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200 million pounds of food in, Golden Harvest keeps up the fight to end hunger

A 2011 study showed that 50.1 million Americans lived in food insecure households—including 16.7 million children. That’s one in six Americans—and the rate in Georgia is even higher, at 17.4%, putting it in the top five most food insecure states.

Golden Harvest Food Bank has proved an essential asset in Georgia’s fight against hunger, as well as a nonprofit sector leader in organizational effectiveness, while providing quality food to individuals across Georgia and South Carolina. “For every one dollar that we receive, we can distribute seven dollars worth of food,” said Travis McNeal, executive director of Golden Harvest. McNeal told us that, in Golden Harvest’s 31 year history, the nonprofit has distributed a total of 200 million pounds of food to more than 10.9 million people, with an astonishing 2 million pound surge in food distributed over the past year

‘For every one dollar we receive, we can distribute seven dollars worth of food'

Golden Harvest executes its mission through four direct programs: the Backpack Program, serving 3,500 children a take-home package every Friday containing nutritious food for the weekend; the Senior Food Box program, working with partner agencies and senior community centers to provide more than 1,500 boxes of groceries per month; the Mobile Food Pantry, a fleet of trucks delivering 6 to 7 thousand pounds of food in rural counties without access to charitable food pantries; and their downtown soup kitchen, the Master’s Table, serving hot meals to more than 300 people every single day of the year. In a unique scheme, each program is privately funded, depending directly on donations to operate. 

Succeeding at Succession 

Eight years before his 2012 resignation, Founder and Executive Director Mike Firmin foresaw the need for a succession plan—a thoughtful way to find and train someone to take his place. “Mike is a spiritual person, so he began by praying about it,” said McNeal. “Then he devised a plan for someone to walk alongside him for at least three years, live in the same office and do the same things he did. He typed out what that would look like, the Executive Committee and Board voted [for it], and then he actually found the person that he thought would be best for the job. He had a lot of vision.”

That person was McNeal, who had most recently spent 10 years as a pastor at Augusta’s Warren Baptist Church. Even with the dedicated guidance and wisdom Firmin shared, McNeal had minimal experience with food banks. It took nearly two years to learn all there was to learn about the operations—including logistics, fundraising, staffing, and the lingo. “Shadowing included being a part of everything,” said McNeal, “from national conventions with Feeding America, to engaging local politicians, to the yearly trip to our direct mail provider, Russ Reid, in California, and a yearly anti-hunger policy conference in Washington, D.C.” Through it all, McNeal remained humble and found opportunities to use his transferrable skills to become the leader that Golden Harvest needed. 

Strengthening Ties, Building Leaders 

Stronger communication was an important goal for McNeal in his new management role.  Focused on building their communications across all departments of the organization, McNeal made sure everyone was aware of “how we can help one another, and how what we do affects another team.“

A strong team culture, in fact, is one of Golden Harvest’s greatest strengths. “I would say that people who work at Golden Harvest don’t work here for the paycheck,” said McNeal. “They are first committed to the mission.” The staff’s dedication to and passion for helping is apparent: “They are excited about it, they love what they do, and they go the extra mile.”

“[People who work at Golden Harvest] are first committed to the mission. They’re excited about it, they love what they do, and they go the extra mile.”

As a leader, McNeal finds it important to develop active and compelling leaders amongst his staff. “We have a leadership team of six people, including myself, who meet once a month,” he said. “I empower them to lead as professionals and lead their respective areas. I don’t want to tell them how to do what they do—I want to try to give them the tools that they need. I want them to do the same to their teams and empower them. My philosophy is: everyone is a leader.” McNeal also holds employee meetings every week for employees to share thoughts and concerns. Since he took over, his team has not missed a single meeting.

McNeal also devotes his leadership skills to developing the board. Rolling out new board members, Travis saw the opportunity for some creativity in the development of more active board members and committees. “We wanted to have a balance of the right people on the board,” said McNeal. “We can choose 100 easily, but we focused on how we choose 20-25 members strategically.” Each board member went through an orientation process, learning about food banks, the organization’s by-laws, and the roles and responsibilities of a board member, motivating each one to be prepared and excited about the position. 

Focusing on the Future

Travis plans to continue expanding Golden Harvest’s outreach and impact, strategically targeting food insecure areas; South Carolina and Georgia have two of the poorest counties in the country, with poverty rates upwards of 30%, and Golden Harvest wants to bring more attention to areas like these. The organization is also looking to move one of their facilities to a more strategic location. “This will allow us to better source the foods, and involve thousands of volunteers in the packing,” said McNeal. “We want to grow our distribution and have a more visible presence.”

Part of building that presence is an annual trip to Washington D.C. with other food bank leaders to engage national legislators over critical hunger-related issues, such as cuts to the Farm Bill that will affect food stamps and, in turn, Golden Harvest communities.

Another part is their freshly-updated, highly interactive website, one of the most innovative sites among the nation’s food banks. “The number one purpose of a nonprofit website should be to communicate to their volunteers and donors,” said McNeal. To that end, the website is easy to maneuver, visually dynamic, highly informative without overwhelming, and tuned to appeal to a spectrum of visitors: dedicated supporters and first-time visitors, corporate sponsors and on-the-ground volunteers, young and old, volunteers and beneficiaries.

Naturally, every year presents the challenge of raising needed finances, an increasingly difficult proposition as competition for donations intensifies. Developing new, creative ways to raise funds is a perennial goal of their development team; in August, Golden Harvest hosted their latest concert fundraiser, third in a series called “Feedback Sessions,” featuring artists who also have a heart for the hungry.

“We have to continue to help out agencies with the best possible customer service,” said McNeal, “while remaining diligent in our role as ‘voice for the voiceless’ within our communities.”

For more information on Golden Harvest’s work and impact, check out their website GoldenHarvest.org

Anita James is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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