Not far from the heart of Sarnia, in a non-descript, one-level office building adjacent to a Goodwill Enterprises donation and retail centre, sits the headquarters of an international organization that has as its mission the easing of one of the world’s most pressing social problems.
We’re talking about food insecurity and the organization, Link2Feed, with a dozen or more people working on this mission, have created a software as a service offering focused on meeting the very real needs of some of the largest food bank operations in the world.
And behind the desk of its president is Emily Branton, a University of Windsor graduate who has become the face behind this B Corporation, a type of organization where its mission takes equal footing with a business case.
That approach is a deliberate one, especially where the goals of a founding group can often get lost among the overarching desire of shareholders to focus on profitability.
A B-Corporation (the “B” also standing for “Benefit” tends to keep both priorities in focus.
The story of how Link2Feed came to be is one that contains a little bit of serendipity, followed by initiative on the part of an entrepreneur involved in multiple ventures, and even some heartwarming evidence that the idea of serving a group of social enterprises by meeting basic but highly technical needs that used advanced data technology to accomplish those goals was something worth pursuing.
Our story begins with Rob Dawson, born in Sarnia to an entrepreneurial family, who first travelled west for a few years before returning to Ontario to earn a degree in sports management at Brock University and then a graduate degree in sponsorship and marketing from Canisius College in Buffalo, New York.
But returning to Sarnia must have been part of the “grand plan” for Dawson and in 2003, he founded a full-service marketing firm in his hometown.
Innivity Marketing began developing a client base along with a few key people to drive the business.
One of those eventually became Branton, who joined Innivity in 2012 as an executive account manager.
Not long before, Dawson and his team had been approached by a client in Windsor, with a unique proposition.
The client, the Windsor Essex Food Bank Association, wanted Innivity to develop a database software product that would drive future development in this social enterprise category.
The first response of the people at Innivity was not exactly embracing of the idea–largely because they had no experience in tackling a project of this scope or specific requirements outlined by their client.
But this had come to the company during a pivotal time, not long before Innivity’s idea of transitioning the company (it was eventually sold in December 2013 to a local competitor).
And the more Dawson thought of the idea—with more than a little help in mulling it over—the more it resonated.
This was more than a business with the design to make a profit. This would change lives, bringing the power of technology to the forefront in ways that would be scalable given the scope of the issue of food insecurity that has become one of the unmet challenges faced by social enterprise organizations like food banks.
So Link2Feed was born.
By putting in place Innivity’s branding expertise and drawing in the technical expertise that was beginning to surface in Sarnia-Lambton, a database product was leveraged into a software as a service offering that was ready to present, not only to the Windsor client, but beyond.
Two of Link2Feed’s clients were two of the three largest food bank organizations in Canada, including the Mississauga Food Bank.
It was there that the response to what Link2Feed was presenting actually had one of the executives at the food bank become emotional to the point of tears—this being exactly what they were looking to accomplish to take them to the next level.
Not long afterwards Emily Branton transitioned from Innivity to Link2Feed, a year later assuming the role of president (Dawson is still CEO).
“I always say food banking is contagious,” said Branton. “When I started at Link2Feed, I had no idea what I was getting into, but after spending time with our clients, I was hooked. Food bankers are some of the hardest working and passionate people I’ve ever met. I’ve watched so many of our staff ‘catch the bug’—and it’s really amazing.”
As far as the Link2Feed product is concerned, Branton sees it as a series of modules where “switches” are turned on or off depending on the requirements a client has for the functionality they’re looking to use at their individual food bank.
Some, for example, have their own inventory management system, although Link2Feed does provide that functionality if required.
With conversations that begin with the client, a kind of discovery of what is required of Link2Feed becomes clear to everyone concerned.
Those needs may include a clothing donation system and a database component that lets the end clients search for other needs they may have beyond food.
“It’s really a holistic approach that’s being taken to meet some very real needs,” notes Branton. “But we’re also working to address the root cause and often our clients are able to network with other providers, especially throughout the U.S.”
Having an integrated questionnaire also saves time and duplication when clients aren’t required to duplicate the effort to provide information to help them with their needs.
Part of what helps not only Link2Feed become more impactful but to change the entire landscape around food insecurity is being able to generate stories that inspire others to do more themselves.
“There are so many amazing stories about our clients and how they do a great job of telling those,” said Branton.
What is also clear is the power of data as a component of those stories.
And for those who may be wondering, Link2Feed is not eliminating jobs at food banks but gaining valuable leverage for doing other things that need to be done but for which there are not enough resources to accomplish.
Myles Vanni, executive director of the Inn of the Good Shepherd, which operates its own food bank (and subscribes to Link2Feed), said better understanding the data around its clients has helped dispel myths around who requires food bank services.
“The data shows that it’s not people who aren’t working who need our services,” he said. “Many of the families are working multiple jobs to make ends meet and are still in need.”
In a community where engineers and scientists (who love data), if you’re able to demonstrate the power of data, people will likely be more receptive to the need.
When it comes to the impact of going to sleep hungry and waking up hungry the next day (and every day after that), it’s not hard to see the positive impact a service like Link2Feed can have on a community and beyond.
With a staff of 12 at Link2Feed, many of them coders and a couple of employees who work out of the firm’s U.S. offices (helping clients integrate the service into their operation), the privately held organization is already profitable.
But as mentioned earlier, profit for a B-Corporation is part of what makes an organization like Link2Feed thrive and prosper.
“We’re happy that we grow about 50% year over year,” said Branton. “One of the really exciting things we’ve done over the past year is seeing the Salvation Army of Canada switch from their proprietary system over to Link2Feed for every Salvation Army location in the country.”