Perhaps nothing is more traditional, wholesome or all-American than gathering up and giving food to the needy. Whether through a community wide canned goods drive or food collection barrels in churches or at people’s workplaces, it is an almost universally accepted practice for people who wish to help the less fortunate to go to the store or their kitchen to get actual cans, jars, boxes or bags of food for that noble purpose. That is a good thing. There is no such thing as a bad container of food given in love and charity to feed the needy.
However, when as many as one in ten people in the community are hungry and the total need for food aid is many thousands of pounds, we cannot possibly meet that need unless we are mobilizing and employing the community’s anti-hunger resources at an optimal level. Food drives are not optimal because the food purchased for food drives is way too expensive.
Giving food is expensive
In a food drive, where does the food come from? Someone buys it at the store. How much does food cost at stores? Full retail prices. So, for example, $10 brings into the charity food system $10 worth of food. That inefficiency is compounded when the gift enters the charity system by being dropped into a food collection barrel or leaving it in a bag on your front porch for someone to pick up. Giving in this way is virtually impossible to document for tax deduction purposes. Household by household, that doesn’t amount to much. But giving in ways that are easy to document for tax deduction purposes can drive down the community-wide bottom line cost of ending hunger by up to 25 percent!
Giving money costs donors less
For example, if someone writes a check and gives it to your agency so that you can buy food, it costs the donor 25 percent less than if they give you the same dollar value’s worth of food. Spread across an entire community or region, that difference is huge. Assume that the average pound of food costs a dollar. For every million pounds or million dollars worth of food it takes to end hunger in your community, this change is worth $250,000. In my 40-county service area, moving from food drives to fund drives dropped the cost of ending hunger by $12.5 million per year.
It is by taking advantage of these sorts of cost-saving opportunities that we can draw the cost of ending hunger down to levels our communities can afford, thereby making ending hunger more achievable, and thus more likely to occur.
But people like to give cans
If you ask someone to write a check instead of giving cans, many of them will simply not give at all. However, you can afford to lose a great deal of your traditional support and come out significantly ahead.
However, no one is suggesting that all canned good drives are bad, or that any community should immediately end or even try to end all canned good drives. Many canned good drives have primary objectives other than ending hunger. They exist as an opportunity for Boy Scouts to do a community-wide good deed, or to give people an opportunity to clean out their cupboards or as part of some larger agenda in a church. But, if charity food programs across America will begin to gently coax food-drive promoters to transition to fund drives, we can reduce the cost of ending hunger in America by nearly $2 billion per year.
Waste Not Want Not!
Let’s assume your church is in a community of 3,500 people that has a poverty rate of about 11 percent, which is approximately the national average. From those numbers the Waste Not Want Not research would project a likely annual food assistance need in the community of just over 90,000 pounds.
Suppose people in your church faithfully bring in cans of food for its own or another church’s pantry to help meet that need. And let’s assume they bring in an average of 300 16-ounce cans per week. That would meet 15,600 pounds, or about 17.3 percent of the need, at a total cost of $10,764 per year— assuming a 69-cents per can cost— to those giving those cans. To meet 100 percent of the need that way, these faithful givers need to be coaxed into spending $51,336 more per year than they are now.
Suppose that you try to get them to give money instead so that the pantry can get its food from your area’s food bank, but that so many people are put off by the change that a third stop giving altogether, a third give only half as much as they used to, and only a third continue giving at the old rate. Total giving would decline to $5,382.
But because you use that money to purchase food from a food bank, and the donated money is easily documented for tax deduction purposes, everyone comes out significantly ahead:
● Donors would likely be able to deduct at least $1,076 of that on their taxes, so the real cost to donors would shrink to about $4,306.
● With $5,382 the pantry can acquire about 53,820 pounds of food from the food bank, meeting nearly 60 percent of the area’s estimated need. This increases your effectiveness by more than three times over relying on food drives.
If, over time, more people can be coaxed into giving money instead of cans, the entire need could be met for approximately $9,000 per year, with donors being able to get about $1,800 of that back on their taxes, for a total bottom-line cost of meeting the area’s total estimated food assistance need of just $7,200, which is 30 percent less than what they used to spend on canned goods in meeting only a fifth of the need!
The key to moving successfully from food drives to fund drives is communicating to your supporters that if they will give money instead of cans, it will cost them about 25 cents on the dollar less. If they rise to that bait, fine. And if they don’t, fine also. Take all the food drive food they are willing to give or collect for you! But let’s do that based on full disclosure of their options and not as a result of their remaining oblivious to the benefits of this other option.
Experience has shown that as we gently make donors aware of their options, more and more donors will switch to giving cash, saving them a lot of money and moving our communities measurably closer to ending hunger.
How to change donors’ thinking
No one is suggesting that food banks or food pantries should just begin refusing or stopping food drives tomorrow. You can’t realistically do that. However, you should begin the long process of weaning America from measures, which cannot end hunger over to measures, which can. Canned good drives cannot—they don’t leverage enough resources. But fund drives can add up to enough.
So how to coax people who are accustomed to giving cans to start giving cash?
Here are some ideas:
■ Assemble a display of $10 worth of store-purchased food and $10 worth of food bank food next to each other to graphically illustrate the huge difference.
■ Make a traveling exhibit to take to churches or civic groups. You might want to drop down to $1, as $10 in food bank food is generally too much to carry!
■ Take pictures of the display and highlight them in your newsletter or other communications to convey to people just how much further their dollars will stretch if they have them used at the food bank instead of at the store.
■ Assemble a display of $1 in food- bank food and take a picture of it to circulate as a teaching aid. Try it with a 1-pound can of powdered Similac, a 16-ounce box of Total cereal, a loaf of bread, some Pop-Tarts, a small jar of salad dressing, some popcorn snacks and some fresh produce. When people see how much further their dollars will stretch, they are easy to coax into giving money instead of food.
■ In churches where children traditionally carry food to the altar, ask people to wash out an empty can and put their check in it so that the image of food and feeding is preserved while the dollars help 20 times more.
■ Invite a group, which might otherwise have done a canned good drive, to collect money and then go to the food bank with the pantry staff and pick out what their money will pay for.
■ If a group gives money to a pantry, send them a picture of how much food bank food that covers.
■ Develop some money collection envelopes printed to look like a can on one side.
We are creative enough to develop new traditions, which graciously replace canned good drives with more cost-effective measures.
It is a myth that food banks or food pantries must have canned good drives in order to get enough food. One-to-one leveraging of resources will never add up to end hunger. We have to do better than that, and by soliciting money instead of canned good drive goods we can.