Heavy Lifting at the Food Bank

The nonprofit world can be rewarding and demanding. Just ask Carol Tienken

When Carol Tienken left an 18-year marketing career at Polaroid to become chief operating officer of the Greater Boston Food Bank eight years ago, it didn't take long for unread newspapers to begin stacking up next to her desk. At Polaroid she arrived early and read The Boston Globe before plunging into work. But despite clocking in at the Food Bank's Roxbury (Mass.) offices at 7:30 a.m., the work always seems piled high. "People think it's like bankers' hours," says 50-year-old Tienken. "But I work really hard at the Food Bank. If you don't do it, it's not likely someone else is going to pick it up."

Unread newspapers were just one sign things were going to be different in her new not-for-profit job. When struggling Polaroid offered Tienken a buyout, she saw it as a chance to do something altogether new, with greater meaning. But she quickly found that even the basics of how she worked—right down to her vocabulary—needed to be rethought. Her business skills have proved invaluable to the Food Bank, which distributes nearly 29 million pounds of food annually to hundreds of local hunger-relief agencies. It has doubled in size since her arrival. But she has had to become highly adaptable to change in a job she describes as "trying to create everything for the first time."

From overhauling the information-technology system only months into the job to her current role overseeing the construction of a new 96,000-square-foot warehouse, the work has never been dull. A few weeks ago, clad in refrigerator gloves, heels, and a business suit, Tienken spent the morning on the back of a delivery truck unloading some of the 38,000 frozen turkeys the Food Bank would distribute for the Thanksgiving holiday. "You need to be flexible," says Catherine D'Amato, the Food Bank's chief executive and Tienken's boss. "It's not a perfect world."

Even so, more businesspeople are considering the jump to a second career in the not-for-profit sector. Some, like Tienken, take a midcareer chance. For others, it's the feel-good capper to a long career in the money-making game. Even younger business school grads are looking at the nonprofit world as a place where they can focus on a "double bottom line," one financial, the other social impact. They are all much needed. With donors increasingly looking for a clear strategic plan and a measurement of return on dollars given, business skills are in high demand at nonprofits. Bridgespan Group, a Boston consulting firm, estimates that nonprofits will have to find 640,000 new senior leaders over the next 10 years. That means "new pools of talent need to be tapped," says Thomas Tierney, Bridgespan's chairman and co-founder. "You're not going to fill that gap by promoting from within."

For a businessperson looking to help meet that need, one of the biggest challenges can be simply finding the opportunity. Nonprofits can't afford headhunters, and few positions are posted outside not-for-profit circles. Tienken's in was the Polaroid Foundation, which supports community, cultural, and educational groups in the places where it operates, including Boston. She had served there voluntarily for five years, getting to know D'Amato and other local players. D'Amato's big skills were food banking (moving food from one place to another) and fund-raising. She needed someone who could scrutinize expenses closely and manage the organization's growth.

At first, Tienken feared she had made a huge mistake. "I'm turning on the lights in the morning, I'm checking the refrigerator temperature. I'm thinking I didn't go to college and grad school for this," she recalls. "I had a lot of concern whether I had the fortitude to stick it out." Hanging out with the guys in the warehouse several hours a day helped her learn the ins and outs of the operation and connect with the mission that drives everyone at the Food Bank. Tienken warmed to what initially seemed a foreign, highly emotional culture. "People always give you a hug here," she says. "In the corporate world, you don't come within six feet of people without worrying about litigation."

Under Tienken, operations are managed by metrics.

Since she arrived in 1999, food distributed annually has doubled, to 28.8 million pounds last year, 4 million of that perishable produce, a category they were just getting into when she came along. Tienken and her team evaluate how well they're serving their clients—soup kitchens and food pantries—not only by volume but also with measures such as the food's nutritional content. They assess staff performance by such yardsticks as how well they're meeting fund-raising goals. The broad impact of their work is clear. Through intermediaries, the Food Bank helps get food to 83,000 people each week.


Tienken has done things at the Food Bank she never would have had a chance to try at Polaroid. She spent her first autumn overseeing the installation of a new $60,000 information system, though she had zero technological background. Her early overhaul of the way customers collect edibles from the Food Bank was also ambitious and far from smooth. Tienken stopped opening up the warehouse to supermarket-style shopping and began to require clients to fax (or later, e-mail) their orders from a list of what was available at the warehouse, then come pick them up. Her goal was to be fair and help keep better track of inventory. But customers complained she was making it harder for them to get food. "They kept accusing me of being corporate, thinking that was an insult," says Tienken, "and I'd say, Thank you.'"

Tienken didn't dismiss their complaints, though. She now seeks out input ahead of time, including submitting changes she's considering to a subcommittee of customers. "She had to learn you can't impose change without talking to a lot of people about it, and you can't talk to everyone like this is the business world," says Beth Chambers, director of community services for Greater Boston Catholic Charities, a big client. Now clients, such as Pat Adams, director of Weymouth Food Pantry, love the system. Adams, who estimates it has cut the pantry's weekly shopping from four hours to less than one, says, "the difference is night and day twice over."

Challenges continue. Today the Food Bank is suffering, as others are, from a decline in federally supplied food products and a rise in food companies' efficiency (and thus declining excess). Tienken's team has successfully lobbied the Massachusetts legislature for greater aid based on the number of people they are serving, but more help is needed. Staff members continue to scour the country for food, and lobby Washington for help, too.

Tienken admits to missing some things about the for-profit realm, including its well-established systems. But what's most likely to lure her back is money. When she started at the Food Bank, she took a 30% pay cut. Now she figures she's making about half what she would in the private sector. "How do I manage this so I'm not working until I'm 75?" she worries. For now, she's still putting in 60-hour workweeks, skipping tennis matches, and doing her Christmas shopping online to save time, in exchange for another kind of payoff. "At Polaroid, it was cameras and film. Nobody was going to die or go hungry," she says. "This business does make a difference."

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