An Interview with John Barnes, deputy executive director of programs and development, Food & friends
When a home-bound friend battling AIDS needed something to eat, The Rev. Carla Gorrell realized that the need went well beyond one person. According to John Barnes, deputy executive director of programs and development at Food & Friends in Washington, D.C., what began as lunch for one has grown into an organization that provides three meals a day for more than 1,350 individuals, six days a week.
Founded in a cramped church basement in 1988, Food & Friends moved to a leased 14,000-square-foot warehouse facility in 1995.
"An $8.7 million capital campaign enabled [us] to construct a 26,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art kitchen and pantry facility, first occupied in 2004," Barnes says, "allowing us to initiate new programs to meet the changing needs of people living with HIV/AIDS and other life-challenging illnesses in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan community."
Here, we talk with Barnes about the organization and its fundraising strategies and challenges.
FundRaising Success: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
John Barnes: It is a challenge to keep up with the ever-growing need for Food & Friends’ services. In 2007, for instance, Food & Friends saw an 18.5 percent growth in the number of clients we served. This presents substantial fundraising challenges, as we must raise an ever-increasing level of funding to support the demand for our services of life-sustaining nutrition.
FS: Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
JB: Historically, Food & Friends raises its operating budget on an annual basis, soliciting and receiving few multiyear pledges. Additionally, the organization has depended almost exclusively on annual gifts, receiving relatively little investment income. While we have always had generous donors who include Food & Friends in their estate planning, we also hope to become more focused on funding Food & Friends’ future through planned giving.
Food & Friends recently received a $1 million pledge to establish The Charlotte’s Web Endowment for Youth Service and Volunteerism. In the near future, gifts such as this will permit us to expand our focus from funding only our immediate programmatic needs and capital expenses to assertively expanding our activities so as to ensure Food & Friends’ viability for the indefinite future.
FS: How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
JB: Food & Friends undertakes periodic, fundamental reassessment of its fundraising program, looking toward evolving development activities so as to make best use of personnel and always-changing circumstances. The organization relies upon probing self-assessment by development staff and administrative leadership and upon skillful outside consultation.
Food & Friends’ fundraising aims to be as dynamic as possible. To that end, we emphasize utilizing a resourceful staff working within a collaborative framework so as to create innovative fundraising programs, streamline whenever possible to cut costs and try new ways to excite our donor base while attracting new funders. Food & Friends’ fundraising staff works closely with program staff, so that they may best understand the importance of the programs they are tasked to fund and are able to bring the clients to the donors (literally and figuratively) as much as possible.
The organization’s values shape every element of Food & Friends’ activity, including its development program. Whether dealing with donors, clients, volunteers or staff, the organization is committed to excellence, reliability, hospitality and appreciation in every interaction. Food & Friends recognizes that donors, like staff and volunteers, have many choices for their investment of time or funds.
FS: How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with social-media sites like MySpace, Facebook etc.?
JB: Food & Friends strives to communicate with supporters and potential supporters via avenues other than fundraising appeals. These include a quarterly printed newsletter, monthly e-newsletter, other e-mail communications surrounding special events, through the media and our We bsite. We also work with our corporate supporters to plan volunteer days for their employees and send staff to events in the community such as health fairs and civic events.
FS: Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
JB: In 2007, Food & Friends launched a successful series of cooking classes for our major donors. Building on the popularity of The Food Network and other cooking-related programming, these classes each focus on a unique theme (e.g., cooking with cheese, Greek cuisine, etc.), and feature Food & Friends' executive chef demonstrating how to prepare dishes that the attendees may then sample.
These classes allow us to cultivate donors during a time of year that is traditionally more challenging to attract attention. The classes proved exceedingly popular and have already been extended.
FS: Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
JB: We have experienced several major setbacks. The AIDS Rides, a national series of cycling fundraising events, at one time provided a significant portion (20 percent) of our income. The discontinuation of this event several years ago required that Food & Friends create alternative funding from other special events, corporations and individual donors to make up for the large loss. In retrospect, it would have been advisable to diversify our fundraising several years earlier. However, the ultimate consequence was the creation of a more robust and balanced development program.
Recent reductions in some public funding require that we again rethink and reshape our revenue picture. The inevitability of changing revenue streams requires that we work hard to stay ahead of evolving circumstances.
FS: What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours in size and annual operating budget?
JB: Invest in your fundraising program but always be certain that the core services provided by the organization truly merit support. A genuinely good investment of charitable support is the most important incentive to well-informed donors. Take chances on innovation; careful calculation must be balanced with reasonable risk.