Sharing our need with the community has understandably raised several questions. If you are taking the time to read this, to understand, it is likely you have some of those same questions. I deeply value authenticity and transparency, and have tried to do everything I can to ensure there is never any reason to question the integrity of Salt & Light. To remain consistent with this I want to address some of these questions as clearly as possible.

I have put together a kind of FAQ in story format. If you are to truly understand how we got where we are you have to understand everything that led up to it. I may not be the best storyteller, but am the only one who has been present for every conversation at every step of the way, so will do my best to tell the story.


When the four of us started Salt & Light we believed meeting material needs through a food pantry and clothing closet was a fulfillment of the mandate God places on every believer to love their neighbor, while creating opportunities to share our faith. Our desire to share our faith was God-breathed, but I believe we were blind to our complete lack of awareness and understanding of poverty-alleviation principles, ideologies, or best practices, not to mention the organizations and churches who were already working to alleviate poverty in our community. Don’t get me wrong, we honestly desired to help people both materially and to develop transformational relationships with God. Our perspectives were simply too limited to know what we didn’t know. When we began handing out food and clothing in January 2004 my education really began. As I sought to serve those who came through our doors there were many things I learned, not the least of which was I didn’t have all the answers. I’ll never forget my first major lesson six months in… At the time, we handed out prefilled bags of groceries to folks who stood in line for hours. When we would help people out to their cars with the food we would ask if it was ok if we prayed for them before they left. Most said yes, many I now think out of a sense of obligation. I would always follow up by asking if there was anything specific I could pray for. This time, the man I was with said yes. He began telling me about his son who had kidney failure and was given six months to live. As he poured out his heart to me, a 26-year-old stranger who had absolutely no understanding of the measure of grief he was facing, I was overwhelmed. I was suddenly struck by how inadequate I was. I didn’t know what to say or even how to pray for this man. All I could offer was a weak, “I’m so sorry”, and pray for his family and his son. Immediately after this encounter I snuck away to be myself for a few moments to pray alone. In that moment I asked God to give me what I needed to be used by Him to minister in the work He had called me to, acknowledging that without Him, I could not. I never saw that man again and have no idea how things unfolded for him or his son. What I do know is God used him in that moment to forever change me and the trajectory of my life. This opportunity opened my eyes to the complexities of the work I had been called into, and began to erase the youthful arrogance that would have prevented my own journey of growth and deeper understanding. I began educating myself about poverty in our community, and the ideologies and best practices utilized to combat it. Over the next ten years Salt & Light would grow into the largest “emergency” food program in Champaign County, serving almost 400 households every Wednesday. About eight years in, however, I began to grow disillusioned with what we were doing. Sure, we were sharing our faith with people, but most of the economic situations I encountered never seemed to change. I was now even seeing young adults standing in our food pantry line who, as children, stood in line with their parents—the generational cycle of poverty was playing out right before my eyes. The question I began asking myself was, “How were we affecting it?” It was at this time I was introduced to the book When Helping Hurts. This book began equipping me with an ideological and theological framework, articulating what I had seen, thought, and felt. I brought this book to our small staff and board, and we began a journey of wrestling with these ideologies and theologies together. Throughout this process, there were three critical questions we asked ourselves: 1. What do we mean when we say we “help” those struggling in poverty? Based on the outcomes we had witnessed, we would have had to describe the help we provided as something only mildly alleviating some of the symptoms of the poverty our clients experienced, rarely, if ever, impacting or addressing the root causes. 2. Is this how we want to help? The short answer to this was no. 3. What has to change for us to be able to impact these root causes? We recognized many in our community certainly needed help acquiring basic resources like food and clothing, but we knew the way we had been “helping” to meet this need was not and could not address the root causes. The question wasn’t whether or not people needed help, the question was how should we help. As 2013 drew to a close, I presented the board with a vision for how we might apply the ideologies and theologies from When Helping Hurts in our context. After much conversation, planning, and prayer, the board eventually gave approval in June 2014 to move forward with the changes. Throughout the process we recognized how much we still didn’t know, and our need to be willing and able to listen and learn along the way. The primary guiding principle during this time was we had to stop doing for and start doing with. If we wanted to create a fertile environment for developing healthy relationships and individual growth and empowerment for everyone involved, we had to be co-laborers. We believed this could be accomplished through a retail environment where individuals could acquire the resources their family needed while learning practical job skills, and generate revenue to cover the programming costs at the same time. October 6, 2014 marked the end of an era and the beginning of a new one. After being closed for one month, Salt & Light reopened with a new logo, new mission statement, and a new model—transitioning all of our former programming from a one-way giving model into the first iteration of the one we currently operate today. Participants began purchasing food, clothing, and household items with store credit earned through volunteering. Following our transition, participation continued to grow, which meant the cost of store credit earned and spent by participants did too. For long-term sustainability and growth, we knew we would have to expand. Our small grocery was almost entirely utilized by credit-earning participants, not really generating any revenue to help cover operational costs, and the store credit our participants earned and spent. To bring the traffic and volume of sales necessary to help cover these costs it would have to expand so folks from the community would see the value in buying some measure of their groceries at Salt & Light.
