Arkansas Foodbank CEO Rhonda Sanders: Merger A 'No-Brainer'

Arkansas Foodbank CEO Rhonda Sanders: Merger A 'No-Brainer'
Rhonda Sanders, CEO of the Arkansas Foodbank. (Arkansas Foodbank)

On Jan. 1, the Arkansas Foodbank and Arkansas Rice Depot officially merged with a revised mission: United to Fight Hunger. The new organization, which retained the Foodbank name, also kept the Foodbank's CEO Rhonda Sanders.

Sanders has led the Foodbank for three years and was a key facilitator of the merger. The Rice Depot's former CEO, Kim Aaron, took a position in northwest Arkansas in late 2015. 

The boards of the two organizations merged to form a temporary "transition board" with 30 members. Sanders said that board is working to rewrite the Foodbank's bylaws and in the coming months will re-evaluate what a permanent, likely smaller board, will look like.

Sanders said they have built about $200,000 into this year’s budget to cover the merger. A portion of the money came from grants, not the food budget, she said.

After the Foodbank celebrated the merger at an event last week, Arkansas Business spoke to Sanders for get more details about the changes and what's to come. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Arkansas Business: How and when did the discussions about a potential merger begin?

Rhonda Sanders: They actually started almost two years ago. I was new to the Foodbank … and shortly after I came, I guess it was that next January, the Rice Depot had a change in leadership also. And it just so happened that the two of us were at a meeting at Petit Jean Mountain … and we got to meet, and we scheduled coffee with each other and started talking.

Kim Aaron, the past CEO of the Rice Depot, … had a background in food banking and had actually come here from Dallas with one of the large food banks there. And we just started talking and saying, you know, there’s probably things we can do together. So as we continued to have coffee and talk, the conversation just continued to grow about how much alike our missions are — our mission to feed hungry people. And we had just developed in two different paths but that it really was time for us to talk about working together.

We looked at all kinds of different options. November a year ago we really wanted our boards to get to know each other and think about what the various options might be. And so we got our executive committees together for a lunch, and it just really went from there.

AB: How have jobs and the structure of the organization changed?

RS: Part of the agreement was that there were no jobs eliminated due to the merger. … And we’ve kept to that. We brought everyone on board on Jan. 1. We have had people from both organizations who have left for various reasons, and we look at every job when they leave and determine is this one that we need to absorb? Or do we need to reshape it to meet the needs that we have now?

Starting Jan. 1, we started realigning everyone within the organization. We did look at each position. In the agreement we said that no jobs would be eliminated, but that didn’t mean your job wouldn’t change, and they knew that. The staff had handled it extremely well.

AB: What other changes have you seen since the merger went into effect?

RS: Physically we've already combined inventory. All of the inventory is over here [at the Foodbank building] pretty much. We've already got agencies that are coming here and picking up instead of the Rice Depot. For some of them who were not already members of the Arkansas Foodbank, they're accessing more and different food here, so that blend is already starting to happen with them. 

Our volunteer center has expanded, and it's all down at the old Rice Depot building, just a block away. We have moved all of our volunteer work down there. They have a much larger square room that’s a little bit more suited so we’ve been running a lot of people. We had 750 people that came and volunteered in March.

We've already done some joint purchasing. We're able to access more food. We have consolidated drivers. We've had a couple of positions where people have left for other jobs and we've not refilled them. We've been able to start consolidating routes and drivers, that's going to be a big piece of it. We've been very busy.

AB: Had it ever been considered previously for the two organizations to work together?

RS: I think it had. I’ve had people tell me that there was talk several years ago of it and it just never was the right time. 

I’m a firm believer that there’s a right time for things. I really think having the new leadership in both organizations very close together opened a door to rethink it … This time we talked and the talks kept going. Really when everyone sat down and we went through all kinds of processes, listing everybody’s strengths, listing everybody’s weaknesses. 

Every time we listed them we kept coming up with the same thing. "Well, if we put yours with ours, look, it fits." When we kept making those lists and realizing we would be able to help each other a whole lot, it kind of became a no brainer. 

This is about feeding hungry people — if we can do more together, then let's do it.