TIBCO helps City Harvest reap benefits for charities

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks October 30, 2020
How TIBCO is helping a charity grow to become a primary food `wholesaler’ (without the sales element) for hundreds of London charities that daily provide food for their clients

Image of a City Harvest volunteer delivering food
(Image sourced via City Harvest)

Shortly after making a guest appearance in the keynote presentations at the recent TIBCO Now conference, Laura Winningham, the CEO of London-based charity City Harvest, was awarded an OBE in the latest Honours List. The two - her OBE and being a `star turn' at the conference - are not connected, but the three - Tibco itself, the OBE, and her work with City Harvest, most definitely are.

City Harvest started life some five years ago with the goal of collecting up food that might otherwise find itself in a skip, put to far better use feeding those in London that had a far more urgent need for it. According to Winningham the first two years were spent proving the model of being the food provider to many small, specialist charities, using one or two vans to collect and deliver the surplus produce. It worked well enough to oblige a move into proper warehouse facilities and from then on the need, and the charity's growth trajectory have been really high.

Last year we delivered four million meals, and then during lockdown, and through last month, we delivered four million meals. So we've more than doubled the quantities that we're doing. And I'm pretty sure that going forward we will double again to eight million meals.

This will be helped by the fact that, this year, the charity has moved from a 3,000 square foot warehouse to a facility offering 13,000 square feet. Winningham is also aware that space was no longer the major issue it was facing with such a growth rate. What was also needed was some IT solutions to implement the management systems needed to make the eight million meal target a reality.


That, of course, is where TIBCO comes into the picture. The company got involved with City Harvest earlier this year, just before the Coronavirus lockdown. It Is running TIBCO4Good, a support programme for such as City Harvest and had expressed an interest in finding solutions to help the charity get more food to more people. The pair had just had their first Design Thinking Session when the lockdown was called.

Even though they probably were thinking `will we ever be in these offices again', it truly had just been beginning. it just dawned on me there were, there are, lots of issues that we can use data for to make our organisation better. And I think so many charities don't use data as well as they should. What jumped out of the crisis, right after we met, was that we go to around 300 charities to deliver food each week, and they were all either shutting, changing, changing food types or just doing something different. We needed to keep track of it and communicate with them.

So in a matter of weeks after that first meeting, Winningham laid this out as the first, short term project for TIBCO to get involved with. This was the need to track, in as near real time as possible what the charities required, not only in terms of types of food but also the volume of it, as the lockdown soon started to push people who were not normally charity clients into becoming clients because their normal routes to food supplies became unavailable to them.

It also meant that charities were having to deal with more people with different dietary requirements including allergies and food intolerances. This played to one of the capabilities of City Harvest, in that it does not provide ready-cooked meals (except when and where they make up part of a donation from a retailer), so the objective is to provide mixes of produce that can make up types of food. It does not go so far as to organise produce into specific recipes but deliveries are, wherever possible `themed', often following input from the charities City Harvest serves.

The Charity started out with a couple of freezer vans - and following the lockdown started working with a fleet of such vans made available by a company the lockdown had furloughed. The charity's drivers - some volunteers and some now full-time employees - tend to stick to the same routes, and therefore get to know the charities they deliver to very well. That helps both sides equally, for they can learn what City Harvest may have coming up in the way of expected donations, and City Harvest can learn what the charities are likely to need in the way of food into the immediate future.

This means that, while there is no direct mapping of these two sides together Into the creation of planned menu possibilities, there is a degree of `matching up where possible'. Each driver loads their own van for deliveries, so tries to match what is loaded to the requirements and requests each charity has.

Winningham did say that this was one of the administrative goals the charity has. In addition, some of the volunteer drivers are or have been chefs, and they can help and advise charities on such possibilities when they then make deliveries.

The produce comes from a wide range of sources, depending on circumstances. Much of it comes from retailers, most of whom are quite strict on `display until…..' dates. This can consist of both fresh/raw produce and ready meals.

When we deliver to a charity, we aggregate meal ingredients and deliver them to the charities to prepare meals for other people. So we calculate the weights that we deliver to each charity, and we assume that the mix ultimately is a meal. Three kilogrammes is the average meal size, So that's what we use as a benchmark.

Some deliveries do go to some food banks, but the main targets are organisations like soup kitchens, homeless shelters, children's programmes, homes for women fleeing domestic violence, refugee centres. Some of these are obviously quite large organisations and some, like St. Mungo's YMCA, are well known, but many are just tiny programmes run by one or two people in the basement of a local church.

One like that is a probation club. The Probation Officer called and said, the people he meets with weekly would maybe engage more if there was food, so we bring him food. If anyone has anything they're doing in the community that's for the greater good, they don't have to be a Registered Charity. We will deliver food.

City Harvest now has a waiting list of charities looking for support and one of the targets for working with TIBCO is to help control what Winningham calls a giant, complex data issue. For example, each charity has different needs, with some being vegetarian, some are kosher, some only want junk food.

It's a very big stomach that is opened in the morning and no other time of day, we can only deliver in the morning. But with the TIBCO solution, as we move forward, we really are working on letting the drivers also obtain information on what the Charities like, so it's not just in the driver's head. We have to translate it and get it in a database.

As City Harvest has grown so quickly, she also sees the need to start using technology to provide richer input on, and management of, staff. Drivers, in particular, are `out there' effectively unsupervised and operating on their own common sense. 

While it was a small organisation that could be achieved personally and directly, the rapid rate of growth has also created a need for more formal HR systems.

I have been working on some sort of printout for them called the Charity Bible, with background information on each charity. This is because we have new drivers and they don't have the knowledge base.

Projects, lots of projects

The continued engagement of TIBCO is also allowing Winningham to think of a number of other projects to gain better control over the increasing complexities that come with growth. The first project has been a way to keep track of our partners, and we're working on something right now that involves the fundraising platform, to help City Harvest with its corporate donors, and routing and logistics management are also amongst the immediate targets.

One of the advantages here is that TIBCO is providing resources to City Harvest as a cloud-delivered service. That makes it easier for TIBCO to manage updates and additions to the service, while City Harvest can carry on using it as required, and without having IT staff on the ground. At its core is a database designed with charity work in mind, and the ideal is that as much of its work as possible can be done automatically.

In practice, however, it still requires a fair degree of human intervention, particularly in areas such as data capture from the charity clients. In theory that data capture could be automatic, but it would require other charities to be equally up to speed on their own data management so that the overall needs of the sector could be better integrated for richer collaboration. In practice, however, most charity clients do not respond as they are too busy and under-resourced. This has led to City Harvest staff being trained in helping to gather as much data as possible.

One interesting side of this is that the food retailers, most of which have highly complex and data-rich stock management systems, have so far proved incapable of providing City Harvest with any data on the produce they donate, data one assumes they must already have. With that data, City Harvest could start to match available produce to possible and required menu options.

But it's often easier for companies to just throw out their food or send it to anaerobic digestion, which turns it into energy and is theoretically green. But unfortunately, it is also inexpensive, so food companies like to use it. They don't want the paid staff dealing with it. If it's not being sold, it's garbage. If we get food from a manufacturer, then that's a pallet of one type of food and that's easy. But the last mile food from retailers, which is food that's going to expire quickly, is hard work.