One day late in 2015 I received a phone call out of the blue from a property owner in southeast Urbana who thought we would be the perfect fit for a space he had available. That same day, I received an unsolicited email from a real estate agent who had a building he thought we might be interested in. We were not actively exploring a second location, I had never met either of these individuals before, and this kind of thing had never happened in the 11 years we had been open. I wondered, is God nudging us in a direction we knew we needed to move? Believing it couldn’t hurt to at least take a look and begin having some cursory conversations, we began exploring the opportunities. We knew for many in Urbana, southeast Urbana especially, accessing our programming was incredibly difficult. With a bus trip requiring at least one transfer and a minimum of an hour each way to our Champaign location, we may as well have been on the other side of the state. We also knew the area had the highest poverty rate in our county, struggled with a myriad of mental health and drug-related issues, and resources were scarce in this part of town. Eventually, we zeroed in on the old IGA building on Philo Road in southeast Urbana, and began negotiating terms while exploring the potential for the space. During this process we talked about how much we would really love to have the space the County Market occupied, but knew that was never going to happen. As we neared an agreement, we were informed the building was being sold to a third party, a result of negotiations we were unaware were even happening. Having consistently prayed and sought God’s will throughout the process, we believed this was something He was leading us into, so were incredibly disappointed and left wondering why. Not more than a couple of months later we began hearing rumors the County Market on Philo Road was going to close. After it did, I reached out to Niemann Foods to discuss what their plans for the property were, beginning an almost nine-month conversation and negotiation. During this time, we worked diligently to put together a budget for an expanded model, relying on industry experts to conservatively project the potential for the grocery. We also engaged an independent consultant to perform a feasibility study to help determine whether or not we could reasonably expect to raise the money needed for such a project through a capital campaign. While we had never carried any debt as an organization, we also did not have the money laying around for a project like this. As the negotiations dragged on the owners of the property began applying pressure on us to make a decision. They expressed concern about rejecting interest they had received for at least a portion of the space without a commitment from us. In order to help us move forward more quickly, they were willing to give us six months of rent-free access to the space so we would not have to incur any operational expenses before being ready to open and generating revenue. We knew the facility was exactly where we wanted to be, was exactly what we needed it to be having just been a grocery store, and came with fixtures and equipment that would save us over $250,000. The question was, “Can we raise the capital to offset the costs of the project?” The feasibility study we had performed indicated we could, so after much prayer and conversation we committed to the project. The campaign was set to launch in October 2017, a month before the Urbana location was supposed to open. Unfortunately, we lost our staff person responsible for the campaign to another job at the end of August, and were unable to permanently fill the position until the middle of February the following year. Dissatisfied with the work the consultant was performing, we also made the difficult decision to terminate our agreement with them. Having lost the momentum from the opening of the new facility, and the best time of year to launch something like this, we now found ourselves in a really bad position.
When raising capital contributions for a project like this, an organization usually raises 80-90% of the funds “quietly” from larger donors before launching the “public phase” of the campaign. We had been having a lot of conversations privately with prospective donors since the fall of 2017 through the spring of 2019, and while the response to our model was overwhelmingly positive, the actual funds raised were not. With each meeting we had reason to believe it could be the first domino to get us where we needed to be, but unfortunately it just didn’t work out that way. We finally decided we had reached a point we had to let the general public know how much we were struggling.
