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Anatomy Of A Healthy Relationship (Between Funders And The Funded)

CoBank recently committed $1M to DC Central Kitchen, a partnership that’s been blossoming for five years. In honor of Valentine’s Day, we peeled back the covers on what makes a relationship between a nonprofit and for-profit work. (Did you know: When a funder backs a non-profit kitchen, the kitchen becomes the fondue--since fundee isn't a word.)


DC Central Kitchen and CoBank, a cooperative bank focused on agriculture, started working together in 2011 after a CoBank senior executive read an article about the organization’s focus on tackling hunger in the DC region through recycled food programs, training unemployed adults for culinary careers, and turning wasted food into meals for shelters and nonprofits. DC Central Kitchen had recently begun purchasing local produce, much of it imperfect and hard to sell, for its foray into serving healthy, local school meals in DC.

CEO Mike Curtin Jr. says CoBank liked that DC Central Kitchen was buying its produce from local farms and putting this food into the food system by preparing meals for homeless shelters, community homes and DC public schools. “Their mission to engage and support rural farmers matches up perfectly with our work to bring rural produce to urban areas,” Mike told us this week.


The partnership started in a way it rarely does between charities and corporations—the philanthropic organization reached out to the nonprofit and said, “We love what you do. How can we help you do it better?” Mike says all too often the philanthropic organization wants to guide the outcomes based on their own pre-determined outcomes. “Groups can run into trouble when they go down that path,” says Mike. 

One of the first conversations focused on understanding what CoBank wanted out of the partnership. Mike says it’s important that both organizations feel like they’re getting something. Given that CoBank’s customers are farmers, the organization wanted to make sure that DC Central Kitchen could not only continue buying their products but increase the amount. CoBank also wanted to make sure that DC Central Kitchen’s system for buying produce from local farmers could be replicated across the country.

Sometimes those initial conversations are tough if the goals don’t match. The nonprofit needs to be honest and explain how the for-profit's goals for the partnership may negatively impact some of the nonprofit’s other programs. “A level playing field kind of discussion between funders and fundees is vital to the success of the nonprofit sector,” adds Mike. 


CoBank’s first check helped DC Central Kitchen buy a refrigerated truck and delivery van for trips from farmers in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley to DC Central Kitchen’s meal preparation and distribution facilities. DC Central Kitchen credits CoBank with helping it become the only USDA-recognized permanent food hub in DC and for giving the nonprofit the ability to invest $1M since 2011 in local farmers, purchasing 1.2 million pounds of their products. 

Mike says one of the strategies is constant communication. A common mistake is that a nonprofit will receive a check, call the funder their new “partner” and then each goes their separate ways. Mike says he makes sure CoBank is in the loop on DC Central Kitchen’s progress. One of its execs sits on DC Central Kitchen’s board and the CEO of CoBank makes regular visits. CoBank’s annual board meeting also includes visits by board members to DC Central Kitchen’s facilities. “It’s because of these interactions that this feels truly like a partnership,” Mike says.