CEO’s Departure Feeds Food Bank Merger Debate - Voice of San Diego

Nonprofits/Community UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

CEO’s Departure Feeds Food Bank Merger Debate

The swift departure of Feeding San Diego’s CEO adds new fuel to longtime arguments that the organization should merge with San Diego’s other food bank.

The leader of one of San Diego’s two food banks is out after a year on the job, again feeding a long-running debate over whether San Diego should have just one food bank.

Feeding America CEO Al Brislain, who was hired in late 2015, resigned effective Dec. 31.

The Jacobs & Cushman San Diego Food Bank has repeatedly courted Feeding San Diego, the local group affiliated with the national Feeding America organization, with the pitch that the two groups could serve more hungry San Diegans if they joined forces.

Feeding San Diego has repeatedly said it’s not interested – and that hasn’t changed since Brislain’s departure.

“Two organizations can do more than one,” said Stacy Rungaitis, Feeding San Diego’s director of development and marketing.

After all, Rungaitis said, the two organizations collectively deliver tens of millions of meals annually, benefit from different partnerships and contracts and still fall short of fully addressing hunger needs in the region.

Brislain, Rungaitis and Feeding San Diego board member Larry Sly would not comment on the reasons for Brislain’s departure.

Sly, a Northern California food bank executive, would only say Brislain chose to leave Feeding San Diego and that his sense was that it “just wasn’t the right fit.”

Rungaitis and Sly say their nonprofit’s focused on replacing Brislain and feeding hungry San Diegans, not on pursing a merger the San Diego Food Bank once estimated could save nearly $980,000 in annual overhead.

Yet Food Bank CEO Jim Floros remains convinced merging would be the right move.

He recently emailed Feeding San Diego board chair Gwendolyn Sontheim Meyer to request a lunch meeting. Floros never heard back. He had previously approached the organization after former Feeding San Diego Executive Director Jennifer Gilmore left in March 2015 and even broached the subject with Brislain before he resigned.

Floros is hoping for another conversation.

“We’re about doing what’s best for this community and the greater good and we think a merger with Feeding America San Diego is what’s in the best interest of this organization,” Floros said.

Feeding San Diego has seen significant change in recent months – and at least one nonprofit expert has raised a flag over a financial vulnerability for the organization.

The group changed its name to Feeding San Diego, from Feeding America San Diego, in October and is now being led by a handful of food bank managers rather than a single executive.

The group’s also relying heavily on a single donor.

Feeding San Diego reports 45 percent of its monetary support came from a single source for the fiscal year that ended in June. In previous years, a single donor has provided between 27 percent and 43 percent of the group’s cash support.

The donor is not identified in Feeding San Diego filings but the nonprofit’s latest audit states a contributor made a conditional pledge in June 2015 to donate $15 million over five years.

Nonprofit experts discourage counting on a single contributor for such a significant share of cash. Such reliance on one funding source can leave a nonprofit financially vulnerable.

Bob Beatty, a Carlsbad-based financial consultant for nonprofits, said Feeding San Diego could face financial struggles if that donor bows out and thus feel pressured to cater to that donor’s interests.

“I question whether the board can make truly independent decisions because of their reliance on a single donor,” Beatty said. “This board is really beholden to one donor.”

Emily Young, executive director of the University of San Diego’s Nonprofit and Philanthropic Institute, would not comment specifically on Feeding San Diego’s financial statements but said it’s best for nonprofits to have a variety of funding sources.

“We applaud the generosity of the major donor in this case, in supporting a critical need in our region,” Young wrote in a statement. “Hopefully that donation will inspire others to step up or be leveraged in other ways.”

Rungaitis and Sly say Feeding San Diego’s taken steps to grow its donor base since last summer. Both say they’ve seen increased donations from more sources and emphasized that their organization is thriving.

The long-range goal, Sly said, is to maintain the sizable contributions from the large donor while aggressively cultivating a broader base of support.

Sly said the large donor’s contribution followed a request to help 10-year-old Feeding San Diego bolster its infrastructure to better address local hunger.

“A donor realized we were looking at some growth pieces we needed to make as an organization and they were willing to help us do so,” Sly said.

But some leaders in San Diego’s nonprofit community – including Floros – think Feeding San Diego could more swiftly up its local impact if it merged or at least better coordinated with San Diego’s other food bank.

Floros said he’s excited about the success of a two-year joint grant the two organizations received to work together on an improved feeding service system in City Heights. He said he and Brislain discussed other ways the two organizations could collaborate before the former Feeding San Diego CEO left last year, namely when it came to providing food during local disasters.

A 2013 USD report recommended other ways to team and consolidate operations, too.

Young said both food banks provide a critical service and that resources for both organizations are spread thin.

“We know people are going hungry across the San Diego region,” Young wrote. “With Feeding San Diego’s CEO stepping down, this is a prime opportunity for leaders to explore new ways to streamline –and possibly merge – their operations to be in an even better position to meet the nutritional needs of our community.”

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