Organizational Survival and Sustainability: What it Takes and How to Pivot During a Pandemic

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Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Debbie Espinosa, President and CEO of FIND Food Bank The Desert’s Regional Food Bank, Coachella Valley, California

It’s old news at this point that the past year was a challenging one for mission-driven enterprises — forcing them to rethink and adapt their organizational survival and sustainability strategies. From younger enterprises to more established organizations, everyone took a hit in accessing resources, and many direct service organizations were burdened with having to do more with less as the number of people in need of social services rose in the wake of a pandemic.

Debbie Espinosa and her team at FIND Food Bank, which serves a 5,000-square-mile region in California’s Colorado Desert, certainly felt the rapid pressure of increased demand. They also felt some initial frustration taking a raincheck on new programs they were on track to roll out. “A couple of the new programs that I wanted to launch were geared toward financial literacy and educational attainment — so the root causal work of hunger,” says Debbie. “That kind of stopped.” But it stopped for a good reason: so FIND could double down on its core work of food distribution. And when all was said and done, they doubled their total food distribution within six weeks, a pace they’ve since maintained.

Debbie’s ability to pivot FIND in response to a crisis was remarkable in its own right. But what’s more striking to us about FIND’s success is that organizational survival and sustainability were not mutually exclusive. In fact, they’ve gone hand-in-hand as FIND is now in a place to revisit some of that root causal work they had to forego in 2020.

“…. when it comes to pivoting nonprofit organizations – knowing the fact that communities are ever changing – should always be malleable to be able to change with their community to serve them at their best …”

Debbie Espinosa, President & CEO, FIND Food Bank

Inspired by the agility of Debbie and her team, we were eager to ask her about responding to crises and scaling impact — all without sacrificing access, inclusion, and cultural needs. Debbie was quick to emphasize that what FIND was able to accomplish in 2020 was years in the making. So, she helped us break down what leaders can be doing right now to deepen their impact, and lay the groundwork that may allow them to expand in the face of unforeseen circumstances.

Organizational Survival 101: Evolve with your community

Debbie makes the case that an organization’s capacity to respond to a crisis comes from their competency to evolve with their community, no matter the circumstances. “Regardless of whatever space or frame a community is in, it’s always evolving and changing,” says Debbie. “So your nonprofit organization, to serve, has to do that too. My philosophy…is that I’m not doing my best as a leader unless I myself have the capability of understanding how to lead an organization to be able to move through the changes in partnership with the community,” she says. “So when it comes to a pandemic, I don’t really have to shift my mindset that much.”

“When you’re making the quick decisions, you’re doing it from the standpoint of data-driven decision-making, of course, but you also have your gut checks, and intuition and instinct that you should have been developing over the years to read communities that are ever-changing.”

Debbie Espinosa, President & CEO, FIND Food Bank

Based on that, we wondered how a crisis differs from the daily evolution organizations should be undergoing alongside their communities. From Debbie’s standpoint, the difference is the pace of decision-making and execution. But, again, the overarching point is that you should be building a system to support quick decisions long before you have to make them.

“When you’re making the quick decisions, you’re doing it from the standpoint of data-driven decision-making, of course, but you also have your gut checks, and intuition and instinct that you should have been developing over the years to read communities that are ever-changing,” says Debbie.

Establish a professional support system

In addition to the constant adaptive mentality, Debbie highlighted another resource essential to helping leaders feel supported and confident in making decisions in times of urgent need: people. The people that make up Debbie’s wrap-around support system include the diverse set of technical experts that serve on FIND’s board, executive coaches, and a deep contact list of people within her community – each one of them lending vital support and encouragement for big decisions. And none of those relationships were cultivated overnight.

“My board of directors through 2020 was phenomenal,” says Debbie. “They were not operational with me. They were not programmatic. They allowed me to do my job. But they were there for me when I hit that point that I needed that extra support of experts with regards to finance, or strategizing how the food bank was going to be able to expand our work by two times the amount we were doing.”

While a strong board can cover blind spots from an organizational standpoint, executive coaching can offer a much more personalized resource for leaders. Debbie has three coaches, all specifically selected based on a style that she responds to. “For me to be able to, in a very safe environment, ask questions and counsel with people helps them and me see where I might have weaknesses that I can strengthen, or different ways to look at things,” says Debbie.

