Friday, May 16, 2008

Hunger Can't Wait

There is a global food crisis.

We hear about it in the media. We are shocked by the escalating prices when we go grocery shopping. Food shelves and pantry programs can’t keep up with requests for service. Superstores are rationing rice. Food riots have erupted in vulnerable nations around the world.

Experts don’t expect a solution to the crisis any time soon. No solution this summer. No solution this year. Perhaps no solution for a decade.

But people are hungry today.

And hunger can’t wait.

Hunger can’t wait a day, or a week, let alone a year.

Hunger can’t wait locally. Hunger can’t wait globally. And Open Arms won’t wait until next year, or this summer, or even until tomorrow, to respond to the needs of people who are sick and hungry today.

For 22 years, Open Arms has provided nutritious meals for people living with HIV/AIDS and other diseases in the Twin Cities. But never, in more than two decades of service, have we received as many referrals for new clients as we have this year. More people with HIV/AIDS are receiving meals from Open Arms than ever before. As are people with multiple sclerosis, breast cancer, ALS, and many other progressive, and often life-threatening, illnesses.

Open Arms has always been committed to providing the most nutritious meals possible to our clients who are sick, but we know that disease affects more than just the person who is ill. It affects entire families. We can’t only feed a client if there is also a caregiver in the home who is simply too exhausted to cook one more meal. We can’t only provide delicious meals to adults if there are dependent children in a household with no food.

Like our clients, most of us have felt the impact of skyrocketing food costs when we go grocery shopping. We check prices a little more closely than we did just a few months ago. If those of us with good jobs are paying closer attention to escalating food costs, imagine what it must be like for the clients of Open Arms who are all confronting life-threatening illnesses, and the overwhelming majority of whom are living in poverty. There is a reason why Open Arms’ service is free of charge. Most of our clients could never afford to pay for the meals they receive from us.

At Open Arms, when we say that hunger can’t wait, we mean that it can’t wait for anyone, but it especially can’t wait for people who are ill, or the people who are caring for them, or their children who are dependent on parents who can no longer care for them the way they once did.

Hunger can’t wait locally, nor can it wait globally.

In 2000, Open Arms became the first organization of our kind in the United States to sponsor food and nutrition programs for people living with HIV/AIDS in the townships of South Africa. In Guguletu, the township where we work, 20% of the 350,000 inhabitants are believed to be HIV-positive. Nearly everyone in Guguletu experiences hunger every day. And that was before the global food crisis.

By sharing a small portion of our resources, Open Arms has been able to sponsor hot meal programs for families impacted by HIV/AIDS in South Africa. Twice a year we distribute food parcels that contain enough food to feed a family of seven for a month. Were it not for Open Arms’ global programs, most of these people would go hungry.

Lately, we have been concentrating our efforts in South Africa on supporting the rapidly increasing number of children who have been orphaned by HIV/AIDS. We assist our sister agency, the Zwane Community Centre in Guguletu, with their efforts to make certain these orphans are safe, have a place to live, money for school fees, and food to eat. The importance of food in this scenario can not be overstated, because if a teen-aged girl who is caring for her younger siblings has the family’s basic necessities met, she won’t have to engage in survival sex in order to provide food for her younger brothers and sisters. Open Arms’ programs in South Africa – providing food to vulnerable children and adults – do much more than fill the bellies of hungry people: it provides hope for a better future.

Open Arms is uniquely positioned to address hunger and nutrition locally and globally. We meet this need immediately by daily preparing and distributing hundreds of meals throughout the Twin Cities and in the townships of South Africa. And we will meet this increasing demand well into the future by constructing a new building in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis and expanding our program to serve even more people who are sick, hungry, and have no where else to turn for support.

A larger building, with a state-of-the-art kitchen, will mean that Open Arms can become the nutrition resource for people living with any chronic and progressive disease in the greater Twin Cities. Open Arms can serve 1,000 people a week locally, rather than 450. It means we can prepare and deliver 500,000 meals annually – more than double what we currently produce. We can add Saturday and Sunday deliveries which will expand the geographic area we can serve. Greater visibility will also allow us to serve more people who are sick and hungry in places like Guguletu, South Africa.

Hunger can’t wait.

