In this series of Group Thinkers podcast episodes, our focus is on leadership. Throughout each episode, we’ll chat with leaders in the nonprofit and commercial space to learn more about their careers and the unique journeys that led them to where they are today.
On this episode, we sit down with Jennifer Powell, Director of Development at Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, to discuss:
- Jennifer’s path to Central Pennsylvania Food Bank (6:34)
- Lessons learned from her time working at Penn Laurel Girl Scout Council (10:49)
- The people who have helped shape her as a leader (14:33)
- Her experience serving on Feeding America’s Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee (18:24)
- One word she’d use to describe leadership (24:17)
Meet our guest
Director of Development, Central Pennsylvania Food Bank
“If we can make some inroads and make some progress in the racial divide and the racial systemic issues that racial minorities face, other populations of marginalized communities will only benefit from those inroads.”
Justin McCord: Welcome to Group Thinkers, the podcast from RKD Group. On each and every episode of Group Thinkers, Ronnie and I sit down with someone from the nonprofit marketing space who is innovating. They're thinking about things differently. They're doing things differently.
And on today's episode, we have Jennifer Powell, the Director of Development for Central Pennsylvania Food Bank.
Ronnie Richard: Yeah, so Jennifer started her career managing cookie production and sales at Girl Scouts in Pennsylvania and one county in Maryland. I mean, no small endeavor, you know, handling the massive amount of logistics involved in that.
So, then she spent 11 years as Executive Director at Clare House, a shelter for homeless women and children, before moving over to Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, where she's been since 2014. She also serves on Feeding America's equity, diversity and inclusion committee. Just a wealth of experience.
Justin: I mean, you mentioned the Girl Scout thing, and I know we talk about it, but a $4 million budget tied to cookie production.
Ronnie: It's a lot of cookies.
Justin: It's a lot of cookies.
Right, so here's the thing. Here's what's interesting about this episode. A couple of things that stood out to me, Ronnie. One is, Jennifer is going to talk about her experience with someone who's been instrumental as a mentor in her career. And I was taken aback by, as Jennifer's talking about this person, she mentioned this line: that it was just the type of person that I wanted to do good by. That, basically, this mentor not only modeled things for Jennifer but also inspired Jennifer in a way that she wanted to work harder and be successful for that mentor. And it's such a unique, like, such a unique perspective, that idea of being inspired or inspiring others and then the way that they receive it.
And then the second thing that really stands out to me is how that idea actually connects through. I was processing everything that you're going to hear Jennifer talk about in her work with Feeding America and other places on equity, diversity and inclusion. And I think that her passion in that area can serve as inspiration so that others want to do something and do well by folks, like Jennifer. It's really just kind of interesting through line that I heard, Ronnie, as she was talking through this.
Ronnie: Oh, yeah, for sure. Yeah, I mean, I don't really have anything else to add there. So, here's our chat with Jennifer Powell and Group Thinkers.
Justin: We're just talking about the vibe. Just vibes. You know, the idea of vibes is also a thing recently, that is, a meme and a series of posts around it that was kind of weighing whether or not the idiom, the phrase “good vibes only” is actually a healthy perspective.
Ronnie: No room for the rest, right? Is that fair?
Justin: But, I mean, so … like, if you were going to take the argument, that's an unhealthy perspective, it's toxic positivity, like, you're only focused on the good and therefore ignoring the bad. Which I don't think is the intent. Right? I don't know, Jennifer, what do you think? Good vibes only. Are you, are you pro or con good vibes only?
Jennifer Powell: You know, I think, sort of, in the perspective of, like, we don't want to, you know, have negativity or really try to look at the positive. But I do believe that it's not a really healthy aspiration. I think life is 50/50. You're never going to have fully all good vibes. And so, I think if that's the, you know, expectation, you’re setting yourself up not to meet that. So, not saying fail but not to meet. So yeah, I think it's a healthy balance. You know, we've got to have the good, and we've also got to have some of the not so good.
Justin: Yeah. I think that that's fair. I think that that's fair. You can't distinguish sometimes the good if you don't have the not good. Right? You've got to have the yin and the yang, the dark and the light.
Ronnie: Everything would be similar if there were no bad and good. Right? If everything was good, it would just be the baseline.
Justin: Yeah, like, how terrible would a movie be if you didn't have any antagonists?
Ronnie: No conflict.
Justin: No conflict. That wouldn’t be interesting at all.
