by Josh Jacobson
Originally published in ‘The Biscuit,’ Charlotte is Creative’s digital news magazine.
Tina Postel is up early. Really. early.
As Executive Director of Loaves & Fishes, a food access nonprofit for people experiencing a short-term crisis, Postel has been working overtime to meet an explosion of need.
This week marks one month since Mecklenburg County issued the ‘stay at home’ order to help stop the spread of COVID-19. Statewide, more than 630,000 unemployment claims have been filed in the past month. The ripple effects of the pandemic have hit the hardest for those who have always been just a paycheck away from financial distress.
“Our mission is to provide a week’s worth of nutritious groceries to people facing economic hardships,” Postel said. “And ‘economic hardship’ is a massive understatement for what our community is currently experiencing.”
Like most nonprofits, Loaves & Fishes was challenged by COVID-19 to rethink the delivery of services. The organization’s Client Choice model typically allows clients to select groceries that their family is most likely to eat at a network of more than 40 emergency food pantries located through Mecklenburg County. But, with the onset of the pandemic, the organization made the hard decision to close its full-size pantry locations to prevent further spread of coronavirus.
Instead, the organization kicked off mobile pantry operations two weeks ago, switching to a drive-thru style approach that serves clients while reducing personal contact.
According to Sue Bruce, Marketing and Events Director for Loaves & Fishes, the decision was one of many Postel has handled with integrity and determination.
“From the very beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, Tina has been thinking two steps ahead,” Bruce said. “With the safety of our clients and volunteers at risk, she did not hesitate to make the bold and difficult decision to close down our ‘brick and mortar’ pantries and completely switch our operation to ‘drive-through’ style mobile pantry distribution sites.”
The decision came with some downside. Referred clients would not be able to choose their own food items. Instead, they receive a prepacked box with a seven-day supply of food.
“This was a painful pivot,” Postel said. “Client choice is at the heart of our organization but we have to play the hand we’re dealt and making sure we serve the public in a safe and effective way means making these types of tough calls.”
Transitioning to an all-mobile distribution model may have been difficult for Loaves & Fishes over the last month, but it likely would have been impossible when Postel first came to the organization in 2016.
Over the last four years, she has helped Loaves & Fishes embrace technology including the migration to a cloud database system, adoption of a Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone system and deployment of a digital referral platform. The switch to mobile operations has relied heavily on the ability of staff and volunteers to be in touch remotely.
These modifications to standard operating procedures were not easy changes to make in a nonprofit that had been ‘doing it our way’ for a long time, particularly one that relies heavily on older volunteers. However, this digitization looks downright prescient given the challenges the community is facing with COVID-19.
“I guess you can say that I am a ‘lovingly disruptive’ leader,” Postel said. “But every time we considered a new way of doing things, if we could justify that it would help us feed more people in need, our staff and volunteers got behind it because we are all incredibly client-first minded.”
Due in part to the organization’s rapid deployment of its all-mobile distribution system, Loaves & Fishes has been the beneficiary of two rounds of support totaling $400,000 from the COVID-19 Response Fund, a critical needs fund administered through a partnership between Foundation For The Carolinas and United Way of Central Carolinas, in close coordination with the City of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County.
According to Loaves & Fishes board member Kathleen Kaney, Postel is the right person to be leading the organization during this time of increased community need.
“Tina’s talents are many and we were so fortunate to add her leadership to an already strong organization,” Kaney said. “Tina’s ability to connect to other organizations fighting hunger so our work is aligned, contemporary, multiplied and not duplicative has really served not only Loaves & Fishes, but our entire community.”
Postel joined Loaves and Fishes from United Way of Central Carolinas where she worked in major gift fundraising. Prior to relocating to Charlotte, she served as CEO of the Billings Montana Family YMCA. Throughout her career, a commitment to ‘walking the walk’ has earned her the respect of those she manages.
“Tina’s leadership style is very hands-on,” Bruce said. “She has been out there on the front lines, working each and every mobile pantry to make sure they worked smoothly so that as many people could receive food as safely and efficiently as possible.” She concludes: “She isn’t asking her staff or volunteers to do something she hasn’t already done herself.”
Taking a Leap of Faith
Postel acknowledges that working in the trenches of a human services nonprofit is not for everyone, but suggests the following for those who feel a longing to live a life of purpose:
- Consider the “emotional paycheck” a job in social good can provide; often it’s the most important fringe benefit.
- Find a nonprofit that speaks to you personally, one that makes you want to ‘show up’ every day.
- Assess your skills and capacities to find alignment with a position that is a good fit, and keep in mind that a nonprofit mission is only successful when everyone works collaboratively. There are no ‘small roles’ in the nonprofit model.
- If a job in a nonprofit is not a good fit for you, do volunteer work instead – find a way to give back.
In his “Cares About” series, guest contributor Josh Jacobson highlights staff leaders in Charlotte’s nonprofit sector who are shaking things up and making an impact. Josh is the founder and managing director of Next Stage, a Charlotte company that works with nonprofit organizations to develop game-changing strategies and strengthened operations in service to mission and long-range vision.