The launch of Urbana was not something we did blindly. There was a tremendous amount of planning and preparation that went into it, but unfortunately, sometimes even the best laid plans don't go quite the way you thought they would. We had actually seen great success with our model at our Champaign location, recognized the need and opportunity for us in Urbana, and believed we could replicate what we were doing on a larger scale. We have already realized significant measures of success unheard of by nonprofits with 80% of all of our monthly expenses funded not by donations, but by revenues generated through people shopping in our stores. Another 16-17% of our budget is funded by donations from individuals, churches, and businesses. This leaves an operational deficit that has been shrinking over the past year and a half down to about 3 – 4%. During this time, we have cut all non-operationally critical expenses, and income has continued to grow. While we are now operationally viable, the accumulated expenses from the past year and a half is the anchor weighing us down.
The $450k we need to continue operating is to help address outstanding expenses with vendors that have accumulated during the past year and a half. This has happened as a result of three main factors: 1. Insufficient capital contributions to offset the expenses associated with the launch of the Urbana location. We were presented with a time-sensitive opportunity to bring our unique programming to an area of the community desperately in need of it. We already knew in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of our model we would have to expand—the grocery in particular. After determining such an expansion could be operationally sustainable, we believed we could raise the capital to offset the costs associated with the buildout and launch. Unfortunately, that turned out not to be the case, creating a hole from the beginning we have not been able to climb out of on our own. 2. Much lower than expected grocery sales. The grocery sales we originally projected were based on recommendations from folks in the grocery business, and were considered conservative when measured against competitors like Save-A-Lot and Aldi. Unfortunately, we underestimated the power of our own name recognition as a food pantry, and have lacked the capital for marketing to overcome the widely held notion that our grocery store is only open to low-income individuals. Our model is not dependent upon a large number of folks doing all of their shopping with us. In fact, a small number of households consistently buying just some of their groceries with us will make all the difference. If 500 families bought just a third of their groceries at Salt & Light our grocery revenue would triple from its current levels. Even at this amount, we would still be running about half of what a typical Save-A-Lot runs, and a third of an average Aldi. Buying your groceries at Salt & Light doesn’t take from people struggling in our community, it actually helps them to feed their families. 3. A rapid increase in participants earning and spending store credit. Instead of people waiting in line for hours to receive a bag full of groceries they did not choose and their family may not even be able to eat, our participants volunteer, earning store credit they can then spend on groceries, clothing, or whatever else their family may need. Because of the overwhelming interest from people struggling to meet their needs, within a year of opening our Urbana location the number of households we saw participating more than doubled, increasing the amount of store credit our participants were spending at a pace to exceed $400K this year alone. 75% of this credit is typically spent on groceries.
Our total annual budget is just shy of $2.5M per year. This is for both our Champaign and Urbana locations.
• We cut everything we could cut. Every expense we didn’t absolutely have to have to operate has been cut, staffing has been reduced to bare-minimum levels, and we cut benefits indefinitely for all full-time employees. • We have done everything we can to maximize productivity and increase revenues. • Beginning in June, we stopped accepting new participants into our programming and are allowing the attrition we normally see reduce the number of households earning credit to a manageable level. From there, as revenues grow, we can increase our capacity accordingly.
The short answer is no. The point of sharing our need with the community is to avoid this. We will continue to scratch and claw and fight as long as we are able, but the truth is, without help from the community we simply don’t know how much longer we will be able to.
I don’t know that this is a question that has been asked as much as it is one I have been asking myself. Throughout this experience I have struggled both emotionally and spiritually. Quite frankly, were it not for our amazing team I don’t think I would still be standing. Like most would in this situation, I have repeatedly asked myself, “What could we have done differently?”, “Where did we go wrong?” I feel an immense responsibility for every person connected to Salt & Light; staff, participants, volunteers, and even donors. While I know this is not my responsibility to bear—this is God’s domain—I still wrestle with the emotions that come from potentially harming those connected through our failure. As I explore all of this, I continually ask God what it is He wants me to learn so that I might continue growing as the leader of the ministry he called me into as a young, naive 26-year-old. Hindsight being what it is, the one thing I know I would have definitely done differently is to not allow us to be pressured into a decision—raising the money for the project first. This one thing likely would have prevented the situation we now find ourselves in or at least mitigated the impact of the slow start in sales. Unfortunately, we don’t get do-overs. All we can do now is keep working to right the ship and make sure we never find ourselves in this kind of situation again. I believe we are where God wants us, embracing the community he has called us to be a part of, and as long as we have breath we will continue to fight.

Nathan Montgomery – Executive Director

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