Our Women in Philanthropy series continues with a Q&A with Founder and Executive Director, Lois Bennett, from Network for Good customer, Feeding Hands. Located in Somerville, New Jersey, Feeding Hands engages individuals, businesses, and churches in addressing the issue of poverty. With a staff of just one other part-time employee, Bennett keeps the pantry stocked, manages the volunteers, and tells the transformational stories of those helped.
Q&A with Lois Bennett
How is Feeding Hands involved in your community?
We operate as a food pantry, but our aim is not to be just transactional, but to be transformational in that process. We strive to make sure everything we do is done with dignity. We’re nonjudgmental and accepting of everyone who comes in. That’s not the case in most places our guests go. Too many times, they’re treated as second class citizens. When they come to us, we make sure they feel accepted and cared for and loved. It changes their attitude and, consequently, their ability to make changes in their own lives.
We look at transforming their diet and how they eat. About 20 percent of what we give out is fresh produce. When we first started doing that, we had people in tears because they just couldn’t afford it anywhere else. We provide recipes and teach people how to eat healthier. When they choose to share their health issues with us, we recommend food that will help them. We’ve had people lose 50 pounds from the food that we provide and the guidance and encouragement we give.
What inspired you to start the organization?
Two of our three children had health issues when they were young. I had to quit my job to manage their illness. The stress was tremendous, worrying about their health as well as keeping the medical bills paid; trying to be the doctor, nurse, caretaker, and provider. Dealing with a child with special needs takes an emotional, financial and relational toll. I would spend hours on the phone with the insurance company battling to get something paid. I’m a CPA by training and was blessed with the capacity to track things down and wage that battle. When my husband came home from work, I would tell him I couldn’t imagine how people did it if they didn’t have a support system or the capacity to wage the fight.
At some point this idea came up to simply start with the food. Everyone needs food. Before I stepped into this, I knew it was going to be hard. But I can see the change that’s happening. Being a CPA was great training because you wear many hats when you’re running a nonprofit. You’ve got to know how to manage the funds and measure results to be a good steward of the time and resources which are donated toward the cause
With such a small staff, what’s involved in your position as executive director?
To start with, it’s making sure we have the right food. We operate at an extremely small location. We move 12,000 pounds of food per month through a space that’s probably less than 1,000 square feet. The logistics of the operation is a tremendous focus. I source the food, oversee when and how to bring it in, where to store it, and the process of distribution. Then, of course, there’s the logistics of managing and inspiring our volunteer base. In five years, we’ve engaged well over 500 volunteers. We have over 100 people who help us on an ongoing basis in any given month.
One of the main aspects of my job is telling the story of impact, the story of transformation that we hear. People want to be engaged in something that makes a difference. As executive director I often say that, if we’re doing it right, we’re not just transforming the lives of the people that come in our front door as guests in need of food. We’re also changing the lives of the people that are coming in the side door as volunteers. I see it every day. Everybody that touches this process is changed for the better. Most people don’t get that feeling in their jobs. There’s an obligation to go to a job. There’s no obligation to volunteer. We engage our volunteers with meaningful, purposeful work. That changes them.
What do you enjoy most about fundraising?
Telling the stories of transformation. When we tell those stories, we become advocates for many people, not just the person whose story was told, but advocates for many people who have a similar story or situation. We all cross paths with people in need every day, but they’re invisible. If we all go through life only concerned about ourselves, we’ll never see anybody else. We’ll never see the needs right in front of us. We’ll never be moved to help, and we will never know the blessing that comes to both the giver and the recipient from serving another. If we can open eyes to see, then we can multiply our impact manifold and help change our corner of the world.
Women in Philanthropy is an ongoing blog series in celebration of Women’s History Month, featuring some of the incredible women Network for Good has the pleasure to work with.