Thinking Big & Bold: How the Kendall Foundation Is Transforming New England’s Food System

Posted March 2nd, 2017 by maryalbro and filed in Executive Director's Blog

Originally posted to Exponent Philanthropy’s PhilanthroFiles blog

In late summer of last year, Andy Kendall put foot to pedal on a Trek bicycle in Portland, Oregon. Forty days and 4,000 miles later, he rolled into Portland, Maine. At the 1772 Foundation, we were not surprised to learn of his feat: a two-wheeled version of the significant accomplishments he has made at the Boston-based Henry P. Kendall Foundation. Though established in 1957, this foundation crackles with the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of a start-up company.

Five years before the cross-country trek, Andy and his staff began to put pedal to the metal to meet monumental challenges in the New England regional food system. We have been following Kendall’s success with great interest as he exemplifies what we believe are the best qualities of effective, dynamic philanthropy.

UMass dining hallOne of the best examples of Kendall’s impact is at UMass Amherst where the foundation is behind a bold transition, made possible by one of the many strategic food system grants they have made throughout New England. This campus has a total food budget of more than $21 million. With help from the Kendall Foundation, they have made a firm commitment to sourcing food thoughtfully, using local whenever possible, with back-up defaults to regional sources and those using “sustainable, humane and organic sources.” This effort resulted in a 38% increase in local sustainable food purchases by the largest university in Massachusetts.

This project and others funded by Kendall exemplify the aspects of dynamic philanthropy that we try to emulate:

Food VisionVision with a strong footing. Recognizing the merits of, and providing support for, a report entitled A New England Food Vision, Kendall Foundation embraced the vision of “50 by 60” (from Food Solutions New England). That is, by 2060, 50% of New England food will come from New England. This document is a thorough, pragmatic look at what it will take to reach that goal in terms of acres of farmland, types of food, dietary requirements, etc.

Understanding systems dynamics. Andy and his team went into the field and sought to fully understand the entire system. In the Vision, this includes production, processing, distribution, consumption, and waste return. Kendall believes that both visionary grants (top-down grants with a bold vision for the future) and reality grants made “in the trenches” (bottom-up grants) are necessary and inform each other.

Harnessing the for-profit market. Food systems change cannot be sustainable or financially feasible without working at the speed of the market and involving for-profit players. With a full understanding of the system and the players, Kendall was able to become what Andy calls a “catalyst organization,” one which could work within the ecosystem of all the players, while bringing the nimble, flexible, unbound nature of private philanthropy to connect the dots.

Immersion, connection, and flexibility. Andy and his team understand from their research where there are gaps and opportunities that can be addressed, where introductions need to be made, convenings organized, funds leveraged, and case studies developed. Smaller, experimental “orientation grants” were made to test assumptions and get to know the players. These grants helped the foundation understand the issues and the landscape more thoroughly in the early “research and development” phase. As their depth of knowledge and experience grew, larger grants were made to strengthen the system as a whole. Recognizing the value of philanthropic dollars as “risk capital,” Kendall was willing to make informed grants in potential, eschewing the “safe bets” to focus on the creative, emerging spaces where new ideas were being nurtured, developed, tested and where higher risks and complexity may have deterred more traditional funders.

Understanding the multiplier factor. Kendall is willing to make the riskier grants in order to pave the way for other foundations to fund food systems efforts. The dining service investment at UMass will have a major ripple effect: Colleges and universities spend $5 billion on food purchases each year. Through a grant to the Real Food Challenge (20% of food “from local, fair, humane and sustainable sources” by 2020), Kendall is leveraging their impact. Kendall reports, “Since 2012, 18 colleges and universities in the Northeast have taken the pledge. This translates to more than $10 million in university spending directed at local, sustainable farms and food businesses, up from $2 million three years ago.”  

Andy and his colleagues at the Kendall Foundation are striving for excellence using the best practices of dynamic, catalytic philanthropy and have made major, measurable gains towards a sustainable New England food system as a result.

Some of the most compelling quotes in philanthropy come from Tom Tierney, co-author of Give Smart: Philanthropy That Gets Results. My favorite is from an interview he gave to Huffington Post: “In philanthropy, excellence must be self-imposed. And no one achieves excellence without pushing themselves on the fundamental dimensions of strategy, execution and continuous improvement that underpin the best philanthropy.” Kendall Foundation has pushed themselves on these fundamentals, and we seek to be as energetic, thoughtful, thorough, creative, and bold as they are. We may not hop on a bike in Portland anytime soon, but we can strive to make our journey as important as theirs.