With your support, Open Arms can address hunger today in this community. We can address hunger today in South Africa. And with the success of an $8 million capital campaign to construct a new building, we can address hunger tomorrow on an even greater scale both locally and globally.

To learn more about Open Arms, visit

To find out how you can assist with Open Arms local efforts, global initiatives, or our capital campaign, contact executive director, Kevin Winge, at 612-872-1152 or           

Call or e-mail today, because Hunger Can’t Wait.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Food Disconnect

The other morning, as I do every day, I was listening to public radio as I was getting ready for work. The subject was the global food crisis and the interviewer was asking his subject if escalating food prices, food shortages, and food riots in countries in the Caribbean and Africa, really qualifies as a food crisis.

I was incredulous. And offended. It was a good thing I had finished shaving or I probably would have taken a significant chunk of flesh off my face as I quickly reached to turn the volume on the radio up. Had the announcer really asked if the world was experiencing a food crisis? Clearly, this was a man who has never gone hungry or he would have understood that hunger – by the very nature of the condition – is a crisis. A single person who is hungry will quickly be in crisis if that hunger isn’t relieved. When it reaches a point where millions of people in the world can’t afford food, where there isn’t enough food to feed everyone, where people are rioting for food – then yes, we have a global crisis.

Perhaps it’s this disconnect that I find most troubling about food. Only people who have never gone hungry would say “I’m starving” when what they really mean is that it’s been a few hours since they’ve eaten and they are eager for their next meal. Only a person who has never gone hungry would question whether or not what is currently happening in the world qualifies as a global hunger crisis.

Occasionally, in my job as executive director of Open Arms of Minnesota, I’ve been asked if our work to provide food and nutrition to people who are suffering from life-threatening illness doesn’t just enable people and perpetuate, in them, an entitlement mentality.  One prospective funder told me she hoped we didn’t consider ourselves a charity – implying that there was something unproductive about performing charitable acts. This particular questioner also wanted to know what steps Open Arms takes to ensure that our clients don’t become “dependent” on our meals. I was tempted to reply by saying that for some of our clients, death prevents them from becoming too “dependent” on our “charity”.

There is one question that I always ask someone who is focused on entitlement, or charity, or dependency. I ask them, “Have you ever been hungry?” Not a single person who has, however casually, criticized our work has ever experienced hunger themselves.

I’ve also asked people who have gone hungry in the United States or in places in the developing world, what they think about services like Open Arms that exist to ensure that people who need nutritious food don’t go without it. Not one of these people who have experienced hunger has questioned what we are doing. Indeed, all of them have wished they would have had support during the times when they went hungry.

Maybe all of those who make decisions about food policy – be it locally, nationally, or globally – shouldn’t be allowed to do so on a full stomach.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Your Philanthropy Portfolio

For most of my career I have worked in the non-profit sector where there have been numerous rewards, but financial gain was not really one of them. I managed to save a bit and eventually I found a money manager who agreed to look at my investments and advise me. After perusing my financial data, she looked up from the single page of information I had provided her, and she asked me two questions.

“Do you like your job?” was the first.

“I love my job.” I answered honestly.

“Good. Do you like to work?” she continued.

“I love to work.” I again responded honestly.

“I’m glad, because based on the financial information you have shared with me, you will never be able to retire” was her direct assessment of my situation.

I laughed. Until I realized that the financial manager was serious. At that point I, too, became a bit more serious, sat up a little straighter in my chair, and got the one piece of financial advice that I have used ever since in my financial planning.

“You need a diverse portfolio of investments,” was the standard, though very helpful piece of advice. The money manager went on to suggest that I should invest in some high-risk stocks that held the possibility of an eventual high return. Those high-risk investments, however, should be balanced with some conservative holdings such as CDs or government bonds.  The stocks haven’t performed so well in the past few months, but those U.S. Savings Bonds continue to sit in a safety deposit box slowly increasing value.

Earlier in my career, then I was trying to decide if I should abandon the profitable for-profit world for the more altruistic, but less financially rewarding world of non-profit organizations, I discovered that career counselors had adopted the language of financial planners. They were no longer interested in the color of my parachute. They wanted to know what skills I had in my “career portfolio.”

