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Sunday, 07 December 2014 22:00

Tapping local champions drives fundraising success for Kids’ Food Basket

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Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director, Kids’ Food Basket. Bridget Clark Whitney, executive director, Kids’ Food Basket. PHOTO: KATY BATDORFF

When Kids’ Food Basket wanted to find a way to include fresh fruits and vegetables in the sack lunches it serves to 6,400 children around West Michigan every weekday, it turned to the power of social media for help.

The Grand Rapids-based nonprofit engaged 40 active social media users to broaden the reach of its Nourish campaign with a goal of bringing in $30,000 in just six weeks last spring. The Kids’ Food Basket team developed a series of hashtags and a video produced in-house that featured a local nutritionist discussing the importance of fresh fruits and vegetables in children’s diets.

But the group still needed to make it easy for donors to contribute to the fundraising campaign, for which Kids’ Food Basket had secured a $10,000 matching grant from an individual donor. The team turned to a local app developer, FoodCircles, for its online giving mechanism that collected donor information and calculated the donor’s gift on a progression bar on the Kids’ Food Basket website.

Given the momentum behind the campaign and the easy donation process, the nonprofit was able to raise $22,000 from local donors and secured another “celebratory” $1,000 match.

“There is nothing simple or easy about childhood hunger but changing the world can be easy,” said Bridget Clark Whitney, the group’s executive director. “We’ve created a model where everyone in the community is welcomed and empowered to make that change. Kids’ Food Basket is a community solution to a community problem. These are our children, in our community, who are in need of this service. We make it easy to change the world.”

Nourish was far from the organization’s only successful fundraiser over the past year. It also generated a buzz with its Kids Helping Kids campaign, which was focused around Go Orange! Day on March 28 to drive awareness among West Michigan youths about local hunger issues and actively engage them as part of the solution.

Similarly, Kids’ Food Basket tapped into a base of community influencers to champion the campaign, including Gov. Rick Snyder who came to Grand Rapids that day to volunteer in making sack lunches. The campaign secured $10,000 in donations, more than 1,000 hours of volunteer support time, and $14,000 in in-kind food donations.

For its successful efforts in raising donations — and awareness — for its mission, Kids’ Food Basket was named the winner of the inaugural MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards in the Fundraising category.

“Our Kids Helping Kids program is about teaching volunteerism, civic engagement and youth philanthropy to children,” Clark Whitney said.

She estimates that 70 percent of the sites Kids’ Food Basket serves also volunteer to help the organization. The Kids’ Food Basket team already has 60 service projects — which usually take place at schools Kids’ Food Basket serves and involve activities ranging from putting together trail mix to weighing items for sack suppers — lined up for December 2014.

“It’s really rare that nonprofits engage their clientele in volunteerism. But we know that kids benefit from learning about civic engagement and learning about their responsibility,” Clark Whitney said. “Our Kids Helping Kids program helps kids understand (their) role. It’s not a handout, it’s a ‘hand in.’”

Over time, the organization has had to transform itself to meet the growing demand for sack lunches from children in Kent and Muskegon counties.

In the 11 years Clark Whitney has been involved with the organization, Kids’ Food Basket has undergone significant growth, from serving 125 children in 2002 to around 6,400 children each weekday currently. Under Clark Whitney’s leadership, Kids’ Food Basket has grown its annual budget from $20,000 to $4.2 million after factoring in volunteer time. The organization has become one of the largest and most successful anti-childhood hunger programs in the state of Michigan — and has been recognized around the country.

Kids’ Food Basket averages 175 volunteers each day and engages more than 20,000 volunteers yearly.

To accommodate that growth, Kids’ Food Basket in 2009 tapped into Amway Corp. Vice President of Global Supply Solutions Jay Ertl, who serves as the board treasurer and CFO at the nonprofit, for help with Lean Six Sigma training to identify and remove waste from its business processes.

“Nonprofits sometimes have a tendency to act independently of for-profit business mentality,” said Ertl, one of Clark Whitney’s key mentors. “(Lean Six Sigma training) is a marriage of the for-profit business and some of the methods and techniques used there and applying them there (at KFB) to make sure they are … effective in the delivery of their services.”

“By being more effective that way, we can make sure that every dollar invested by our donors goes to programming instead of covering administrative costs,” Ertl added, noting that 85 percent of every charitable dollar goes to programming.

“It’s a very high percentage and we pride ourselves on that.”

The Lean Six Sigma team made suggestions that Clark Whitney said she never would have thought of, such as color coding parts of the process and putting casters — small wheels — on all tables and storage shelves to reduce wasted space by having non-permanent furniture.

“The bottom line is that we learned how to do more with what we have and how to better manage space, resources and inventory,” Clark Whitney said. “It was really about applying an efficiency lens that we hadn’t previously been trained in. Now it’s a part of our culture.”

Kids’ Food Basket also relies on its diverse board of directors to help bring in new skills in addition to Lean Six Sigma. Ertl first got involved with KFB as a fund development committee volunteer in 2007. He uses his knowledge from Amway and applies what he has learned in the business field and supply chain management to help increase capacity at KFB. He said the board looks for “a wide range of expertise” when recruiting new members.

“We’ve got bankers, a financial planner, a nutritionist … all this different expertise we leverage to help KFB,” he said. “We can get strong advice that a lot of times we don’t have to pay for.”

The board also has an important role in fundraising for the organization. There’s a fund development committee, which is responsible for identifying funding. Their purview is securing funding from donors and corporations and grants from foundations. Ertl said around 40 percent of the charitable donations come from individuals personally, 30 percent from corporations and 30 percent from other sources.

“I truly believe in leveraging the knowledge and skills of our people base before throwing money at the problem,” Clark Whitney said. “That’s a huge part of our culture here and how we’ve always been.”

Part of the organization’s culture is a focus on continuous annual growth, said Ertl, noting that “one commitment Kids’ Food Basket has made from inception” is that it never reneges on a client.

Relentless optimism coupled with lean processes and a committed base of volunteers and donors has enabled the organization to grow into a multi-million dollar operating budget and a service area that includes greater Grand Rapids, Muskegon and, in the near future, Holland-Zeeland, sources said.

The organization has come a long way since Mary K. Hoodhood founded it more than a decade ago, said Clark Whitney, who started at Kids’ Food Basket as an intern while attending Aquinas College and eventually worked her way up to executive director.

“I’ve had to learn everything firsthand and I’ve had to be very resourceful,” Clark Whitney said. “When you start out with $3,000 and 125 kids to feed, you’ve got to get really creative.”

Editor’s note: Ruth Terry contributed to this report.

Sidebar: Kids' Food Basket

  • Mission statement: Attacking childhood hunger to help young people learn and live well.
  • Service area: Kent and Muskegon counties
  • Executive director: Bridget Clark Whitney (with the organization for 11 years)
  • Number of employees: 22
  • Annual budget: $4.2 million
  • Best practices: KFB treats volunteers like donors — 175 volunteers (average) per day are engaged, appreciated and aware of their impact. Board members are willing and able to contribute time, talent and treasure to support the mission. Continuous growth — personal, professional and organizational — is a core KFB value.


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