Ronnie: It would be like a kids TV show, basically.
Jennifer: I think even kids TV shows have some antagonists.
Ronnie: For sure.
Justin: This episode is now spun into an editorial on Caillou. So, we don't have a time for that because we …
Ronnie: Yeah, that’d be a whole episode.
Justin: We want to make good use of our time with Jennifer Powell, Director of Development from Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Jennifer, welcome to Group Thinkers, and thank you, thank you, thank you for being a part of this chat today.
Jennifer: Well, thank you. It's my pleasure to be here. And I think, you know, there is yin and yang in Jennifer Powell. There's good and evil in all of us. So, I think it is a perfect way to dovetail into our chat today.
Justin: And it is. Well and … so, yeah. So, we're going to explore all of it. We're going to look at ... we want to look at your path in your career and your mindset from multiple different angles, Jennifer, and I kind of want to start with your path to Central Pennsylvania Food Bank. Talk us through that. Give us a couple of the highlights of your story to today.
Jennifer: Sure, so I think it's you know, it's a story for sure. I started off, I think my first real job was with the Girl Scouts, the Penn Laurel Girl Scout Council here in Pennsylvania. It actually serves counties both here and then there was one county in Maryland as well. And my title there was Director of Product Sales and Special Events. But really, I was the cookie lady.
I was responsible for selecting the product, the baker―because there is not just one baker that makes all these cookies, there are, you know, several competitive bakers that want business. But I was responsible for pretty much soup to nuts, the entire sale, including training of volunteers, delivering, which was a big benefit because I had access to those yummy creations all year round. Not super good for the figure but definitely a great snack on those afternoons where you're, like, I need some sugar, give me a cookie.
But anyway, that was really my first introduction into fundraising. Along with the cookie sales. I was also responsible for the gala event, golf tournament, so did all of the special events. And it was really my, I think, trial by fire. And I didn't have experience. And so, it was just really trying to learn and absorb and sponge from other greater people who knew much more about fundraising, as well as girl scouting. But it was really just an opportunity to jump in.
I then transitioned, this was about 45 minutes away from where I live, and so I started thinking that I wanted to look at something a little bit closer to home, not have to do that commute each day. And I took a position as the Executive Director of a homeless shelter for women and children, and that definitely was a very different experience.
I was officially the executive director, but I also did all grant writing, fundraising, marketing, communications, plumbing, mowing, you know, donation organizing. It was a very small staff, and it was 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we had a lot going on. We had a lot going on there. We had our moms and kids in one of the houses and then single women in the other houses. So, a lot of different stories came out of my time there.
But I then decided I wanted to switch gears and focus just solely on fundraising. And I discovered that the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank was looking to hire their first director of development. And I just thought that would be the most awesome experience, to be able to really just build the department. And it was operating solely on direct marketing, direct mail and wanted to shift to relationship fundraising and being much more donor-centric at the time. And so, you know, the rest is history almost nine years later. Now, I've been there.
Ronnie: Wow, that's an impressive journey, Jennifer. I want to jump back a little bit because when you started talking about Girl Scouts, like, I want to underscore for the listeners just what a massive undertaking that is. And like, I mean, that's an entire industry, cookie sales. Tell us a little bit, what was it like? You know, going through that, the undertaking of just the sheer weight of all that. It involves putting those cookies out, getting the sales lined up and everything. What did you, what did you, kind of, learn from that, I guess?
Jennifer: Yeah, that's a really great question because I don't think that I really even knew what I was getting myself into. Yeah, the Girl Scout cookies. I was a Girl Scout. And I've got a, you know, a great story about my Girl Scout journey, which I thought would prepare me for managing the sale, which was a $4 million sale. And this was back in, like, 2000, the year 2000 and the year 2002. So, you know, a lot more now.
But it was, again, six counties in Pennsylvania and a seventh in Maryland. I don't recall the sheer number of troops and Girl Scouts that we worked with, but it was in the hundreds of thousands, and the amount of cookies was in the millions. Like, there were millions of cookies, hundreds and thousands of boxes. It actually ... we rented, like, a big storage unit to house everything. It got delivered there. And then it was days of sorting and sorting by troop, sorting by location, and then getting them all delivered out. And, I mean, I didn't really realize the logistical nightmare that could be caused if you made, like, a small little mistake. And let me tell you, there were many more large mistakes along with the small ones that were made.