“… when you are looking at doing transformational work or pivoting – in any work that you do in the social sector – ego just doesn’t belong …”

Debbie Espinosa, President & CEO, FIND Food Bank

Where board recruitment can take a long time and executive coaching may not be within reach for everyone, one way that any leader can combat a feeling of isolation is reaching out to other leaders within their community. This piece can be extremely symbiotic, as it can function as both peer support and an ongoing conversation about how to leverage different strengths to serve the community you share.

In the end, the combination of all those things has to result in a decision because the alternative is stagnancy. “It was [that] combination that I used [when] the pandemic set in, always with a mindset that this is the best decision that I can make at this time,” says Debbie. “If it’s not the correct decision, that’s okay because at least we made a decision, as opposed to not trying to change with the community at all. That would’ve been a mistake.”

Retain access and quality with scale

What Debbie’s team at FIND managed to do in the past year in terms of organizational survival and sustainability is no small feat. They’re a regional food bank serving extremely rural pockets of the arid Coachella Valley, many residents of which are migrant farm workers. In 2020, they managed to distribute more than 22 million pounds of food to an average of more than 175,000 individuals across eastern Riverside and southern San Bernardino Counties.

For comparison, in prior years, FIND distributed about 12 million pounds of food assistance annually to an average of 90,000 individuals. What’s significant from Debbie’s perspective is not how quickly and drastically they scaled their impact, but that they didn’t compromise on quality or access.

In terms of quality, pre-pandemic, fresh produce made up between 40 and 50 percent of FIND’s total food distribution. Debbie says hitting that proportion has always been really important to ensure they’re not just feeding people, but giving them access to the nutrient-dense food that improves health.

Even though FIND’s pandemic distribution included a greater proportion of heavier items like shelf-stable foods, the proportion of fresh produce didn’t drop below 35 percent. 

“A lot of folks needed the things that they could pop open easily because they were dealing with kids at home,” says Debbie. “Food preparation became a very different thing during COVID because of the pressures on people at home. [But] we were still able to push out millions of pounds of produce because we never want to lose that aspect of health.”

Their emphasis on produce makes FIND both the largest hunger relief organization and the largest food rescue organization in the Colorado Desert. But Debbie points out that millions of pounds of rescued produce is only as helpful as people’s ability to access it.

“Equitable food access [is] not distributing food where it’s easy to distribute and saying we’re doing our job because people have access to it. Because do they really?” says Debbie.

“We know that if you have true food deserts, you need to put food in a space that gives people the ability to access it within a three-mile span. Maybe they’re walking because they don’t have cars. Maybe they’re sending people to go get it for them. Maybe they’re taking buses. We have to look at multiple access points in order to ensure that there is equitable access and distribution.”

“… the transformational is when you actually take the client center focus and ask them what is it they need as opposed to making the assumptions of what is it that they need and program around it …”

Debbie Espinosa, President & CEO, FIND Food Bank

Beyond access in sheer geographic terms, Debbie also points to cultural understanding as an essential piece of accessibility. “Recognizing community culture is really important,” says Debbie. “That’s ensuring that they not only have access, but have understanding.

“That can look like [providing] programmatic materials in Spanish or hiring staff that have the ability to work within the frames of the community to make sure they know how to receive the programs.”

Transformational impact, years in the making

Years of preparation and focus on strengthening capacity were at the root of FIND’s effectiveness and organizational survival and sustainability when a crisis ultimately hit.

“You can only understand the capacity at the time that you’re pushing the capacity of your team,” says Debbie. “Circumstances will push them even further to allow you to see truly what the capacity of your team is.”

Debbie says she already knew FIND was strong, and she’d spent years building the organization’s ecosystem to help her make decisions and manage her team. “And then I saw them kick it out one more level,” she says. “We realized what we could do was beyond what we thought we could.”

FIND’s impact is a testament to the critical ongoing work leaders should be doing before the moment arrives when they need to ask their team to find another gear. It can make all the difference in terms of scale, certainly. But when it’s done with your community always top of mind, a professional support system around you, and an active commitment to equity and quality, your organizational survival and sustainability strategies will shift from being transactional to transformational.

As the daughter of an immigrant Filipino family, Debbie Espinosa attributes the foundation of her inner strength and character to lessons learned from her family’s journey to the US. She joined the FIND Food Bank, the Desert’s Regional Food Bank, as President and CEO. Priot to this position, Debbie served as the Director of Programs for the Food Bank of Contra Costa and Solano in Northern CA, the Compliance and Capacity Development Manager for 37 food banks in the Southwest Sector of the US at the National Office of Feeding America, and the Strategic Programs and Operations consultant for the Global FoodBanking Network and Walmart Mexico y Centro America. More about Debbie’s career here.

The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.

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