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Leadership Reflections

A View from the Top 

I joined the Open Table Board of Directors in 2014 with the expectation that I would serve at least one term of 3 years, and if all was well, continue for another 3 years, as term limits allowed. Fast forward to spring 2020, and a pandemic upended life as we knew it. Given the turbulent world and the uncertainty of leadership while our executive director was on a sabbatical, the Board modified the by-laws to allow extension of officers’ terms for one year, ensuring some stability. I am now nearing the end of my seventh year with Open Table and preparing for transitions all around.

So much has evolved at Open Table during my tenure on the Board. Before I elaborate, I bow down in respect and gratitude to the many board members and other volunteers who preceded me. For over 20 years, food had been distributed and meals prepared and served with volunteers operating in borrowed or rented spaces. We did not own a truck or a building, had no employees, and yet we created a supportive community of volunteers and guests committed to getting people fed.

In 2016, a significant change occurred – the hiring of Open Table’s first paid staff person, a part-time Executive Director, Jeanine Calabria. For some long-time volunteers, this signified a real change in culture, but by hiring one of their own who began at Open Table as a dinner cook, the board helped assure that the ethos of the organization would prevail. In just a short time, it was clear that the job was full-time, and that operations were outgrowing our borrowed spaces. By 2017 a new building in Maynard was purchased, with operations commencing in September 2018. That year, with funding from the Massachusetts Emergency Food Assistance Program, we purchased a refrigerated truck to transport food from the Greater Boston Food Bank. A pantry manager was hired as recommended by a pro-bono management study to help ensure consistency in our operations. The next big step was to formulate a strategic plan, laying out a roadmap for further organizational development by creating the structures and processes to support the growth and maturity of Open Table.

Transformations Abound

Ten months of work led to a plan that identified 5 key areas for improvement as well as a clearer understanding of the roles and responsibilities of the Board and its relationship to daily operations. The charges for committees are now better defined, procedures established, and repeatable processes and calendars created. We understand that our fiduciary duties mean that board members have a duty to act with care and in the best interest of the organization while remaining loyal to the mission, rather than acting in our own self-interest or that of the Executive Director that we supervise. We achieve this oversight through committee work and devoting many additional hours on our own time. The Finance committee helps staff develop budgets and monitors financial conditions, investments, and reporting; the Fundraising committee oversees the overall fundraising through donor strategy, special events, and stewardship; and the Communications committee helps in the development of media and messaging. Task forces and subcommittees address issues that may be more temporary in nature, such as facilities needs. We have recently established a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion group, examining ways in which we can further this important work at the Board level.

Open Table also has a Governance committee, and significant progress has been made in this area. This committee has responsibility for ensuring that the Board manages itself well. We have officers: a Treasurer, Clerk, and President and Vice President (we’re phasing away from Chair and Vice Chair.) By-laws govern how we operate (note my earlier mention of our modified term limits), and these are shared with the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office, and our financial documentation is shared with the IRS. Orientation is conducted so that new board members have a shared understanding of the organization and these responsibilities. Recruitment of new Board members is another task of this group, and we strive to make sure that we have people with the skills, geographic representation, and diversity necessary to be successful.

Where We Are Now

All of these evolutionary steps provided a strong foundation for weathering the storm of Covid-19. With our own facility, truck, and staff, we were able to respond to the increased need for food all around us. Many of our peer food pantries rely on volunteers who skew older, and were therefore at higher risk for Covid and unable to continue volunteering (we faced this, too). Some did not have trucks to transport the increased loads being picked up at the Greater Boston Food Bank and from other donors. Operations in borrowed spaces were no longer accessible, for example, First Parish Church in Concord, the site of our dinners, is still closed to the public. Due to the infrastructure that was developed and strengthened through the strategic plan, and with the generosity of our donor community, Open Table has operated our pantry continuously throughout the pandemic.

We also had the ability to introduce new mobile pantry locations, medically-tailored meals, and food distribution methods that protected the health of our staff, volunteers, and clients. Online ordering has been introduced, bringing choice back to our distributions, and reducing waste in the process. Our staff continues to grow, about 8 full and part-time hard-working people, including interns.  We purchased a new office condo adjacent to the Maynard site, further strengthening our administrative capacity. A recent grant from the Massachusetts Food Insecurity Infrastructure program supported the purchase of a new van and kitchen equipment to cook more meals efficiently. Our innovative programs and the creativity and commitment of our staff and volunteers never cease to amaze me. The rate of change is at times dizzying, and it has led us to become a nimble and responsive organization.

Throughout this time the Board of Directors has paid close attention to the needs of staff, a critical resource, and have tried to support them as they do important, consuming work. We have been evaluating our progress on the strategic plan, and are gearing up to develop a new one. We have studied our programming, and are currently looking at the demand for food and communities in need while also reviewing facilities, and programmatic direction. And we are preparing for new leadership of the Board of Directors.

I’m so pleased that Mary Siegel will be stepping into the role of President on July 1st. Mary first came to Open Table as a pantry volunteer with her church, and since 2018 she has participated in Governance, Fundraising, and more at the Board level. She has been attending the weekly meetings I have with our Executive Director to increase her familiarity with the myriad issues impacting operations. Mary’s professional background includes work in finance and human resources, and she has a long history of volunteering in her community. This includes raising puppies to serve as service dogs and I’ve enjoyed seeing her dog sitting in on our virtual meetings this year. With the work we have been doing to prepare for this transition, I am confident that Mary is well prepared to lead the organization.

So much has changed at Open Table since a few Concord residents began a dinner program in 1989. Our mission has shifted ever-so-slightly during that time in response to evolving conditions or understandings, all the while retaining that core goal of ending hunger by reducing barriers to food. I am grateful for all of the people whom I’ve worked with on this effort, and I am eager to see how Open Table will evolve in the years to come.

Jill Block
President, Open Table

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