Last Look: Gerry Brisson, vice president for development, Gleaners
The 31-year-old Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan serves all of Southeast Michigan, which is home to 5 million people. It has five distribution centers strategically located throughout a six-county area, as well as storage, transportation and other capacities that enable it to quickly and efficiently get food to people where and when it’s needed. In addition, the food bank purchases food at prices that are dramatically lower than market rates in order to meet the nutrition and quantity requirements of its more than 400 member partners, which include food pantries, soup kitchens, shelters, churches and other agencies that distribute emergency food.
“We fill hunger gaps,” explains Gerry Brisson, vice president for development at Gleaners. “Just in the area of children’s nutrition alone, we increase nutrition awareness, provide meals in after-school programs, provide snacks in schools in high need areas, and get young people involved in volunteer work and philanthropy. And we raise awareness of the causes of hunger, and the issues that still remain as we feed our hungry neighbors.”
Here, FundRaising Success talks with Brisson about Gleaners’ fundraising efforts and philosophies.
FundRaising Success: How do you fund your mission?
Gerry Brisson: We fund our mission primarily through unrestricted donations from individuals and corporations. We also solicit grants from private and public foundations and receive a small amount of local, state and federal government funding.
FS: What are the biggest challenges your organization faces as far as fundraising is concerned? How do you overcome them?
GB: Our biggest fundraising challenge is to meet the rising demands being placed on our food bank today. Food costs are soaring. The availability of free food from all sources is declining. Fuel costs are also rising dramatically. At the same time, more people in our community are asking for food assistance. This puts great pressure on the food bank to raise more funds than we have ever needed.
We overcome those challenges through a comprehensive, integrated fundraising program that includes nine annual direct-mail appeals, individual donor solicitations, four special events, dozens of strategic grant requests and efforts to leverage government funding wherever possible. We combine our fundraising with a robust communication program with three comprehensive newsletters, a powerful and informative Web site, and integrated communications planning so that the fundraising and communications efforts maximally support each other, giving us the most return on our investments and expenditures.
FS Do you foresee any big changes in the way you reach potential donors and other supporters in the near future?
GB: The next few years will see fewer changes and more refinement and improvement of the programs we have been working to put in place for the last two years.
FS How would you describe your fundraising philosophy?
GB: Fundraising is a joy, honor and privilege. But with that comes the responsibility to perform at the greatest level of excellence, efficiency and ethical standards. Effective fundraising isn’t about money. It’s about activating the community to solve a problem that needs to be solved. We measure our success by how effective we are at our core business — but that usually costs money. We communicate that need to people that can — and want to — make a difference. It is the most gratifying and humbling of jobs to be present to both great generosity and great success in making our world a better place to live.
FS How do you reach out to supporters and potential supporters in ways other than purely fundraising? Are you engaged with the new social-media sites — MySpace, Facebook, etc. — and online social networking?
GB: Gleaners has a Facebook page, which we are just starting to explore. We also have special access for our volunteers and partners on our Web site. We have a speakers bureau, a volunteer program with more than 15,000 volunteers, and are engaged in numerous community-based activities including cleaning up our neighborhood and being available to sit on other organization’s boards of directors, to name just a few things. All of these efforts are supported by our online presence, e-blasts, and interactive feedback opportunities in many places on our Web site and even in our print materials.
Most importantly, however, is that even in “purely fundraising” efforts, the greatest joy has little to do with the “funds” and everything to do with getting to know people and experiencing those relationships.
FS Can you describe a recent successful fundraising effort?
GB: Probably the most important fundraising success in the last two years has been with our board of directors. One hundred percent of them are giving. They have more than doubled their personal giving. And many of them are reaching out in new ways to ask others to join our work. They have also approved the funding needed for our rapid expansion effort so that we can meet the emergency food demands of our community. Solid support at the center, in my experience, is the key to all other fundraising success.
FS Any major difficulties or setbacks you’ve faced along the way? Things you would do differently with your fundraising?
GB: We’ve not been perfect, but I wouldn’t say we’ve had any major setbacks. Still, there’s always ways to improve and we are always doing some things differently. Our messages could be clearer and more powerful, the care and nurturing of our donors could be better, and our outreach to volunteers, in particular, could be greatly improved.
FS What advice would you give to organizations similar to yours, in size and annual operating budget?
GB: My advice is to make sure that your development program supports your mission and core business. On this note, the development department should be a great source of both challenge and relief to program and operations staff. Make sure your organization is committed to success and, when it is, be bold, clear and sincere in everything you do. The money will follow.
FS Any additional thoughts?
GB: At a time when competition in our field offers greater opportunities than ever before, we owe it to our communities to be more responsible than we, as a profession, are today. We need to find a way to stay longer with a single [organization] to increase our effectiveness and decrease the monumental costs of fundraising.
For many years, the average tenure on the job for fundraisers has been 18 months — yet we know that it takes a minimum of three to five years to be most effective. I think we all need to ask ourselves the following: Why do we take jobs that we can’t do? Are we committed enough to the missions of the organizations we work for? Do we research an organization’s effectiveness before we accept a position? Are we honest with prospective employers about what we can — and can’t — do? Or are we just chasing bigger salaries? Our responsibility to the profession is the basis of our public trust — the most important aspect of our work. I think we need to find an answer to the issue of tenure or [we] face eroding confidence in our ability to succeed.
Just the Facts
Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeastern Michigan
2131 Beaufait St.
Detroit, MI 48207
Annual Operating Budget: $36 million
Annual Amount Contributed: $34 million
Mission: To nourish our community by feeding hungry people.