How a brave refugee food agency flipped to survive

Friday, 01 May 2020

Michaela Healey MAICD photo
Michaela Healey MAICD
Chair of Free to Feed, Vice President of Berry Street

    When Melbourne social enterprise Free to Feed was hit with the COVID-19 crisis, all income “evaporated within 36 hours”. But with the help of Jobkeeper and a seasoned chair who had first-hand experience in the global financial crisis, Free to Feed quickly acted and within days had started a new food venture called Brave Meals to keep cash flow up, 15 staff employed and the vulnerable refugee community that it serves nourished and supported.

    When the COVID-19 crisis hit Free to Feed, threatening to shut it down, the situation seemed hopeless. But great food was the answer. With swift thinking, within days Free to Feed launched a new venture, Brave Meals, which prepares hundreds of meals to sell to the public every Friday. The response was so great, Brave Meals completely sells out most weeks.

    “It's just been a wonderful story of generosity,” says Michaela Healey MAICD, chair of Free to Feed. “The response has been overwhelming and outstanding. We had more demand than we could cope with. So many people lined up wanting to purchase our meals.” Through donations and proceeds of the new venture, Free to Feed distributes emergency relief packs to the homes of its hardest-hit refugee participants, most of whom do not quality for government help of any kind.

    Focus on the future

    When the COVID-19 storm hit, Healey sat in the centre as the calm chair had experienced crisis before. In her former executive life, she “had a front row seat” in the GFC in the boardroom of the National Australia Bank.

    “It helps when you've got that “pants on fire feeling” says Healey. “There's no element of complacency. When the floor has dropped out from underneath you and you have no income, it does focus the mind somewhat.”

    As chair, Healey endeavoured to keep a focus on the future. “I'm sure there are many CEOs who wish that they'd never put another layer of governance on their organisation, but at times like this, a board can help to bring an element of objectivity, calm and wisdom that enables a CEO to feel like they're not alone and that they have the backing of others.”

    Brave Meals is now keeping Free to Feed staff feeling connected and motivated. “But most importantly, it gave us a sense of momentum,” says Healey. “And it also opened our eyes to how quickly we could innovate and adjust and really be able to rapidly bring a solution to market. Within a matter of days.”

    A six-month horizon

    Before COVID-19, Free to Feed was a thriving community service, engaging 35 program participants per year (refugees and asylum seekers, 90% women) in training and employment for cooking classes, catering events and other food experiences that were enjoyed by over 20,000 community members annually.”

    It is also the parent of Now to Launch, a business incubator supporting new enterprises. “Last year we tripled the number of beneficiaries in our Free to Feed program and we launched a corporate catering business. So that was a rapid expansion,” says Healey.

    Free to Feed now has a six-month plan to ride out the “pause” and the aim is to resume cooking classes and events within that period if possible. During the first phase of the COVID-19 response, the board and external CFO Jess Coglan focused on cash management and minimizing costs, risk management frameworks for health and safety, and harnessing the creativity and talent of its workers. Now staff hours have been reduced and with the assistance of the JobKeeper program, the whole organisation is turning its attention to improving systems and processes in readiness for a return to normal.

    “We quickly had to move from a one to three month scenario to modelling for six months. At the time that felt far-fetched and very remote, but I think now six months is at least the horizon for many businesses we're going to need to work with,” says Healey.

    Free to Feed is refocusing resources to build really strong programs going forward. “So we are making the most of the opportunity of the pause that's presented to us.”

    It has also been honest and open with supporters and foundations in terms of fundraising. “We will be able to survive because we've got a good understanding of our operating costs, and we've built really strong relationships with our funders in the community.” Free to Feed CEO Loretta Bolotin adds that a number of donors have increased their giving. “Some of our treasured long-term supporters have really stepped up during this crisis.”

    Free to Feed had about 70% of its budget coming from its own income-generating activities previously, but this may now need to be reassessed for 2021 and a higher level of donations sought, adds Bolotin.

    “We are supporting participants in new ways through this crisis via relief aid and welfare checks. Our long-term viability will require continuous financial remodelling to determine what our program is going to look like.”

    Rebooting the board pays off

    It may be fortunate for Free to Feed that the board was completely replaced last year and Healey brought in as chair by Bolotin. After deciding to “improve the level of governance, about 60 applications were received for board positions and a “speed dating” food event was staged for 20 where each person was invited to pitch themselves to the CEO and chair. This has resulted in a young, energetic and diverse board which has coped well with COVID-19 challenges, says Healey.

    “In this sort of situation, it really helps to have a board with diverse experience,” she says. “Not every decision needed to be made by the board and when we were operating in really tight timeframes, we were able to use the individual skills of directors to set up working committees to be able to work on quick turnaround times on decision making.”

    Healey has tried to maintain “a sense of calm that comes in a crisis that you brace for whatever is going to happen, and really focus on what will it take to be able to get through this. So you know that getting agitated or anxious is not going to enhance the situation.”

    Now the future is about “staying true to our mission and purpose and not allowing ourselves to get distracted. It's very tempting to get distracted by the urgent and lose sight of what’s important”.


    Michaela Healey MAICD

    Michaela is Chair of Free to Feed, Vice President of Berry Street, a founding director of The Man Cave Global, Faculty for the University of Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, a Kilfinan mentor and a coach of Boards and Executives in The Magokoro Practice.

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