The Perfect Storm: Using Feeding America's fundraising model to weather the pandemic

The Perfect Storm: Using Feeding America's fundraising model to weather the pandemic

February 4, 2021
28 minutes

Dan Nisbet · VP of Development, Feeding America | Dan Nisbet's journey in the nonprofitsphere has led him to tackle fundraising for one of America's largest hunger relief organizations: Feeding America. As their VP of Development, Dan approaches fundraising with a long-game, forward-thinking motto: "Invest ahead of growth."


On today's episode of Nonstop Nonprofit, Dan Nisbet is in the studio (virtually, of course!) Dan's journey in the nonprofitsphere has led him to tackle fundraising for one of America's largest hunger relief organizations: Feeding America.

Because the pandemic highlighted the injustice of hunger in a way we haven't seen in generations, Feeding America was able to emphasize the scope of the problem to major donors and treat each potential donor as an investor in their cause. They devoted resources to connecting local communities and food banks and creating customized, compelling content for donors of all sizes, all while holding steady with their eyes-on-the-prize fundraising strategy.

Listen to Justin Wheeler, CEO and Co-founder of Funraise, as he and Dan lay out the rainbow shining after the pandemic perfect storm: despite disrupted volunteer efforts, an interrupted food supply chain, and an increased number of people experiencing food insecurity, the local relationships between donors and Feeding America's network of food banks became stronger than ever.


Hello, I'm Justin Wheeler, and welcome to Nonstop Nonprofit!  

On today's episode, Dan Nisbet is in the studio (virtually, of course!) Dan's journey in the nonprofitsphere has led him to tackle fundraising for one of America's largest hunger relief organizations: Feeding America.

As Feeding America's VP of Development, Dan approaches fundraising with a long-game, forward-thinking motto: "Invest ahead of growth." And if you've ever listened to this podcast or talked to me, you know that's right in line with every piece of advice I offer nonprofits. Invest in yourselves, nonprofit friends!

Because the pandemic highlighted the injustice of hunger in a way we haven't seen in generations, Feeding America was able to emphasize the scope of the problem to major donors and treat each potential donor as an investor in their cause. They devoted resources to connecting local communities and food banks and creating customized, compelling content for donors of all sizes, all while holding steady with their eyes-on-the-prize fundraising strategy.

Listen to our conversation as Dan lays out the rainbow shining after the pandemic perfect storm: despite disrupted volunteer efforts, an interrupted food supply chain, and an increased number of people experiencing food insecurity, the local relationships between donors and Feeding America's network of food banks became stronger than ever.

Justin Wheeler Dan, thank you so much for joining the podcast. For those listening, we have Dan Nisbet. He's the VP of development for one of America's largest nonprofits, Feeding America. Dan, welcome to the podcast.

Dan Nisbet Thank you so much, Justin. It's a pleasure to be here with you.

Justin Wheeler Very excited to dig in and learn more about the very important work your organization is doing, which I can only imagine has been increasingly more busy with the pandemic. And also just really for the audience listening, really get a good understanding of sort of the fundraising infrastructure that an organization like Feeding America has built and any successes that you can share with the community. But before we jump into that, Dan, will you tell us a little bit about yourself and your background and how you ended up at Feeding America?

Dan Nisbet Sure, Justin. First of all, thanks again for having me. It's a pleasure to be here with you. I have also been a person using your Funraise pun regularly lately. We have, unbeknownst to me that you guys had already taken it. But it is a word that I say often. And when we're trying to, you know, motivate and lead our teams at Feeding America, we emphasize the fun in fundraising.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome!

Dan Nisbet I am a nonprofit guy. I have been in the industry now, I'm proud to say, for almost 20 years. I started in a for-profit role and decided that I didn't really enjoy that and look for something that was more altruistic and where I could feel a bit more passion for the missions of organizations and landed at a consulting firm. And I was there for 10 years. Feeding America was our client and I have been really in love with Feeding America since that time. That was more than, gosh more than 12 years ago. I am a nonprofit person. I believe in the power of this work. You know, we have such a tremendous role to play across civil society here in this country. I think that has been emphasized in the last year, at least, of course. And so many causes have been brought to the fore that have been among us and with us for years. However, the incidents and activities of 2020 have put a shine, shined a light on them. You know, we at feeding America are fortunate to be in a position to really be able to provide tremendous help to people. We do so through our network of food banks across the country.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, and I mean, I was reading up more on your organization. I've followed your organization. It's relatively a household name in the U.S. at least. And, you know, you guys work on a hard issue, right? You're talking about hunger here in the United States. And so what, like 2020 was an interesting year, like you said, where more people were unemployed as a result of the pandemic, but leading up to maybe 2020, what sort of progress has Feeding America made in solving this hunger problem? Is it, I mean, is it a problem that's solvable or how do you look at solving this hunger problem here in the US?

