COVID-19 feasts on our interconnected-ness. It tears through close-knit communities. It exploded in a global chain reaction, burning through our flight networks and supply chains like lit fuses.
But even as we’re physically isolating ourselves, it’s crystal clear that the way we’re going to beat this catastrophe isn’t less connectivity. It’s more. More sharing of data. More collaboration across borders. More volunteer action in local communities. More rallying to support healthcare workers.
No one person is going to solve this. But every individual’s choices matter as part of the whole.
I recently chatted with Jamie Rosenfield, Head of Operations for a group called Frontline Foods. They have a dual mission: to help support front-line health workers while also supporting local restaurants. I was struck by something she said:
At Front, we’re proud to help non-profits like Frontline Foods and Covid Act Now fulfill their missions. But for me, as one individual node in a vast, interconnected web, I’m proud to know that my impact can live on, both as a “digital footprint” in the technology I use, but also in the downstream effects of my small choices — effects I may never know about. Here’s my conversation with Jamie, lightly abridged and edited for clarity:
So maybe the best place to start is with Frontline Foods’ mission. What is it? And how did you get involved?
So at the end of March I got pulled into Frontline Foods by a former Slack colleague of mine who was getting involved with this group. Basically, we saw similar efforts to save local restaurants spin up in cities across the country. You know, everyone has the place where we go for birthdays, or our Friday night staple. And these restaurants are not just in our neighborhoods and in our communities. They’re really a part of our lives, and the need to supplement some of these local businesses during the shelter-in-place was very obvious to people. And so what happened in San Francisco is that friends Frank Barbieri and Ryan Sarver asked their friend, Sydney Gressel, a UCSF Pediatric ICU nurse working on the frontlines to combat COVID-19, what they could do as mere mortals to help. And she said, “A pizza party. For us right now, we’re working so many hours that even though the cafeterias are open, it’s really hard for us to find time to do all the things we want or need to do during our breaks, from calling our families to taking a rest to getting an hour run in, whatever that might be.” There was just so much of a demand on their time that sometimes they would just forget to get food. After the pizza party, it was clear that they needed to do this at a larger scale. They got put in touch with other people doing the same thing in New York and beyond and had this idea of providing a backbone to these local chapters — a backbone that gives them the tools they need, expert advice they need, and gives them everything that they need to spin up and efficiently and effectively start responding in their own communities to this need. When I joined the group it was about 25 people. They had just started their Slack and were starting to put some tools in place — things like a website or social media guidance. And within a week that 25 people became 150 people. The next week it was 250 to 300 people. And so we had this massive scale because there was market fit before there was even really a product. Sorry, that’s a very long answer! In short, Frontline Foods’ mission is to support local businesses — specifically restaurants — while feeding those on the front lines of the crisis, many who are risking their own health to support their communities.
No, that’s perfect! And it’s such an important mission. Can you tell me a bit about your role and what your team is responsible for?
Yes. So my role has been almost like a Chief Operating Officer. I run the operations for the national organization.
So when we were getting going, even with those 25 people, it was clear we needed someone to lead fundraising, somebody to lead marketing and the different departments within that, and somebody to help support getting access to all the tools we use. So my role was really just setting up all the structures that we needed across the organization to enable these local chapters.
What that looked like early on was people saying, “We could really use a tool to be able to do X, Y, and Z.” So, I was there getting G Suite, getting Slack, getting Front, getting Trello, getting Confluence — my role was getting those tools set up and a process in place for people to request access to and use them. So when someone says, “Hey, I’m with the Vermont chapter and we need to set up a Front inbox.” I would ask myself, what are the steps for requesting an inbox? What are the the different inboxes that we need to provide access to? What are the message templates that we may want to programmatically put in place so that people can easily answer emails? At a higher level, I also was one to say, “OK, well, here’s how our organization is structured. Here’s how these teams are going to work together. Here’s how these teams are going to work in Slack. Here’s how we’re all going to communicate across these different functions and set up structures for people to operate within.” And when you’re scaling at such a rapid pace, having the structures in place early is the only way to survive. If not, you end up with chaos and lose engagement pretty quickly.
So you started local, but quickly went national. How hard was it to scale that dramatically?
I think that we knew early on there was appetite and interest across the US. What we didn’t really know is how discoverable our work was going to be and therefore how many groups were going to reach out. But, you know, we were in a very reactive mode for the first five weeks. And it was a lot of work. But once we set up these structures and tools, it really stabilized. Especially now as we bring on new chapters at a slower pace.
Most of my career, I’ve been a program manager, and there’s the whole aspect of operations that comes with running projects. My previous roles as both Chief of Staff and Head of Program Management at Slack were opportunities for me to sort of bring structure and alignment to chaos, which I’ve been doing more or less throughout my career.
So you’re obviously really familiar with the whole landscape of teamwork technology, coming from Slack. How did you diagnose a need for something like Front? And how did you get connected with us?
Pretty quickly on we acknowledged that there needed to be an email address for each of the chapters so that anyone who’s interested in signing up to be a restaurant or a delivery site had a way of communicating with their local chapters. And then from a logistics standpoint, once we were actually running day-to-day operations in those chapters, there needed to be some way to communicate back and forth with restaurant partners, with people who wanted to donate, as well as media and marketing inquiries.
So someone in the group said, “You know, this feels like an absolutely perfect use case for Front. Let me reach out and see if there’s a way for us to get a comped account.” We are an organization of 100% volunteers. We have an operating budget of $0. No one is paid. And so, literally, if we’re putting a credit card down, it’s because that person is considering it a donation to the organization. And so we really couldn’t survive without companies providing the supporting technology. There is no way we could have done what we are doing if Front and Slack and Airtable hadn’t given us these tools. We were fortunate enough early on to have a volunteer who had used Front before, and she provided us some guidance on the ideal setup.
