Not every organization has the opportunity to show donor love in as big a way as City Harvest. The New York City food-rescue program’s iconic delivery trucks roll through town as gigantic green-and-white love letters on wheels to its donors. Supporters see them and know it’s their money that keeps the trucks gassed up and running, the drivers on payroll, and the food flowing to fellow New Yorkers who need it.
“People don’t see us as a building. It’s all about our trucks and drivers,” says Heather Wallace, vice president of marketing for the nearly 31-year-old organization. “We have 18 trucks that are a constant reminder for donors and non-donors that we are out there. There’s a real connection to the work we do. If you’re at a bakery in the morning and you see a City Harvest driver walking out with a bag of rescued food, you know that the money you’ve given helped to pay for that driver who is helping that excess food get to New Yorkers in need.
“You can’t replicate that for people,” Wallace adds. “They get really excited when they see our trucks stopped on the street because they know they are a part of that. We’re fortunate in that it’s not something every nonprofit is able to do by just carrying out their mission and doing their work.”
But it’s not just that simple. There are hundreds of trucks on New York City streets at any given moment. City Harvest’s stand out because the organization has taken a hugely proactive and concerted approach to branding, and has done it in a way that is consistent with what is quickly becoming apparent as a best practice within the nonprofit community.
Wallace explains that when Pat Barrick joined City Harvest in 2000, she combined the organization’s marketing, communications and fundraising departments under the umbrella of “external relations” and put in motion a collaborative effort that has been a huge factor in the organization’s incredibly successful “30/30/30” five-year strategic plan — to mark its 30th anniversary, the organization set a goal to increase its annual poundage of rescued food from 30 million to 60 million annually by 2016, and it calculated it would need to raise $30 million to accomplish it. Less than two and a half years into the campaign, City Harvest already is more than halfway to its goals.
“At City Harvest, the marketing department helps inform and impact fundraising initiatives, which has resulted in brand recognition and respect and the positive way people feel about City Harvest in New York,” she says. “We have a lot of passionate, very dedicated long-term supporters, and our brand visibility is the core of our fundraising. People feel connected with the brand.
“Without that positive brand recognition, we would be just another letter in the mailbox. But as it is, we are part of the fabric of the city, an essential presence,” she adds. “We’ve done a lot of work to get the brand to the point where we are considered this unique presence in the city. We pioneered food rescue 30 years ago, and New Yorkers love it. They just get it. There is a close-knit relationship between the organization and the people of New York City.”
Wallace says that when Barrick took over, “she really looked at how you use marketing and positioning of the brand to form a basis and foundation for all of our fundraising efforts,” which resulted in a consistency of messaging that enables supporters and even nonsupporters to feel comfortable with the City Harvest brand.
“A lot of work goes into creating that synergy,” she adds. “We have quarterly meetings and ask, ‘What is our messaging for this quarter?’ We have to be very nimble and able to change according to what’s going on in the national and global environment. What are people talking about? How do we keep our organization relevant?”
Wallace uses Hurricane Katrina as an example. Without minimizing the tragedy of the storm that caused untold devastation along the Gulf Coast, City Harvest needed to sustain it donors, even those who might have been contributing to efforts aimed at helping Katrina victims. In its messaging, the organization used lessons learned from Katrina to point out how vulnerable some parts of society are, even in an urban setting, and how easily people can be left without food and other necessities.
“We ask ourselves, how do we connect our messaging with what is going on in the world?” Wallace says.
City Harvest is able to be so nimble because of the marcom/fundraising synergy. Having fundraising staff involved in the decision making around messaging gets everyone on board and makes it easier for the team to be consistent and feel comfortable using it, since everyone has a voice in creating it.
The collaborative approach to developing messaging not only helps secure the City Harvest brand, but it creates an easier transition as donors mature in their relationship with the organization.
“This strong messaging has better resonance with the donors and is more successful. The major-gifts department will talk about it in a more detailed way than the direct-mail department, for example, but the underlying messaging will be the same,” she explains. “Major gifts will involve more personal, higher-level conversations, but the messaging will be the same and everything will be consistent in terms of statistics and numbers, so it’s not such a jarring transition when you go from one level to another.”
Pushed to come up with a downside to the collaborative paradigm at work within City Harvest, Wallace says there’s often a bit of skepticism when new staff members come aboard, since they may come from organizations where the silo mentality rules.
“But they can see the results and the tremendous growth, and that makes it difficult to push back too hard,” she says. “Integration of messaging for all channels has proven itself year over year.”
Wallace explains that when Barrick left City Harvest in May, the organization split the external relations department back into two separate departments — marcom and fundraising — but only because the staff had grown so much under Barrick’s leadership and no one in-house really had her background to manage the combined department in the same way.
But even though the department has been split, the silos remain a thing of the past, Wallace says, adding, “The synergy is still alive.”
“It has been our road map to success, and we couldn’t break from it now,” she says.