Dan Nisbet Yeah, well, let's start at the beginning. So Feeding America is the network of food banks that serves every community, every county, every congressional district of the United States from Alaska to Puerto Rico. We are working through our food banks together to solve this issue of hunger in America. It has existed since the birth of the nation, of course, and has been a problem for millions, sadly, of our neighbors, the entire, you know, pre pandemic and for decades, centuries, really. So Feeding America and the food banks are on the front lines providing hope and help to people who need our services, the gift of a meal that will enable them to function and a better, better way in their daily lives. We operate through, like I said, through those two hundred food banks. We are a federated nonprofit structure, which I believe gives us a tremendous amount of ability to deliver efficient services to people in need across the country and an innovative and reactive way. Those two hundred food banks connect then with a network of sixty thousand additional nonprofits that function in every community. So our food banks work through an agency network of smaller nonprofits. So every type of nonprofit you can potentially think of that would provide a meal to a person. Whether a school or a library or through a food pantry where people arrive and are able to, you know, receive a box of food that would last them and their family a bit longer. We also operate through our food banks, mobile distribution systems that allow families and individuals to come to a more remote location that we set up for them, for the ability to receive food. And of course, we have innovative technology that helps connect people to the resources that they need more immediately as well.

Justin Wheeler And I imagine, you know, I wanted to jump in and this is maybe a good opportunity to kind of dove into sort of like the federated model that Feeding America has. I imagine there are many benefits. And I've spoken to actually recently to quite a few large organizations that have chapters. They're not necessarily, they haven't taken the federated approach. But I'd love to hear from your experience. You've got a lot of experience in this ballpark, sort of the strengths, the weaknesses or the pros and cons of this model and how even it was, potentially is, what helped get through the pandemic and will help get through the pandemic, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

Dan Nisbet Yeah, in the last, say, five to seven years, we've invested pretty heavily in helping food banks build their local fundraising capacity. And, you know, in doing those things that we know make the biggest difference, investing in your case for support, building your fundraising plan and strategy, thinking about your top prospects and donors and engaging volunteers and you know, from your executive leadership team, getting them connected to fundraising and then also, of course, board members and other volunteers to help raise funding for the cause. One of the most wonderful things we get to do is to connect the donor who's supporting a food bank in Houston, or a food bank in New York, but also wants to support a food bank in San Francisco in the current population.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Dan Nisbet So it has the sort of power of the federated model. Works really well when we can trust and collaborate with each other for the benefit of the mission and to really raise money in that way?

Justin Wheeler That's great. And, you know, as a large organization for your fundraising expertize is pretty expansive. And I think, you know, as organizations think about different fundraising programs, whether it's major gifts, annual funds, strategic giving, planned giving, what resources are wired, you know, to get these types of programs started? And at what point, whether that's budget or age, where an organization is to really start getting more focused on any one of these specific programs.

Dan Nisbet As a consultant, I used to always say to clients, to wonderful nonprofits that we were working with, invest ahead of growth.

Justin Wheeler I love that.

Dan Nisbet Plan in a way that forecasts your future needs and enables them you to raise resources that will support those mission-based programs and needs. As a, now sitting in this nonprofit seat for more than 10 years, I understand that that is a very difficult thing to do. We are constantly in a position where we have to make a choice between, you know, investing directly in sort of the movement, let's say, the movement and transportation of food resources to our food banks as opposed to investing in our FTEs and our development department. However, as we know, Darlie, and major gifts and individual giving is tremendous and relationship management is tremendous. I always think of sort of our fundraising, planning and strategy based on the methods by which we raise money. So from the direct marketing through relationship management or major gifts to foundation grants to all the digital online stuff that happens when giving, to them the segments of the population that we're trying to reach so we can build, you know, not only a customized approach for each audience, but also then target and develop communication plans and engagement strategies that are specific to a different type, to each type of donor. That requires time and people and strategy that an organization has to devote time and resources to building. And so we are always in a position of making these choices. I think that because of the investments we've made in fundraising collaboration with our network members, we as an organization collectively have gotten better at engaging our communities nationally and locally. The articulation of feeding America's case for support resonates most when it is a combination of a local and national pitch, so to speak, because of the tremendous things we have to say. And we're helping millions of families across the country and at the same time making inroads and ending hunger nationally. And so when we can inspire a donor to get behind that sort of thematic ability and then actually see feeding America's work and our food banks together and making that happen, it's a pretty tremendous thing to be able to talk about. I have to say, you know, there is all of a sudden this wonderful amount of attention nationally focused on hunger relief. Again, it is a pandemic that existed for decades prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. So kind of the combination of an organizational commitment to the proper engagement of constituencies in this mission is what is needed, I think, first and foremost. And then the case in messaging is critical and then those sort of corresponding investments in the different types of fundraising that your organization can deploy to to raise the revenue.