So we have a pretty straightforward structure. Whenever a new chapter is created they get an onboarding partner who will come to our “#plz-tools” channel in Slack and say, “We’d love to have an email address and a Front inbox set up for this chapter.” Pretty straightforward. We’d create a Google group, go to Front and do the quick setup to merge the two systems. And then we give access to the chapter volunteers.
And in an all-volunteer organization, people come and go often, especially when people’s work lives are changing in such uncertain ways — the hours they have to devote are changing from, “Hey, I have a few hours every day where I can jump in” to “I’m going back to work full time and I’m not going to have as much time to do this anymore.” Front provides us with the continuity of conversation - with our restaurant partners, delivery sites, donors, marketing contacts, and World Central Kitchen, who we are partnered with. They’re in our Slack as well. But a lot of the back-and-forth with them tends to go through our Front inbox.
I’ve heard you have a very sophisticated process for enabling your chapters on all of this technology. Can you tell us a little about your framework?
We’re very fortunate to have volunteers in our organization who have used a number of tools in their work or other nonprofit experience. There’s a few venture capitalists and people who have worked at startups before. Knowing what’s available to us was pretty easy. However, not everybody has used every tool. Even if people are familiar with what something can do, they might not know how to do it. So for tools like Airtable and Slack, we would typically do a training session and record it and then make that available.
Front was straightforward enough that trainings weren’t necessary. Our national team is meant to be an enablement organization for the chapters. We basically exist to be in service of local chapters who are doing the real day-to-day work. So we use Typeform and Airtable as a way to feed in restaurants, hospitals, delivery sites, and volunteers that might be interested. And we house those on our website.
Once there’s someone who’s interested in starting a chapter, our group has an onboarding team who meets with them, walks through what it means to be part of Frontline Foods. And if that group really has what it takes and interest in moving forward, then we invite them into Slack and we show them, “Here’s the way to set up all of your tooling.” You know, create a chapter channel in Slack. Request in access to Airtable or get a chapter email address and a Front account in “#plz-tools”. Get access to Confluence where we house our processes and links to resources. There’s a few days that go by where the team is really just focused on getting things set up. And then from there, we have a slew of what we call “#help channels.” We’ve enabled people by really giving them clear places to go find their answers and empower them with the tools and the expert advice they need to be able to answer questions or overcome obstacles efficiently.
Wow, that’s a lot of infrastructure to build up for maybe what we all hope will be more of a “moment-in-time” than a long-term situation. Have you thought about Frontline Foods’ vision beyond solving the immediate need?
Yeah, I think the first thing is we all genuinely believe that supporting our local communities through COVID-19 is going to be a marathon. Even with shelter in place orders being lifted, restaurants are not returning back to "normal”. If anything, we’re seeing reports that a quarter of restaurants are likely going to close their doors for good. And many others who are trying to survive are going to still have quite the uphill battle given the dining experience is going to change. And there’s costs they face in order to switch to being a curbside pickup or delivery service. So there’s a lot of investment. It’s not just the lack of money that they have coming in, but also additional money that they need to then invest in order to just stay alive. So we’re not going anywhere, because our current mission is a long way away from being achieved. Beyond that though, we’re an organization that clearly met the need when the need was there for emergency response. Knowing that we have these tools and local chapters in place, we are sure we can quickly spin up to respond to a natural disaster in the future. Additionally, our partnership with World Central Kitchen just took the next step and we are officially merging into their organization. From the beginning they’ve been phenomenal as our 501(c)(3) backer, and we really figured out ways to get some synergy between our organizations. The future together is very exciting and likely to make a huge impact.
So with that in mind, would you have any advice for other non-profits looking to level-up their operational processes so they can make a bigger impact?
Tools that enable groups to come together to achieve are the heart and soul of a non-profit — and especially a non-profit that can scale. You know, nobody does it alone. No problem is solvable by one human. So tools like Slack and Front are are critical in getting people aligned to move in the same direction and to support an organization that may have members come and go. For instance, the inbox of the chapter in Chicago lives on, even if that whole team has to move off because they have to return back to their jobs or families. I feel the same way about Slack. That chapter channel continues on and new volunteers are empowered by the information that lives there even when the humans have moved on. Humans tend to carry a lot of information in their heads. And that’s why you have this concept of historical context. Front and Slack — these are two tools that enabled us because both keep the conversations of the past available in the present. It’s not about, you know, Jamie or Matt. It’s about a human at Frontline Foods running operations and a human at Front who’s telling that story. And you and I and the skills we bring are critical in those moments, but when you look back on it, it’s what we did that that needs to live on. It doesn’t need to be you or me. The great thing is that any question that I answered in an email in Front is accessible for the next person who answers a similar question. Everybody has access to the way that I thought about the question and chose to answer it. Often culture gets lost as an organization scales. But when those values that were presented as the business was forming are discoverable, it lives on and it’s passed down from human to human.
That’s such an elegant way of saying it. Thanks so much for all your time, Jamie! We really appreciate it, and we’re so proud to be a small part of, you know, making your mission possible.
Of course, we’re super thankful that you all have provided us the tooling that allows us to do this. Like I said, we have zero money, so it would be impossible to achieve what we are achieving without you all.
If you’d like to help Frontline Foods bring warm meals to those in need during a crisis, please donate here.
Written by Matthew Klassen
Originally Published: 16 July 2020