But it was just really an opportunity to work in an organization that is truly volunteer driven. Because it was the troop leaders and the troops and the actual Girl Scouts that did the work to then get them out to the community, make the sales, doing all of that. But it really kind of just threw me right into that sort of fundraise-for-product type of industry. And it really just got me excited about the opportunity and how, you know, when you get groups working together, and just the power of that, that relationship and that community. And then all that good that it does and brings back into the organization, which then goes back out into the community. So, it really is kind of this full circle.
But yeah, the magnitude of tractor trailers, and again, selecting bakers, and coming in and bringing products like that, it's a Trefoil. Oh, no, it's not called a Trefoil with this baker that is a copy written like that, you know. So, it was just all the insides in the back end, what it means to, to sell these, these items.
Justin: There's so much more than the table.
Jennifer: So much more than a cookie booth. For sure. For sure.
Justin: It's fascinating, you know, you just reflecting on it as you piece that together―between those three organizations, you go from galvanizing hundreds of thousands of people around an event to wearing dozens of hats like you mentioned at Clare House, the shelter for homeless women and children, to then Central Pennsylvania Food Bank where you're kind of combining the two. We know that if you're in development, you wear a lot of hats, like, that's a reality for development, and you're also galvanizing lots of people, volunteers, donors, those sorts of things.
My guess is that along the way you have had some good days and some bad days, some yin and some yang. And so, I'm curious, who have been the people in your path that have helped shape you or helped you through those bad days?
Jennifer: That is an excellent question. So, and I really like the way that you, you know, blended those two and Central Pennsylvania Food Bank; we are looking at 27 counties in Central Pennsylvania. So, pretty much the entire middle part of the state. And our executive director says it's twice the size of the state of New Jersey, and that's just the territory that we cover. And so, literally all the way up to the New York border, down to the Maryland border. And so, it's a pretty diverse area, and it is a pretty large area.
But I will say, throughout my journey there, there have been several people that have really impacted me and shaped me as a leader. And I think, you know, the first one was actually my direct supervisor at the Girl Scouts. And she was just a very humble servant leader. And I am not generally the one that is the quiet, shrinking daisy in the corner. She was like this quiet strength to my, you know, the yin to my yang and to my, like, extroverted, loud, like, kind of attitude.
But she was, she was very much interested in my professional development. And I think she saw something in me and invested in that, from training to promotion to, literally, you know, the competence in my abilities for giving me this task of managing this multimillion dollar―one of the largest line items in the budget.
And I was, you know, I was in my mid-twenties, and I do believe I may have oversold myself in the interview, but needless to say that really, she gave, she just gave you the feeling that you wanted to work hard for her, and you wanted to please her, but it was in a way that was supportive and encouraging.
And I remember when I first started, I was the Special Events Coordinator, but every other person in the department was ‘Director of …’ and that title was something so important to me at the time. I just felt like, you know, I would be taken much more seriously. And, you know, I'm working just as hard, and I really want to be a director. And I, I worked myself all up on how I was going to sell her on, you know, changing my title. And she came in, and she said, “Is that it? Oh gosh, no. Well sure.” And it was something that was just not even a big deal to her. And it was, this is something that will make you feel more confident. And, you know, of course, you know, you can't just do that all the time, but it wasn't a big deal.
So, I would say she really was someone that really impacted me by way of being a servant leader and a teammate and just really my ultimate supporter. So, I reflect back on her, and I've had many other mentors, but we, you know, we've only got a certain amount of time. I would say my direct supervisor, Roslyn Ward, at the Girl Scouts has to be someone who just sticks out so, so brightly in my past.
Ronnie: That's always just so great in a career when somebody can see something in you and just try and push that farther than, maybe, sometimes even you are, like, realize you can go.
Jennifer, take us through ... one of the things you didn't mention in your career is that you, you know, you serve on Feeding America's equity, diversity, and inclusion committee. Can you share a little bit about some of the EDI advocacy work you do and, you know, maybe some of the leadership things you may have even learned through your work there?
Jennifer: Oh, absolutely. It is truly a privilege to sit on the national EDI committee. I was selected to be a part of this committee as an inaugural member, and we had our first meeting in December of 2019, and we all know what happened just a couple of months, a few months later.