Justin Wheeler Yeah. On the major donor end and plan giving side. And your experience, whether as a consultant or in your role at Feeding America, would you say there's a certain level of scale you have to hit before you start attracting those types of donors? Or do you think it is more of a messaging and more of an expertize, not necessarily a level of scale a nonprofit has to be at?

Dan Nisbet You know, that's a great framing. I don't know it necessarily scales.

Justin Wheeler Okay.

Dan Nisbet I certainly think that obviously, you know, when we're soliciting major gifts, a donor is going to ask, you know, where do I fit into the table of gifts here and what is the total need that you have and how do I help address that? And where do I fit into that? And who else is helping do that? At Feeding America we are fortunate to have, you know, hundreds of thousands, now, our donor side. But we had to spend some time building relationships with folks that are really interested in kind of sending a check in the mail and we didn't want to overstaff the major gifts, major planned gift's team at Feeding America until we had a handle on, well, how many people really want to have a relationship with us? You know, if you're going to send a check to us in the mail every year and don't need to talk to me, please, by all means, do that. However, we essentially established kind of a relationship management framework that would allow our major gifts officers to sort of shift our donors into a personal relationship management portfolio only after they had a qualifying conversation with us. So we built our major gifts team based on the number of donors that were in managed portfolios over time and have scaled that over time. Of course, I wanted to be a little bit faster, but we're working on a number of different ways to do that responsibly and in a way that is reflective of how our donors will engage with us.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Dan Nisbet You know, at the same time, we're also working to build relationships with very significant funders who could consider, you know, transformational investments. You know, our food banks are the members of our network are the ones that are working on the grounds every day are the absolute best way for us to get connected to those individuals who care the most about hunger relief. Now that we have been able to, you know, get more connected to them in a collaborative and collegial way related to the fundraising of the organization, altogether, we're able to connect with them and work with donors that they have built relationships with to help scale their investments nationally. This cause, you know, it's sad and true, the total dollars needed to solve this issue. It's innumerable. The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, is a greater than $80 billion dollar annual program, and Feeding America's output is about five to six billion dollars. So we are a fraction of the solution here, a very important fraction of the solution. However, this is an issue that is a national tragedy. Know we have people that don't have enough food on their tables regularly, and that is an injustice, of the greatest proportion. So we have a huge funding need. And the solution can only come from not only the tremendous partnerships that we create and build, but also then the partnerships that they can cause for, I guess, domino in the public sector and from every different type of funder from a corporation to a foundation.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, one thing I want to double click on there is so, you know, how you just sort of framed this challenge, right. You talked about the stamp programming, $50, or sorry $80, billion-dollar sort of budget, Feeding America, you know, output was it four to five or five to six...

Dan Nisbet Yeah, I think last year we were you know, we produced about collectively I'm saying now, Feeding America plus our food banks.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Dan Nisbet We are about a $6-7 billion dollar annual organization, including the food and funds.

Justin Wheeler Right, right.

Dan Nisbet And that has, that, you know, was about up 50% from the pre...

Justin Wheeler Pre-Covid-19. Yeah, that's crazy. The interesting thing there is, right, so I've talked to a lot of fundraisers who are like, you know, like I could fundraise so much more money if the need was there or reflect the capacity was there. A lot of times I feel like organizations this probably, you know, smaller to midsize organization's reason, why their fundraising hasn't scaled, is because they haven't been able to quantify sort of how they're going to put those dollars to work. You know, it sounds like with with Feeding America in this hunger crisis, you know how to solve the problem. Is it would you say that it's purely a financial challenge at this point? And or are there other sort of levers that could be pulled to help solve it?

