Brian Greene | Crain's Houston

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Brian Greene

Background:  

Founded in 1982, the Houston Food Bank is the largest such entity in the U.S., feeding 800,000 people each year by distributing food donations to 600 hunger-relief programs in 18 southeast Texas counties. Last year, the nonprofit distributed 79 million meals and aims to expand to 100 million by next year. Its sponsors include H-E-B, the Houston Texans Foundation, Kroger, Walmart and Sysco. Since joining the organization in 2005 after working at food banks in New Orleans and Knoxville, Tenn., president and CEO Brian Greene has overseen significant expansion, including merging with food rescue group End Hunger Network in 2008 and launching a $55.6 million capital campaign in 2011 that quadrupled the size of its warehouse and office facility. The economics major from the University of Tennessee intended to get his MBA after graduating but realized he had already found what he wanted to do.

Mistake:

We’re generally a pretty scrappy organization. As a result, we kind of looked cheap as well as operated cheaply. The building wasn’t fixed up, the equipment didn’t look good and it wasn’t great for volunteers.

We didn’t appear professional. And because we looked cheap, people gave us little. People don’t know how to value nonprofits. When you want to donate to a charity, does that charity need $1, $100, $1,000? If you were at the old building, you’d understand how badly we were setting our price point. We set our price point too low.

I had a board member who was also a member of MFAH’s [Museum of Fine Arts, Houston’s] board but loved the food bank. One painting they’d show at a board meeting would get $1 million or $2 million. We weren’t getting that. One time, a very generous corporation did an event with us and Junior Achievement. At the end, they got $10,000 and we got a few bags of food.

The reality was, with a much larger budget, there would be more opportunity within our price point. We wanted to make the food bank something people wanted to give to. We wanted to win the resources to do more.

If you look like you’re held together with baling wire, they’ll give you a few dollars for baling wire.

Lesson:

If we knew we looked cheap, we’d be much further along in capturing more value to channel into the community.

We’ve been in the new building for seven years. We didn’t want it to look like luxury or look like waste. It’s clean and it works well. So the people who gave us $5 are going to be more likely to give us $5,000. To bring in a tractor-trailer of fresh produce, we need $6,000 and it’s a lot easier to get $6,000 than $6. You may lose the small checks but you’ll get the big checks.

We also tried to change the volunteer experience, making it something people wanted to do, sort of like entertainment. You’re doing something for the community but you’re having a good time. It’s made a world of difference. We went from 7,000 to 70,000 volunteers a year. We went from 50 million dollars' worth of food to 160 million dollars' worth of food.

It would have been impossible if we hadn’t changed the perception of what we are. If you look like you’re held together with baling wire, they’ll give you a few dollars for baling wire. It took us a long time to learn that.

Follow Houston Food Bank on Twitter at @HoustonFoodBank.

Photo courtesy of Brian Greene

Do you have a good story you'd like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email Nancy Ryan at nryan@crain.com

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Houston.