Community

Food bank hires a facilitator to help agency address a range of concerns

 

The one-page letter, addressed to volunteers and signed by board president Stephen Benowitz, says the consultant’s work will enable the small community food bank “to develop a process to resolve differences of perspectives, information and positions so that we can continue working together in a cooperative, productive and mutually satisfying manner.”

In an interview Sunday, Ben-owitz said the board decided to hire the consultant after some volunteers raised concerns about what they saw as an inadequate amount of protein-rich food being offered to clients as well as the growing size of the food bank’s cash reserves.

“We’ve had conversations about both of those issues,” said Benowitz, a retired federal administrator who joined the board three years ago. “If they don’t understand our explanation or don’t accept it, I want to know that.”

The consultant, Jim Reid, founder of The Falconer Group and a part-time lecturer at the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Affairs, will also provide ideas and a process to enable the food bank’s staff and board to address issues that may come up in the future, Benowitz added. 

“We want a process in place; we want skills to help us communicate in the future,” Benowitz said.

Reid is charging the food bank half his normal hourly rate, or about $2,500 for his work, Benowitz said.

About a dozen volunteers sent the board a letter late last year expressing their concerns and then four of them — acting as representatives of the larger group — met with food bank executive director Yvonne Pitrof and board treasurer Bill Dorn earlier this year. Reached by The Beachcomber, most of those volunteers opted not to speak on the record, but all of them said the issue of protein-rich food — particularly milk and eggs — has improved significantly in the last few months.

“We talked about some things that were bothering us, ... including the amount of food that was being provided and concern that more money was being set aside for a rainy day,” said Nancy Brenner, one volunteer who agreed to speak on the record and who was a part of the delegation that met with Pitrof and Dorn earlier this year. 

“From that point on, ... we’ve had more food and consistent rules about the food. It feels like there are more choices.”

“I was very concerned,” she added. “Now, I’m not at all.”

But others say they continue to wonder about the food bank’s cash reserve, which has grown considerably over the last few years. According to the food bank’s tax returns, which are publicly available, the food bank had $151,125 in cash reserves at the end of 2007; by the end of 2009, the last tax return available, the reserve had doubled to $330,212.

Pitrof and board members said the food bank has worked to increase its reserves out of a sense of conservative budgeting: Most non-profits strive to have six months of their operating expenses available as reserves. With more than $300,000 in the bank, the food bank — which has an annual budget of around $600,000 — has met that goal, they said.

What’s more, Benowitz said, a food bank’s infrastructure is expensive and complex. If one of its industrial-strength refrigerator’s broke down, for instance, the organization could face a crisis requiring an immediate need for cash, he said.

Barbara Stratton, a board member who served as the board’s president before Benowitz, agreed. “The decision was made several years ago to build up the reserve,” she said.

But some of the volunteers say the board’s analysis doesn’t make sense to them. While the food bank has a $600,000 budget, more than $400,000 of that comes in the form of donated food, much of it from large nonprofits such as Northwest Harvest. Its monthly cash expenses in 2009 amounted to about $14,000 a month or $84,000 for six months, according to an analysis the volunteers asked Island activist Hilary Emmer to conduct.

But Stratton said it was important for the organization to have far more in reserve in case “something happens like the earthquake that just hit Japan” and the donation stream dries up entirely.

Some volunteers said they believed the board is building up the food bank’s reserves to enable the organization to buy a new building or land for a new structure and questioned the agency’s transparency. 

Its current facilities are cramped and inadequate, both volunteers and staff agree. The site is particularly inadequate during cold or inclement weather, as clients often have to queue up outside.

But Benowitz and Stratton said the board has no intention of using its cash reserves to find a new site, nor has any decision been made to relocate, expand or refurbish its current facilities.

“I know there are people around who would love to see the food bank in a bigger space and who might be willing to help,” Benowitz said. “But the board doesn’t think it’s appropriate at this time to proceed with that. ... People have talked about all kinds of things. But there’s been no decision.”

At the same time, Benowitz said, he realizes the organization needs to be more transparent with its volunteers, whom he called “the heart and soul of the working side of the food bank.”

“It’s a communication thing,” he said.

Pitrof, who has helmed the organization for six years, agreed. 

“Communication really broke down in a way we didn’t realize,” she said, adding that the situation was made more complex because of some unfounded rumors that started circulating.

“Faciliting really solid conversations ... to get it all out on the table has been difficult,” she said.

But both she and Benowitz are pleased to have someone of Reid’s caliber step into the situation. “I’m feeling really positive about it,” Pitrof said.

 

 

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