Dan Nisbet Yeah, I mean, this is a tremendously complicated problem, let's say that for sure. And as with many problems, funding is a clear solution. Of course, we also do operate essentially from a unified strategic plan. Our organization is guided by pillars of our work in segments. And, you know, we're pursuing essentially solutions to a number of challenging issues from sourcing and distribution of food to helping enroll people in SNAP and all the way to the health and nutrition programs, things like that. So we're operating from a strong place of planning and data that helps us go forward in the right direction. You know, human services is not the sexiest nonprofit cause. Despite the millions of people that are supporting us, hunger persists, sadly. I think that as we have grown and matured, as a sort of, as a recognized national organization, we have gotten even better at articulating the needs from a really direct standpoint. So I think it's a matter of finding ways to talk about the necessary investments that show real impact and that allow donors, really of all types, to see the impact that their gifts can have. You know, we are investing in things like client data tracking and so that we get an understanding not only of the services and interventions that are going to be best for people and their families, but also to be able to report back on essentially the fact that this intervention and solutions are working and that people's lives are improving and that they are more autonomous and able to do what they need based in essentially that gift of a meal.

Justin Wheeler Yeah.

Dan Nisbet And so it's a journey for this organization which has really gone through a tremendous amount of evolution over this period of time. I mean, just more than 10 years ago, Feeding America was America's Second Harvest and had a less than 22% brand awareness. And now we are Feeding America thanks to the planning and investments that were made a decade ago. And so the planning and organizational leadership that we've had has really tremendously benefited our ability to respond to the crisis that is happening today.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, I think that's really great sort of insight around, you know, a lot of times, especially as fundraisers, we can get so dialed into what are we trying to do this year. But taking a step back, looking at the broader fundraising plan, looking at where we could be in five or 10 years, right. How critical that is to an organization's success. And sure, 10 years ago when conversations were happening, people at that table never would have thought Feeding America would be where it's at today. So it goes to show a lot of hard work. And foresight can really be what changes the scalability of the impact your organization can make.

Dan Nisbet Yeah, giving your organization some time to invest in the relationship management components of this so that donors begin to respond and a little bit more of a personalized way and then have a face and a name to associate with a cause rather than a piece of mail or an email, I think does really help. We have been so gratified by the relationships we've been able to build with our donors and the major gifts program, because the more that they have resources from us, the more they can understand how they can help that, you know, then helps them think through how they want to make larger investments. And we can guide them to more complex parts of our work to connect them with their local food bank if they are not already and to do things in a bit more of a, you know, strategic way, I guess, with our donors. That's it. It does take some organizational patience and investment over time to allow that to happen because like anything and we can't we can control a person's decisions and we want to be there for them in a way that's helping them understand how critical their support is for our cause. It just doesn't happen overnight, though.

Justin Wheeler Totally. So one of our... We're coming up here to the end. And one of the last questions I always like to ask, fundraisers, especially experienced fundraisers like yourself, is do you have any fundraising hacks that you could share with your fundraising colleague? Anything that you've noticed that works particularly well and whether it's cultivating donors, engaging donors, showing impact, is there any tricks or tips that you can share that you think would be helpful for organizations listening?

Dan Nisbet I don't think it's a hack. I think it's actually what comes to mind here is some of it is probably very old school, but it is having content written that is excellent. To share in a number of different ways. We on our team are fortunate to have had a fantastic philanthropy content writer, a manager on our team. She is wonderful and has built sort of her ability over years of Feeding America knowledge. And so we've been able to have materials that we can utilize in a broad way sort of segment of donors, you know, who don't care about produce distribution. So we want to have some content to share with them in a regular way. Or we need really customized specific engagement pieces for different donors so they can understand how their investments will help us. That has been a tremendous benefit to our team because then we have say, we have, we are small but mighty major gifts team of 11 at Feeding America, at the moment, working with our not including, of course, with, you know, the hundreds of major case officers that are working individually for their food banks. There's only 11 of us managing a national portfolio of donors. And so having content readily available that helps us communicate in a quick and efficient way with as many donors as possible and arms our relationship managers with the tools that they need to communicate with their portfolio, has really been a benefit and a regular cadence of newsletter's of emails, topical pieces that come up. You know, having that kind of content available, especially in this virtual environment, has been really beneficial and has allowed us to essentially advance relationships without ever seeing a person live, which, of course, has been very different than what we are used to. So I would say that having your case and plan outlined, your organizational plan in the case for support, really well written, and then broken into snackable pieces, let's say, that you can share is a really helpful thing for our team to be able to manage the quantity of donors and relationships that we are at.