But we continued to engage as a committee even through the pandemic, the height of the pandemic and everything in between. But really, the work shifted after the murder of George Floyd. And if you think about equity, diversity and inclusion, especially in sort of a fundraising, sort of under a fundraising lens, you know, it's not necessarily race or that type of a reflection.
You might think of, you know, equity and access to food or inclusivity amongst different sizes of banks. We had some banks that are huge, and we had some that are small. You have states that have one food bank, and you have other states that have, you know, 100. And when I'm talking about food banks, I'm talking about not 100. That's way too many. There's only 200 food banks in the Feeding America network, but you get the point, there's a lot of diversity amongst the Feeding America food banks.
But this group, as well as Feeding America, really held firm in the sense that there wanted to be a focus on racial diversity and racial equity. And I was just so humbled by that because that's hard. It's very, very hard. And it can be very, you know, much a touchy subject to folks. And again, sort of the wait a minute, we are food banks. Why are we talking about race?
But studies have shown that even within the food banking network, people of color are more or less on the marginalized areas of that, and that the highest needs are in communities of color, whether they are native communities or African-American communities that live in food deserts, in center cities, things of that nature.
And there was an example that was given that just really resonated to me about starting with race. And it is the concept of curb cut outs. Now you might look at me and say, Jennifer, why are you bringing up the concept of curb cut outs on this podcast? But the concept of curb cut out―so when you're looking to ascend a curb, you have to take a step. And there was an initiative, and I am going to botch all the historical facts, but the gist of it is that curb cut outs were intended for those that were traversing curbs in wheelchairs. So, it was an ADA initiative. And so, this made it, this curb cut out, made it able for people in wheelchairs to move around within their communities.
However, myself with a stroller, hey, I'm benefiting from curb cut outs. I'm not in a wheelchair. Maybe someone who might have a bum knee, and it's hard to take a step up, they benefited from curb cut out. So, the initial intent of the curb cut outs was for a singular population of those that are in wheelchairs, but the benefits far outnumber just those that are in wheelchairs.
And so, starting with race, if we can make some inroads and make some progress in the racial divide, in the racial systemic issues that affect those that are racial minorities, other populations of marginalized communities will only benefit from those inroads that are made around race. So, that just has stuck with me and really just impacted me. So, that's kind of the Feeding America. So, they're looking at different ways of bringing all 200 network members up to a place of equity around racial issues and racial access, but then spilling into food access and looking at food justice and looking at, you know, advocacy around native lands and those that are disproportionately impacted.
We also, at Central Pennsylvania Food Bank, have embarked upon a journey and have worked with some really fantastic consultants to really focus on knowledge and education. There are a lot of historical laws and policies and regulations that just, you know, many of us might not even know about. And so, really what we've been doing is focusing a lot on education and then building relationships. It's about building relationships.
And I think, you know, when you boil it all down and you get to know people, there's more similarities than differences. And if we can kind of get through some of that, we’ll make a lot more progress. So, from the National level to the state level to the local level, it's really looking at building relationships, and breaking down those walls and looking at how are we more similar rather than different.
Justin: I, Jennifer, thank you for sharing both at the National level and then all the way down in the local level because I think it's important that the folks center themselves on the spectrum of work that happens. You were so kind to give up your time. When we had a group of our clients together, of which you're one, you know, a couple of months back. And also, you were sharing about your experiences and just the baseline work to define an area where you're going to lean in. And I remember you saying one thing that has stuck with me, which was, giving people grace. Just the idea of giving people grace as they navigate moving towards that curb and, you know, how they're going to approach that; giving people grace but still encouraging action, that it's, you know, it's, hey, take a step. But like, I need you to think through what your steps are going to be.
And I think that's so impressive that it's not, you know, even from the Feeding America Network or from the National level, it's not, like, a unilateral. Yes, there may be baselines that we're trying to work towards, but it's giving people grace in how they're thinking about it so that they can think about it.
Jennifer: Oh, perfect. Yes, giving people grace. Also, giving ourselves grace. You know, we also want to look at it from the perspective of, you know, we're not going to get it right all the time, and we're not going to be able to solve all the ills in a five-year strategic plan. So, looking at it from a perspective of definitely giving people grace and doing our best to meet people where they are.
And in food banking, especially, you know, we need to be aware, and we need to be working towards, you know, the interests of those that we're serving and those that are facing hunger, but also know that, you know, giving ourselves grace as an organization, as a network, as a Feeding America nationwide organization.
