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The Impact of COVID on IFT

We’ve been living in a world forever changed by the coronavirus for a full year now. The pandemic has left in its wake not only catastrophic health impacts, but also economic, social, and organizational waves that will be felt for quite some time.

I recognize the many challenges and sacrifices the IFT community has made over the last 12 months. My heart goes out to those of you who have lost your jobs. For those of you still working, it hasn’t been easy. You may be working from home alongside family members or spending all day, every day alone. Those of you going to the office may be working in new spaces with new safety protocols. Academicians and students have had to adapt to online teaching and learning, and time in research labs has been dramatically reduced. Then there’s also the social and emotional chaos and uncertainty of the pandemic. Whatever your new reality looks like, it’s undoubtedly different.

Much like the challenges many of us have experienced in our personal lives, IFT has felt the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on several levels. 

As a mission-driven organization, IFT is grounded in purpose—to advance the science of food and its application across the global food system to help ensure safe, sustainable, nutritious, and delicious food is available and accessible to all. Although we offer many programs and benefits to our members and the science of food community aligned with this purpose, the IFT Annual Event and Expo has consistently been our most significant source of revenue and income. While there is no question cancelling the in-person event was a necessary course of action given the circumstances, it caused a major disruption to our operating model and significant loss in revenue that couldn’t be recovered. This required us to reduce staff by 23%, with all remaining staff taking temporary salary reductions and a salary freeze.

Prior to the pandemic, we had embarked on a process to review and evaluate all existing IFT programs. This process became increasingly urgent once we understood the financial ramifications of our post-pandemic future. IFT had more than 90 programs, with new ones being added every year. The sheer volume of activity was stretching our staff and volunteers so far that it was becoming difficult to innovate and adapt to ensure the programs we offered were still relevant and aligned with our purpose. With the reduction in staff and declining revenue, it wasn’t feasible to continue programs just because we’ve always done them. We had to make tough decisions to reduce programs not only to reduce costs, but also to make space for new program development. In doing so, we are able to bring our costs and programs closer to balance with our new reality, create new value for members, grow our community, advance our mission, and plan a resilient strategy to bridge to a brighter future.

It was imperative for us to look at all of our programs objectively to determine if they were delivering enough value and whether IFT was the best place for these programs to reside. Since our staff and volunteers are passionate about and attached to all of our programs, we hired a consultant to facilitate this process with rigor and objectivity. Every program was reviewed across more than 20 different dimensions, including a cost assessment, ROI, member engagement with the program, mission alignment, multi-year trends, duplication of efforts with competing organizations, and more. Ultimately, the process resulted in a recommendation to the Board of Directors to eliminate 14 programs. In addition to these programs, IFT’s Food Technology magazine has reduced the number of annual issues from 12 to 11 by combining the December and January issues. In the months ahead, we’ll be communicating the details and timing of these program eliminations with relevant program volunteers, stakeholders, and participants. 

Despite these challenges, there have been many bright spots in the last year. I’m particularly proud of how quickly staff and volunteers pivoted to create our first virtual annual event and food expo—SHIFT20. While certainly different from the on-site experience, SHIFT20 gave us the opportunity to experiment with new, creative, accessible, and adaptive ways to bring our community together, a trend that will continue in 2021 and beyond. Also, our Global Food Traceability Center has done some exceptional work with the Global Dialogue on Seafood Traceability to develop traceability standards and interoperability guidance for the seafood industry. These are just two of the many valuable activities that have progressed despite the persistence of COVID.

The members you have elected to serve on the IFT Board of Directors have worked diligently to lead us through this crisis while continuing to deliver resources, experiences, networking, and learning opportunities. It hasn’t been easy, and the sacrifices have been great, but they have carried the heavy responsibility of making these difficult decisions in order to ensure the organization not only survives but thrives. I am truly grateful for their dedication and leadership during these challenging times.

I would be remiss if I didn’t recognize the impact of IFT’s conscientious governance and financial management over the years on our ability to weather this storm. Our fiscal responsibility in better times has enabled us to build a sizable reserve fund that has become a lifeline for the organization to operate through this challenge efficiently yet confidently. Without it, we would be in a much more dire state. While it certainly isn’t ideal to be operating at a significant revenue deficit augmented by our savings, we are fortunate to be able to continue advancing our mission and supporting the monumental work of the science of food community.

I often say, let’s not waste this crisis, and I truly mean it. The challenges have been great, but our collective resolve is greater. Our leadership team remains committed to bringing our community exceptional programming, networking, learning opportunities, ways to volunteer and give back, and more. We are in this together. I am confident that through these trials, IFT will adapt and grow and emerge stronger than ever. 

About the Author

Noel Anderson, PhD
IFT President, 2020–2021
[email protected]
Noel Anderson

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