A study in donor retention
City Harvest is one of many independent nationwide affiliates of Feeding America. As such, in addition to local food rescue from restaurants, grocers, corporate cafeterias, manufacturers and farms, it receives food that’s processed through the national organization from companies that prefer to give products en masse to a huge clearinghouse rather than in smaller amounts on the local level. Feeding America doesn’t govern City Harvest, but in order to avoid fundraising competition it does stipulate that affiliates can only do donor acquisition in specific areas. City Harvest is restricted to acquisition efforts within the area it serves — the five boroughs of New York City.
If a supporter from outside that area attends an event or writes a check out of the blue, or if a current donor moves to another area, City Harvest can continue its relationship with him or her. But it cannot do full-on acquisition outside of its service area. In that respect, its donor retention must be aggressive. With a mandated geographical donor base, it is even more susceptible to death by attrition than most organizations.
Because of that, City Harvest has zeroed in on the specific strategies to help it offset as much of that donor-base vulnerability as possible — mainly diversification of funding sources and focusing on higher-value donors with better long-term value.
“We have to look very carefully at the types of donors we’re going after. We’re looking for donors who support our mission and feel strongly about supporting our ongoing anti-hunger work,” Wallace says. “We’re looking for quality long-term donors. Because of that strategy, we have a good amount of success upgrading donors from direct mail to major gifts and creating that pipeline.
“We use basic letters about neighbors helping neighbors,” she adds, “and it resonates in New York, where almost everyone is from somewhere else. New York City can be overwhelming, so people are seeking a sense of community. We need to talk about how the dollars we raise are supporting our own community and helping people right in our own backyard who are struggling.”
Diversifying funding sources
Five years ago, Wallace says, direct mail accounted for a quarter of City Harvest’s donated income. Today, it’s at about 20 percent. That’s because another large part of Barrick’s plan was diversification of funding sources to avoid the “putting all your eggs into one basket” syndrome.
City Harvest focuses more heavily now on major donors, as well as institution giving, corporate partnerships and special events, among other channels. What it’s learned about corporate partnerships is that companies are less interested in just writing checks than they are in partnering with an organization to make a difference. Tapping in to those corporate dollars depends heavily on the types of opportunities an organization can offer.
Wallace says City Harvest has found great success in providing volunteer opportunities for groups of employees, which in turn leads to greater overall involvement by the company and, ultimately, corporate partnerships and donations.
Part of City Harvest’s 30/30/30 campaign involves funding a new, 45,000-square-foot facility in Long Island City to accommodate the greater amounts of rescued food that need to be repackaged before being sent out to other facilities for distribution. The space allows City Harvest to bring in volunteer teams to do the packaging.
“We can get 100 people in there packing 20,000 pounds of food over a few hours,” Wallace says. “We have seen an increase in corporate dollars because we focus on creating group volunteer activities, engaging 25- to 100-person groups from a corporation. It really unlocked those dollars. Organizations need to be thinking about engagement activities, as well.”
Leap of faith
Perhaps the biggest change that has happened within City Harvest is its decision to expand the scope of its mission, or rather the way it accomplishes it. Quite simply, City Harvest’s mission is to end hunger in New York City. The bulk of its efforts — 70 percent — involve rescuing food from restaurants and grocery stores, etc., and bringing it to local food organizations for distribution to needy New Yorkers.
But when Jilly Stephens became executive director in 2006, the change in leadership led to expansion of the ways City Harvest works to attack hunger. The organization is increasing its food-rescue goals, but a new initiative, the Healthy Neighborhoods program, sees it examining the root causes of hunger in the city, looking at the most vulnerable neighborhoods and residents, and “addressing the issues that get people off of the food lines so that emergency food is really for emergencies and not what people are living on,” Wallace says.
The organization has programs in place to increase access to affordable, fresh produce and provide nutrition education for low-income residents of all ages. Through its Healthy Neighborhoods programs, City Harvest partners with residents, community organizations, after-school programs and local businesses to achieve a long-term impact in the fight against hunger by engaging residents in healthy choices and enhancing the local food landscape.
Some donors may be somewhat uncomfortable with what they perceive as a departure from City Harvest’s stock-in-trade, which is food rescue and delivery, but Wallace says the organization is making an effort to assure them that the new initiative is indeed in keeping with its mission.
“We took a moment to really look forward,” she says. “We wanted to identify and solve a problem, and we needed to challenge our donors and our community to step up and be with us and do more. We can always do more, we just need the resources to do it.
“It was a matter of stepping out of our comfort zone,” she adds. “We did lots of risk analysis, lots of SWOT analysis, but in the end it was a leap of faith to say this is what we think we can do and are willing to take on that challenge. A lot of organizations get used to doing something and being successful at it, but sometimes we need to step up and take risks and be willing to put a stake in the ground and say, ‘We are going to do more and have a bigger impact. We need to do something dramatic to address the need.’”
City Harvest will start to think about the next stage in its strategic planning as it gets closer to the end of year four of the current stage to determine its “next wave of growth.”
“City Harvest is dedicated to feeding hungry New Yorkers, and we’re always looking for new ways to have a stronger impact in our community,” Wallace says. “We’re not going to end hunger in New York City in five years, but we’ll spend some of that time measuring successes and failures, and plotting a course to reach even more donors with our messages and even more people with our programs.”