely turn away any inquiry that may require a bit extra work or distract from the central mission. While this is especially true of grocers, it’s also true of restaurants, caterers, and bakeries. Every single one of our donors told us “no”, usually many times, before they eventually said “yes”. And, it was sheer persistence and commitment to our ideas that allowed us to patiently ignore the “nos”, while waiting for the “yes” we knew was coming. This stubborn persistence takes work, but I think it has been essential to our succeeding to the extent that we have.
Lead By Example: I don’t have any training in managing people (or employees). I know there are classes on this that tell you what to say and how to motivate employees and volunteers. I don’t know if those things work, but here’s what has worked for me: work to the standard that you want other people to work to. If you do the jobs that no-one else wants to do, and do them well and happily, then other people may decide to follow your lead. If you come to meetings, and show up on time, and work with passion, it may rub off. I try to work harder than anyone else that I ask to help me so that when I do ask for help, I have a chance to have earned the permission to make that request.
Ask for Help When you Need It: The first month the nonprofit existed, we ran in the red. I paid for things out of pocket and watched our negative balance grow. Then, one morning, I wrote an email to about 30 of my friends and family. I told them what I was doing and asked for a little help monetarily to get things going. I was blown away by the generosity. We went from a negative balance of almost $1,000 to a positive balance of ~$2,000 almost over night. It was due to these people that we were able to get off the ground to begin with. Then, sometime during the Spring, I had to ask for help again: I ran into a personal conflict between the 40+ hours a week I was putting into Boulder Food Rescue, and the 80+ hours a week I needed to put into my thesis to finish by the deadline I had set. I was overworked and stressed out, and for a moment there, I stopped enjoying the work that I had enjoyed the most because it felt like I was just moving, robot-like, from one task to the next. Then I did something that doesn’t come naturally (to me at least): I asked for help. In particular, I asked Becky, Hana, Helen, and Nora if they could take over some of the things I had been doing (on top of all the work they were already doing). I was blown away by their response and willingness to take on more responsibility and to help me when I needed it. In addition to reminding me what it means to be a good friend and helping out when it’s needed, they showed that they wanted to do more and were more than happy to step up.
I don’t want to even start to claim that this is all there is to running a successful all-volunteer nonprofit organization. I think there’s a great amount that is domain-specific: minutia about how to do outreach and recruiting, and we’ve learned plenty there too, which we’ve tried to package into a handy publication to help other food rescue groups get started. But, for me at least, these five things are the big ones. They have become a personal mantra and I think they might be generally adaptable to other organizations. While they feel obvious in hindsight, a year ago I wouldn’t have even known where to start if someone asked me how to run a nonprofit. I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity I’ve had to develop these skills and all the wonderful people I’ve worked with. I know that Hana will be a fantastic leader of the organization—in many ways I feel that she’s naturally a better leader than I am. I’ve done my best to create an organization with momentum, but in the end we got lucky too: we found a strong community, we tapped into an issue that a tremendous number of people seem to be able to readily relate to and want to help with, and we’ve been the beneficiaries of a huge amount of generosity. I’m excited to see where Boulder Food Rescue is at its second anniversary, and to hear all about the necessary lessons that came with taking a one year old organization through its second year.