Justin: And just as people, my goodness, just as people, giving each other grace is important.
Ronnie: Wow, I’m still just processing all of this.
Justin: Yeah, how are you going to segue way now, bud?
Ronnie: I’ve got no segue as I’ve got nothing. So … but I'll ask this: so, Jennifer, like, if you could describe leadership in one word, what would it be?
Jennifer: Leadership in general or my leadership style?
Ronnie: I’d say your leadership style. How about that?
Justin: Yeah, your leadership style.
Jennifer I would say I'm a resilient leader. But I also am a visionary leader. You know, I don't necessarily subscribe to the, ‘If it ain't broke, break it,’ but I also don't subscribe to, like, we just keep doing the same thing over and over and over again, or ‘We've always done it that way. So, I think visionary is the word that I would describe. I really like to think outside of the box. I like to think creatively. And I also think that there's pretty much always a solution, you know, and I guess that's maybe that fundraising piece of, like, it's never a ‘No,’ it's a ‘Not now.’ And it's kind of the same way. It's like, you know, maybe we're just not ready, or we need to think differently. But I’d rather focus more on solutions, and creativity, and kind of, what's that bigger picture and how we all sort of fit into it. So, I guess that would be my word.
Ronnie: I like it.
Jennifer: Thank you.
Justin: Yeah. Well, you carry both of those, and it's clear. I mean, Jennifer, we’ve known each other, again, being in the same room at various client things for, for ample years. And, and so, casting big ideas and, and, you know, exploring, hey, where could we go? That is something that is, that's definitely your fastball. So, OK. What about this: favorite Girl Scout cookie?
Jennifer: Oh, it's got to be the Thin Mint. You know, it's just so …
Jennifer: Classic for sure.
Justin: Frozen or room temp?
Jennifer: Both. Depends on my mood, you know? Sometimes ... Hey, you know, we can go on this good vibe ... I mean, we can do that. I think I can bring that in. No, it just depends. I do enjoy a frozen Thin Mint. I think if, if people don't know, not enough people know the deliciousness that is a frozen Thin Mint. So, you know, PSA, freeze your Thin Mints, but also, you know, just the little melts where you get a little bit of the chocolate on your fingers. So you can kind of have a little you know… I consume every and all Girl Scout cookie at any time.
Justin: I don't know, I'm not aware of other cookies where it's common to freeze them. I, I really can't think of too many other cookies to where, even if it's a, you know, kind of an off-menu thing that many people do. I can't; I'm not putting Chips Ahoy in my freezer.
Ronnie: I was just thinking, a chocolate chip cookie frozen would just break your teeth.
Justin: Yeah, Oreo wouldn't work, but you know ... So, Tagalong, by the way, is my, that's my favorite. And it's because you get that chocolate left on the finger. That's a good part of the Tagalong experience.
Jennifer: Definitely my second. That's my second. And honestly, my brain immediately was, like, oh, you know, so which one? But it's got to be the classic Thin Mint, for sure.
Ronnie: I like a good Thin Mint, for sure, but I think shortbreads might be my favorite. I love a good shortbread cookie.
Jennifer: They’re pretty, pretty dang good.
Justin: Jennifer, we really appreciate you spending time with us. And sharing with us just a bit of your path and also how you think about leadership. So, and I want to say, also, just thank you for your partnership with us. It's an honor for our team to get to work alongside you and to push each other on ways and approaches and give each other grace along the way. Everything that we've talked about in this, I think that it's exemplified in the way that our team works together. And so, we appreciate you. We really do.
Jennifer: Oh, well, the feeling is for sure mutual. I am definitely a fan. I've learned a lot from the partnership. I did not have any experience in direct marketing, direct mail, prior to coming to the food bank. And so, RKD has been our vendor from the beginning. And so, you've taught me a lot, and I just also appreciate the friendships and relationships that come out. So, thank you. It has been a pleasure to chat with you both this afternoon, reminiscing about cookies and all kinds of good stuff. But thank you.
Justin: Awesome. Thank you, ma'am. We'll catch up again soon.
Group Thinkers is a production of RKD Group. For more information, visit rkdgroup.com/podcast. Special thanks to our production team, including the talented Ryan Mellinger for his work on mixing every episode. Also, a shout out to the content team that helps pull together research and guests, puts the marketing efforts behind Group Thinkers, Suzanne, Ronnie, and others for their work on this and every episode of Group Thinkers.