“The average person will now have 300 jobs and 11 separate and unique careers,” the career counselor told me. Well, maybe it wasn’t that many jobs and careers, but it was a seemingly large number nonetheless. And one thing was clear – it was no longer the resume that mattered. What mattered were the skills and talents that we as prospective employees possessed – skills that could easily be placed in a portfolio and taken to the next job in the event of a downsizing, or the unfortunate situation of telling your boss what she could do with your job at the company’s year-end holiday party.

Diversifying portfolios, be they investment or career portfolios, makes sense. Now it’s time to consider a new portfolio: your philanthropy portfolio.

Financial contributions by Americans to non-profit organizations and charities in 2006 exceeded $290 billion. By far the greatest share of American philanthropic support – approximately one-third of all giving – went to religious organizations for religious purposes. Education received 14% of our generosity, while health and human services, gifts to foundations, the arts, and public society followed. At the bottom of the list of American philanthropy were gifts to international concerns.

How do you prioritize and allocate your philanthropic giving? Are you like most Americans who give primarily to your place of worship and you alma mater? Do you make smaller donations to a number of organizations or larger gifts to a few causes? Do you carefully research non-profits before supporting them financially, or do you give spontaneously because you just can’t say no to the telemarketer who calls you?

The process you use for determining your charitable giving should be no different that what you use for your financial and career planning. You need a portfolio. A philanthropy portfolio.

What you place in your philanthropy portfolio – those causes and issues important enough to you that you choose to give some of your money to support them – should be a reflection of who you are as a person – who you are as a complete person.

Some charitable selections, like a religious affiliation or an educational institution, may be obvious choices for some. But is that the make-up of your total portfolio? Do one or two charitable organizations sufficiently reflect all of your interests and values?

Money managers will advise you to have more than one or two investments in your financial portfolio. Career counselors will tell you to get more skills if you have only a couple of competencies in your career portfolio. So it is with your philanthropy portfolio. The key is diversification, and there are as many ways to create a diversified philanthropy portfolio as there are organizations to contribute to.

A generalized philanthropy portfolio may be right for you. That’s a portfolio that could include your religious or spiritual community, a school, college, or hospital, public radio or television, a cultural or arts organization, and a human or social service agency. A generalized philanthropy portfolio contains a number of causes that you value and that also represent the broad scope of your interests.

A specialized philanthropy portfolio works well for someone who is passionate about a specific field. As an example, a “culture vulture” in the arts world may desire a philanthropy portfolio that focuses solely on the arts. Within that specialized portfolio, however, the donor could support a major civic orchestra, a community theater, a literary press, a museum, and/or a dance company. A specialized philanthropy portfolio is diverse, but it’s diversified within a focused area.

A geographic portfolio recognizes the ever-increasing inter-connectedness of the world. This portfolio supports causes at the local, national, and international levels. In your neighborhood, it may be a non-profit organization that you, or someone you know, have benefited from, or it may be an organization for which you volunteer. Nationally, it may be an advocacy or policy institution that works to affect change at a federal level. Internationally, it could be a well-known relief agency or a small community-based effort in a developing country. Communications, and especially the internet, has made international giving easier and much more transparent.

Just like your financial portfolio, you need to do your homework before investing in any non-profit organization or institution. Request and read their annual report and audit. Check out their website. If possible, visit the agency you are interested in supporting, and even better, volunteer to see first hand how the non-profit operates and if it is a fit with your interests. Use their services or talk to people who use them to get testimonials. And, just as you might want to know something about the CEO of a company you are thinking of investing in, find out what you can about an organization’s executive director, including her education, work experience, and commitment to the cause.

Once your philanthropy portfolio is created, don’t forget to review it on a regular basis. Over time, your interests may change and you may need to alter the contents of your portfolio to reflect those changes. Agencies and organizations will also change, and you may find that you no longer feel connected, interested, or confident in the work they are doing. That’s the time to divest your portfolio and look for new philanthropic opportunities.

As I continue along my career path, I pick up new skills and add them to my career portfolio. I have found, even in the non-profit world, that the fuller my career portfolio, the more contributions I can make to my financial portfolio. But what really excites me, what is really important to me, is my philanthropy portfolio. Through that portfolio I can express and support what it is in the world that I truly value. The return on my financial and career portfolios have been solid, but the return on my philanthropy portfolio, and the causes and issues I can support through that portfolio, has been spectacular.