Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has distributing surplus food down to a science. But it’s a science with plenty of heart.
By Mark Scott
Dan Flowers brings a full-throttle approach to his job as president and CEO at Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank.
Flowers came to Akron in 2003 and since that time, his organization has increased its annual distribution to more than 32.9 million pounds of food—the equivalent of 26 million meals provided. Last year, more than 12,000 volunteers gave their time at Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, servicing 500 charities across eight counties.
“When scale first appeared in the grocery business and grocery stores started being stocked by big food manufacturers in a consolidated industry, when semis started transporting food, that’s when food banking showed up as the scaled solution for the collection of surplus food,” Flowers says. “That’s why food banks are usually the biggest charities in their market.”
The ability to blend a whole lot of heart with a commitment to excellent performance has enabled Flowers to make a difference in the Akron-Canton region. And he’s showing a new generation of workers the multifaceted value that can be created by helping people who need support. Flowers hopes this deep passion he and his team share will show others the tremendous opportunity that exists in nonprofit work.
“Young people today just don’t think about the opportunities in nonprofit—to have a career that has both a mission and a heart, but yet can also be one to support a family and have a decent work-life balance,” Flowers says. “The idea that nonprofit workers should toil in poverty while they are fighting poverty, I don’t think that’s the proper philosophy for either the people or the organization.”
A professional approachFlowers says visitors to the Akron facility are often surprised by both its size and its cleanliness. When you have 85 full-time employees collecting, sorting and distributing as much food as Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank does, these attributes are imperative.
“We handled $35 million worth of inventory last year,” Flowers says. “That’s a huge impact on people in need and a giant responsibility. If you think about it, that’s over $35 million worth of food given away for free to people in need because of the work this agency has done.”
Professionalism and efficiency are critical components to a food bank’s business model and its ability to help more people, Flowers says.
“We have a lot of requirements for food safety compliance and product tracking,” Flowers says. “It’s a big deal that this be done right. Often, when people see a charity that has achieved this scale and is creating a big impact, they look at it and think, ‘Well, now it’s a big business. I don’t want to support it anymore.’ The fact that we have this scale makes us more efficient than when we started.”
The key to creating and maintaining a smooth mode of operation is building a high-performing team. “We are fanatical about being excellent,” Flowers says. “If you’re not excellent in your job, if your work doesn’t look great, if you don’t meet your deadlines and you don’t show up at your best, you won’t last long here. We are committed to finding great people and retaining great people.”
Supporting the team
Part of being great is bringing authentic compassion to your work, Flowers says. He puts his heart into what he does every day and looks for others who can do the same. He uses a monthly staff meeting to explore what everyone is thinking about and feeling, both inside and outside their jobs, to foster a strong culture.
“That’s my meeting,” Flowers says. “I speak to the culture and encourage the staff. It’s almost like a variety show. We have a lot of running bits that are fun. We try to have fun and encourage each other. We have a lot of applause and celebration. That’s all aimed at balancing that heart with that fanatical commitment to excellent work.”
Flowers has taken an active role in helping his staff make connections that enable them to better do their jobs. “I spend a lot of my time trying to bring resources into the organization,” Flowers says. “I’ve been here so long, I know a lot of people. I can get meetings that a lot of members of my staff can’t get scheduled. Helping my staff access leaders in the community has become an increasingly important part of my job.”
He says it’s about speaking for the organization, speaking to the organization and trying to speak to the heart of the work.
“Being a standard bearer of what our essential DNA is as we’ve constructed over the years it is an important part of what I do,” he says.
A continuing priority for Flowers is finding the right people to work for him and then making it clear he has their back.
“We compete with every organization, nonprofit and for profit, for the best talent,” Flowers says. “Our approach to talent acquisition and retention is very much based on trying to provide the best work environment and the best incentives we can. When you look at the success inside the organization and what we’ve been able to achieve with employee retention rates, we have delivered time and time again. We’ve been able to deliver on our mission by adopting that philosophy.”
Ready for new challenges
Although Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank has experienced a lot of success under Flowers’ leadership, he doesn’t take that success for granted. In the nonprofit sector, there are always challenges.
“Nonprofits operate on donations,” Flowers says. “You’re always having to work to make sure you’re raising money to keep the agency going. We have an endowment, but it’s certainly not big enough to carry the entire operation. Some of our food comes from government contracts, and you never know what’s going to happen politically. When unemployment got bad in the 2008 recession, there was a huge run on food banks. We had tons of new people coming in and needing food, and that put a lot of pressure on us. Those are pressures that happen at all human service agencies.”
That resulted in hiring additional staff, and the organization’s strong business model enabled Flowers to swiftly incorporate them into the culture.
And when he needs to add to his team again, Flowers says he will continue to work hard to ensure that employees are sufficiently compensated for their hard work.
“I’m not advocating for exorbitant wages,” he says. “But I am advocating for competitive wages in the nonprofit sector so that people can work in the nonprofit sector. If you’re a board member of a nonprofit, make it a priority to make sure the people in your agency can do excellent work for your organization, but also ably support their loved ones. Then they can stay, and that continuity will create stability in your agency. That stability will lead to and drive better outcomes.”
A strong culture can help a company through difficult times, such as the economic recession that hit in 2008. Dan Flowers, president and CEO of Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank, has also had the benefit of a strong relationship with Huntington. For example, William C. Shivers, president of Huntington’s Canton/Mahoning Valley Region, serves as chairman of the board at the food bank.
“He’s a fantastic leader and has been active with a lot of different charities,” Flowers says. “There is a similar philosophy at Huntington with respect to excellence. There is a culture at Huntington that loves and respects people and is results driven. That’s how we operate.”
Huntington employees have volunteered at the food bank, and the company has worked with Flowers to continue to streamline its business practices. And, he says, the future looks bright.
“This is the first year we haven’t had big increases in the number of people we’re serving,” he says. “We’ve had an opportunity to catch up as people are needing less food. That isn’t to say we need less support. We need support to do what we’re doing already. But I do think the economy is improving, and more and more people are able to take care of themselves. We’re able to do more for the folks who do need help.”
For more information, visit the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank website.