One in six Americans does not have adequate access to food, according to Feeding America. And although food insecurity is not restricted to the homeless or unemployed — only 5% of households that patronized a Feeding America food bank in 2013 were homeless and 54% had at least one working person — it is more prevalent in rural areas. In fact, the USDA reported in 2012 that more than 3 million rural households experienced it.
In Bellingham, WA, one in five families visit area food banks on a yearly basis, says Mike Cohen, executive director of the Bellingham Food Bank, where traffic has spiked 70% since 2007. If not for the help of area businesses such as Industrial Credit Union of Whatcom County ($188.3M, Bellingham, WA), the food bank might not be able to feed the demand.
ICU sponsored its first Feed the Need food drive in 1994 to help area food banks and give back to the community. The event has grown over the years, from 10,000 pounds of food collected in its first year to a now yearly goal of 300,000 pounds, and the credit union has evolved its strategy accordingly.
So how does the credit union generate excitement and participation for a philanthropic program that’s two decades old?
"We're just dang cute," jokes Kim Sutton, executive vice president and coordinator of the drive. Here are five additional best practices the credit union has refined over the years.
1. Keep It Simple
ICU has tinkered with ways to run the food drive over the years but has found it’s best to keep things simple. It holds the food drive during International Credit Union Week, from Monday at 7 a.m. to Friday at 7 p.m., with the goal of collecting 300,000 pounds of food and supplies in one week.
For donation locations, ICU partners with Haggen Food & Pharmacy. The regional grocery chain offers prepackaged bags filled with non-perishable items the food banks need. People can buy that bag for $5 or purchase and donate their own groceries. They can also donate cash.
The Haggen prepackaged bag is a simple strategy from the perspective of both the purchaser and the credit union. The person donating the bag gets the satisfaction of handing over a bag filled with goodies rather than cold, hard cash and the credit union knows exactly what’s been donated.
At the end of the week, ICU calculates the total donated poundage.
“We reach every goal we set,” Sutton says. “We have big-hearted people here.”
2. Cultivate A Reputation
Located in Northwest Washington, Bellingham’s population of 82,000-plus puts it among the top 15 largest cities in the state. Despite the size, Sutton says the area “has the heart of a small community.”
ICU was founded to serve employees at Bellingham’s Puget Sound Pulp and Timber Company, and it has maintained a presence in the area for more than 70 years. The credit union’s strong relationship with its membership has laid the groundwork for its community food drive.
“It’s the relationship our staff has with the members,” Sutton explains. “We ask them for something, we explain the reason behind it, and they give.”
Feed the Need does not have a direct impact on the institution’s balance sheet, but this form of charitable giving has created a circular effect among the credit union, the community, and its people.
“Our name is top of mind when it comes to being involved in the community,” Sutton says. “It makes us a desirable employer. People are coming to us because they want to be involved in the community.”
Next: Staff, Partners, And Gimmicks »
3. Educate The Right Staff
The most important resource behind Feed the Need is ICU’s well-informed, motivated employee volunteers. During the week of the drive, 15 employees staff the donation locations at five Haggen stores from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s a long day, but ICU often compensates workers with a floating holiday if Feed the Need reaches its weekly goal.
Although ICU employees are enthusiastic about the event — a quality Sutton says ICU looks for in new hires — the floating holiday has contributed to the credit union’s ability to find the right people for the Haggen posts. According to Sutton, her staff is competitive. So she divided the credit union’s branches into teams to encourage organic rivalries and higher levels of motivation.
“My team loves it,” she says. “Most of us have been touched by the local food bank. We never get through a food drive without people crying.”
It’s important, too, that volunteers have an informed sales pitch. They know a donation of $1 can buy 10 pounds of food; or that the food bank in Whatcom County collectively handed out more than 6.5 million pounds of food in 2013; or that it’s a myth that food banks only serve the jobless and homeless.
Courtesy of Industrial Credit Union of Whatcom County.
“When they understand the actual impact is not just a can of beans — it’s a livelihood, an opportunity, a hope — that resonates with anybody who walks through our doors,” Sutton says.
4. Find Local Partners
ICU’s food drive involves more than just the credit union. The Haggen store donation locations expand the credit union’s reach beyond its own network of branches. Much like ICU, Haggen is a well-known regional brand with strong ties to the communities it serves. A partnership between the two made sense to both parties: The credit union needed space, and the grocer needed volume.
ICU also partners with local radio conglomerate Cascade Radio Group. Four stations, two AM and two FM, broadcast live from the Haggen locations during the week of Feed the Need. Three times per day, the radio stations update listeners on the weight collected. It’s an awareness tool that, when combined with the credit union's Facebook, website, and Twitter presence, educates the community and inspires others to participate.
“You need a voice,” Sutton says. “Whether that’s going to be print, or radio, or TV, you need a public outlet to get the word out.”
5. Ditch The Gimmicks
For early iterations of the food drive, ICU turned to gimmicks. In its first year, ICU tried to fill a school bus with food. The next year, two DJs drove from New York City to Whatcom County but had to base the miles they drove on the pounds of food donated. Another year, ICU "jailed" DJs in front of the Haggen locations and supplied amenities such as a reclining chair, a bed, and a television based on the poundage each DJ could get people to donate.
According to ICU, these gimmicks are expensive and unnecessary.
“Whatcom County was willing to give just for the opportunity and awareness,” Sutton says. “For the past four years we haven’t done a gimmick. We’ve just asked them to give and spread the word. And we’ve been successful.”
The credit union asks the community to give more frequently, too, and it has risen to the challenge. For the 2014 event, the credit union sponsored two additional programs to benefit area food banks. It introduced the Feed the Need 5K in June and made more than $2,000. And its second annual Food Truck Round Up, held the last Saturday in September, shattered expectations. ICU collected $15,000 from 700 attendees versus $5,000 from 200 last year.
This all goes to show that people will give for a cause they believe in: no gimmicks necessary.