Justin Wheeler That's super helpful. I mean, I think the more content organizations can produce around their important missions, the more engaged their donors will get. The more buy in, the more compelling the mission and cause becomes. And so totally agree with that. A question that sparks coming from as you are walking through that, talking about a team of 11, not including all of the food banks and so forth, when let's say like for maybe a partner organization in Los Angeles that receives like a major donor, how is that donor shared between national and that Los Angeles organization? Obviously, like it all, like you're all working towards the same end and same goal. But I can imagine this at some point it's become somewhat of a conflict between national and the regional office. And so how do you guys how do you resolve that? How do you reconcile that? What's the sort of the approach or strategy you take to make sure that, you know, the donor is feeling taken care of, regardless of whether it's regional or national that manages the donor?

Dan Nisbet Yeah, great question. And this is the crux of, you know, I think solving this is helpful for many reasons. Also, want a shout out to Los Angeles Regional Foodbank. They are here in Los Angeles and they're fantastic and serve the county of Los Angeles, which has more food insecure people in it than any other county in the United States. So hats off to them. Very small, but mighty team as well. They need a tremendous support. So that example, we really defer to our to our food banks when we engage their donors. So if they have a donor that they would like to sort of elevate to the national issue, they bring them to us. When we come to Los Angeles to visit donors, olden times and now, we provide our local network members with a list of our donors that we are in the process of stewarding and cultivating. It's just a sort of anonymized list of names. We want to make sure... we don't have a national CRM. And so we have found that, you know, through conversations with our peers and our network, our food banks, we learned more about our donors than anything else. And so our major gifts team works with our peers in each network member food bank to determine if and when there are joint approaches to be made. And we do so in a really collaborative way. We defer to our network member food banks. Let's say, you know, they're in the midst of a capital campaign and they have a lot of requests going out. We're not going to interfere with that and we don't want to overlap in a major gifts way at all. We also, from a direct marketing perspective, collect donor names and suppress them from our files. So we're not doubly soliciting people that are supporting a local food bank and Feeding America. So there is a lot of data coordination that happens. And of course, these kind of by the ones conversations to enable the right kind of conversation with the donor. Just because a person is wealthy or even supports a local food bank, that does not mean he or she wants to also give money to Feeding America.

Justin Wheeler Yeah, and the reverse I think the benefit here is, what I love about this model is, you know, maybe it's a smaller food bank that doesn't have the capacity to take tens of millions of dollars. But this donor is set on wanting to help make a dent in this hunger crisis, the ability to be like, hey, national, we have a national effort that's leading the charge. So there's that... I see that I also working in that way. And perhaps, obviously, one of the strengths of the model is sort of that, the ability to scale the impact, rather, it's at one regional office or 10 regional offices. So I love that sort of approach.

Dan Nisbet So, yeah, we have I have an example. We had a wonderful gift made by a gentleman by the name of Dale Larson. He founded and led a company called Larssen Manufacturing, which was based in South Dakota. The relationship had been really built over years by our wonderful food bank CEO Feeding South Dakota, Matt Gassen. When Mr. Larson was selling his business and interested in making a larger impact. You know, Matt calls Feeding America. And we talked through, you know, kind of what Mr. Larson would like to do, and we created a proposal for him. And so Mr. Larson made a $30 million dollar gift through Feeding America to funding some national office operational pieces to help build capacity for food banks nationally. But then we were able to distribute through our organization $25 million dollars to 12 food banks in different communities. And he selected the communities because he wanted to invest in the communities where his manufacturing plants were, where his employees lived and worked. So really a wonderful sort of articulation of how our national organization can work to, essentially, expand investments from donors across the country. And I think kind of further emphasized the wonderful benefits that could come from this collaboration and conversation and communication of local national needs and how we can all work together to solve this issue.

Justin Wheeler That's awesome. That's a great example. Thank you for sharing that great note to end on. Dan, thank you for your time. Thank you for sharing with us your expertize and most importantly, thank you for being committed to perhaps one of the most important issues facing millions of people today. So thank you for the incredible work. We wish you and Feeding America the best. And I appreciate your time spent with us today.

Dan Nisbet Thank you so much. It's great to be here. And I'm so happy to have the time with you and to talk about this with you. It's it's a privilege. Thanks very much.

Justin Wheeler Awesome. Thanks, Dan.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Nonstop Nonprofit!

This podcast is brought to you by your friends at Funraise. Nonprofit fundraising software, built by nonprofit people. Don't forget to get your next episode the second it hits the internets. Go to and sign up for email notifications today.

See you next time!