The Charity's Charity

(Written 2015)

In the age of corporate social responsibility, the concept of businesses working with charities has developed far beyond the old PR shot of the Managing Director handing over the oversized cheque. Businesses are more intertwined with their local charities than ever but one Belfast charity has developed a unique relationship with local businesses.

FareShare is a regional food sharing charity that, in simple terms, takes food that would otherwise be thrown in the bin and redistributes it to other charities. We all know there is a cost to throwing things in the bin and most efficient firms place a huge emphasis on eliminating shrinkage. Major supermarkets like Tesco and Sainsbury's increasingly rely on forecasting demand to ensure that they complete all their orders in full.

This forecasting inevitably results in excess product for a variety of reasons such as printing errors on packaging, seasonal effects, bad weather and minimum shelf life demands.

CHNI brought FareShare to Northern Ireland and they work with over 60 charities around Northern Ireland. In 2013 FareShare in NI successfully redistributed the equivalent of 220,000 meals to those charities. That number was up from just over 150,000 in 2012, representing a massive growth of over 46% in donations. The operation in Belfast is part of the wider FareShare network that has 17 depots across the UK, serving more than 850 charities food that is equivalent to over 9 million meals.

The FareShare operation relies on more than 1,500 volunteers, drawn from various parts of the local communities, to deliver its service. These volunteers are the heart and soul of FareShare and indeed, in the case of their van drivers and helpers, they are the faces too. These men and women answer the phones and, most importantly of all, collect, sort and pick the food for the orders that get delivered to the charity partners.

Some volunteers are long term unemployed and FareShare provides them with a placement allowing them to top up their benefits in exchange for committing a number of hours to the charity. Many of these volunteers enjoy their time so much in FareShare that they still come back to volunteer on their days off and spare time, even if they get paid work. When you ask them why, they say that they’ve enjoyed the friends they’ve made and get a kick out of the work they do.

The FareShare setup is so impressive that I decided to experience a day in the life of a FareShare volunteer for myself. And so it was on a rainy and bleak Monday morning I turned up at the Belfast FareShare depot. I immediately saw the three white transit vans parked outside. One, with a FareShare logo proudly displayed on it, was backed up to the open roller door with its rear doors open wide. The four or five men inside the depot, all in hi visibility jackets, rushed around in a controlled manner readying the van. I was introduced to the warehouse manager. He then handed me over to the staff that were to look after me for the rest of day. We all got in the van and set off into the early morning Belfast traffic. Jim the driver and one of the few directly employed by FareShare, filled me in on our route for the day.

Monday is a collection day in FareShare when some of the vans make regularly scheduled pickups from partners and suppliers of whatever donations they make. Our first stop was a large fresh produce supplier that always provided good, usable food donations. As this was a regular collection, the donated food was assembled and ready for them to load into the van.

The produce was quickly checked over for any obvious things that could not be accepted. It may seem counter-intuitive for a charity to refuse some items for donation but since the diversion of food waste is FareShare’s primary mission, they will not simply take items from other companies and dump them. Waste costs and they are careful about what they accept in order to minimize the amount that they have to dispose of.

The FareShare van then continued on its way, stopping at one business after another on its regular route, enquiring at each stage what there was to collect. The driver and helper checked to ensure that the fridges were running on the van and that temperature was being maintained.

Any items that FareShare receive, they treat them exactly the same as the professional companies who look after the food you buy. I should know. I work for one of those companies.

They look after food so well that Sainsbury’s wrote to all their suppliers to tell them that they should deal with the charity in an effort to divert their food waste. The charity maintains records of goods received for traceability and manages temperature and quality in much the same way as any large-scale distributor. They only take items with a minimum shelf life left on them to ensure they have adequate time to distribute them to one of their charities.

Once back at the depot, the van was unloaded and all the items checked. The fruit and veg items are each examined for quality. The food is split up into small orders contained in baskets. This means that when the telephone operators contact the network of charities to get orders for delivery, the contents are already picked.

The charities that receive the food from FareShare are charged a small amount per kilo for the food. This fee is well below the market rate but is necessary as if the charity did not buy food from them, then they would have to buy food from other sources. The food donations FareShare receive are never guaranteed. They enable charities to stretch their money that little bit further.

FareShare relies on the support of companies, financial institutions, government departments and individuals to carry out their work. Not only do they need a steady supply of food donations but they also require money to keep their wheels turning and their fridges running.

One of the greatest needs they have is for individuals to help run their operations. FareShare cannot function without volunteers to deliver their service across Northern Ireland. There is a trend in the US is for companies to release employees for corporate volunteering days, where the employees spend time helping in the charity’s operations on company time. Companies that participate in corporate volunteering schemes receive a number of benefits including positive effects on brand value and reputation, and bringing to life corporate values. It can also build networks through collaboration with other businesses and engage employees and suppliers. It can, with the increased emphasis on Corporate Social Responsibility, increase a company’s chances in the tendering process.

The final reason for corporate volunteering, from my first hand experience, is that you get a real buzz from leaving your comfort zone and interacting with an organization with a totally different mission. Your mind generates ideas from the experience that may bring a benefit to the charity and the energy you bring back to the workplace is a benefit to your business. Corporate volunteering is an example of the ultimate Win Win business solution.