Retiring Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana CEO John Elliott reflects on his tenure

by Shari Finnell, editor/writer, Not-for-profit News

Note: Listen to the full interview with Gleaners’ John Elliott, who talks about strategic planning and provides advice for other nonprofits as they plan for upcoming years.

By any definition, Gleaners Food Bank of Indiana faced a nightmarish situation during the early months of the pandemic in 2020. While demand for food surged to unprecedented numbers, the organization’s typical sources of donations — particularly those from grocery stores — plunged to zero, recalled President and CEO John Elliott, who recently announced his retirement. At the same time, the food bank’s volunteer force dwindled in the face of lockdown orders and the uncertainty around the deadly disease.

Faced with similar daunting circumstances, many food banks temporarily or permanently closed their doors. In New York City, for instance, 39 percent of food banks were closed during the height of the pandemic.

An ambitious strategic plan that had been developed years prior to the pandemic allowed Gleaners to not only keep its doors open but serve 103 million nutritious meals in 2020 — up from 20 million in 2016, said Elliott, who plans to hand over the leadership reins to his successor in September.

“Strategy is absolutely our roadmap,” Elliott said. “We started our strategic plan in February 2019. At that time, we began a lot of change and growth planning, and set a goal of closing the meal gap and keeping it closed. That meant, after 2019, we would need to do 2 ½ that year’s food distribution, sustain it and do it in the right way.”
Along the way, the team also focused on significantly increasing efficiency.

“We did not expect to get 2 ½ times the donations that people have historically given us so we did dozens of things to improve our efficiency,” Elliott said. “We went from 41 cents a meal when I got here to 12 cents a meal last year. There wasn’t one magic thing that led to that, but dozens of dozens of things across the entire organization.

“After about nine months of the pandemic, we didn’t update that strategic plan,” he added. We found ourselves, in a sort of an intriguing way, checking off 2023 strategic plan goals early.”

With the implementation and acceleration of the strategic plan, Elliott said the food bank has undergone a permanent transformation.

“You cannot quintuple your distribution, while simultaneously have dramatically improved the nutritional quality and unprecedented variety of foods,” he said. “We have absolutely left behind the old food banking model of passively waiting to see what loose cans and boxes people choose to donate and then that’s what we distribute. We’ve proactively even maybe aggressively gone after financial resources to shop for food at the lowest cost and at the best nutritional variety we can try to create for the families we’re privileged to serve.”

A renewed focus on employees

Human resources was another key focus of Gleaner’s strategic plan — which also significantly paid off when faced with the challenges of the past two years, Elliott noted.

“We invested in our people,” he said. “We redefined every job, every role in the organization and some of the more impactful ones when the pandemic came along.”

As part of that plan, program staff members served as local service managers of assigned geographies, Elliott said.

“They were out in the field, interacting and working with our partners, understanding the neighborhoods, understanding the counties, and knowing exactly what they needed from us to succeed — not confined by historically what we had done for them or with them. But what did they actually need to do their part of closing the meal gap in their area, providing wraparound interconnected solutions.”

Since that work started in 2019, the team was better prepared to meet the needs of the community. “By the time the pandemic hit in early 2020, we already were equipped with that information. Also, if we had not moved to this current location with this facility in 2010, we absolutely could not have handled the pandemic response. We might very well have done what happened at some food banks and many food pantries around the country, which was temporary shutdowns, limiting our response, and running out of food distributions. But that didn’t happen. We were able to handle it because we were already on a growth and change trajectory.”

As part of the strategic plan, employees were evaluated to ensure they were in the right positions. The organization also hired new employees who would be equipped to handle demands well into the future — not simply fulfill the duties of the previous employees, Elliott said.

“In many ways, we started from an organization that was financially at risk in 2016 to one that is very stable and solid now. It was a financial journey. That financial journey began with my doubling the fundraising team when I got here and, much like corporations will use a dramatic increase in sales to turn the company around, we used a dramatic increase in fundraising to give us the resources to do all of the other things.”

Lilly Endowment, Inc., and other organizations provided the funds needed to expand its team, Elliott noted. “But, from there, we had to earn our own way.”

Looking to the future

Elliott noted that some nonprofits could be shortchanging themselves by focusing on challenges instead of future-setting goals.

“If you have a mindset as a nonprofit that, ‘Well, we’re short-staffed,’ or ‘We don’t have enough funding,’ you can diminish what you get versus if you’re more optimistic and project a vision your stakeholders see, hear and respond to.”

By establishing a vision that Gleaners needed to run at 2 ½ to 3 times the distribution it had in 2019, the food bank was equipped to handle even more under pressure, he said. “Now, we know we can do it in normal times.”