A couple mornings each month, as he has for the past five years or so, Marc Brenner loads boxes of groceries into his car at the Hub, Nourishing Hope’s warehouse in Ravenswood.
Then he delivers the food to people who might otherwise go hungry.
“It’s extremely rewarding,” said Brenner, 59. “Every time I complete a shift, I leave feeling really good about what we do at Nourishing Hope.”
Brenner’s commitment to service is rooted in his Jewish faith. In a recent interview about what the work means to him, he cited the concept of “tikkun olam,” which means to repair and improve the world.
Since 2019, Brenner has served on Nourishing Hope’s board of directors. He was elected board president in April, succeeding Casey Herman who remains on the board. As he leads the organization at the board level, Brenner continues to serve as a volunteer home delivery driver, too.
“A lot of times we get lost in our worlds,” he said. “We’re doing very important things for Nourishing Hope. But sometimes it’s very removed from what’s going on at the street level. That’s why I continue to volunteer.”
In his day job, Brenner serves as vice chairman of Kovitz Investment Group, a Chicago-based firm that he co-founded in 2003. He grew up the youngest of four children in a middle-class family in north suburban Skokie. Today, he lives in Lincoln Park with his wife, Jennifer Diamond. His daughter Lauren, 30, and son Kevin, 28, also live nearby.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you first get involved with Nourishing Hope?
It was about five years ago. I started volunteering as a home delivery driver, which I still do. It’s an amazing part of our program. That gave me the opportunity to see the end result, see the recipient of what we were doing, and to see in their eyes and in their words, how much of a difference we were making. A true lifeline. It was really the difference, in a lot of ways, between them making it and them not.
I really recommend to anyone — even once or twice a year — don’t skip that step, the interaction with our client base. Whether it be driving food to them for those who are unable to come into our pantries, or interacting with them at our pantries. It really is a terrific reminder of why we do what we do at Nourishing Hope.
Have you experienced any interactions with our neighbors that pulled you deeper into our mission?
It’s amazing how friendly our clients are and how their faces light up when they realize it’s someone from Nourishing Hope. The amount of acknowledgement and blessings that they give, often trying to give a chocolate bar or something like that, just so they can give something back, appreciating what we’re doing at Nourishing Hope. It really knocks you for a loop. It’s about as real as it gets.
How has your understanding of food insecurity changed through your involvement with Nourishing Hope?
It goes back to why I chose food insecurity as one of the missions I wanted to be involved with. Food insecurity struck me as being at the foundation of a lot of other problems — physical health, education, mental health wellness — and it also struck me as something that could be solved.
If we worked together, and got out of our own way sometimes, acted a little bit less in our own self interest, and devoted a little bit more of our available resources — we could actually feed the world many times over. That bothered me because it’s not happening.
No one should be food insecure. I would like to think that we’re better than that as a people. So that’s what drew me to it.
Generally speaking, why does someone serve on the board of directors for a nonprofit like Nourishing Hope?
There are a lot of reasons why people join nonprofit boards. Some of it might be a personal experience or history, whether someone themselves was in a position to rely on such organizations and now they’re committed to repay that. Others, I think, go through the motions over the years in their lives, and they’re neck deep taking care of their families and their professional lives, and they stick their head up and realize there’s more to life.
There’s a lot of different reasons why, but it’s very contagious. Once you jump in, and you see what others are doing and how they’re willing to sacrifice their free time, and you see their passion and their commitment, it’s extremely contagious in a positive way.
In the past five years, since you’ve been involved with the organization, Nourishing Hope has grown considerably, expanded programs, opened new sites and rebranded. Where are your hopes for us in the years to come?
I think the demand and the need have a lot to say about that. That will drive where we go and it should drive where we go. It is always challenging to keep up with that need particularly for a not-for-profit because you’re reliant on the other side of the equation, revenues, in order to render those services and meet those needs. I think that we will constantly try to make what we do more scalable, so that we can meet the needs where they are geographically.
We have learned so much. We have so much institutional experience in this field. We’ve made mistakes. We’ve grown at an incredible pace. We’ve met challenges head on. We can share that experience and skillset with others trying to render similar services and meet the same need in their communities. It doesn’t always mean that we’re going to have Nourishing Hope food pantries all over the place. In a lot of ways, it’s partnership with community organizations that are equally as passionate and committed.
Part of what sets us apart at Nourishing Hope is the holistic approach of providing mental health counseling and social services. How do you view those aspects of our work?
When I first joined, I thought I was joining a pantry — a food insecurity organization, which of course it is. And then I was introduced to the concepts that we also are addressing mental health challenges and other social service needs. My first reaction was, really? Maybe we ought to stick to our knitting. But in reality, our clients don’t come to us pigeonholed. They are like us. They have a lot of things going on in their lives. They have a lot of challenges.
To be able to provide (mental health counseling and social services) to our client base is extremely important. It didn’t take long for me to be in awe of what Nourishing Hope was doing on those points. It’s inspiring. It’s humbling. It’s about serving the complete person where they are and what they need to help them return to independence.
When you talk to others in the community about your involvement with Nourishing Hope, what is your call to action?
What we do — food insecurity, mental health, social services — is universal. It’s unfortunate but it’s universal. I find it extremely easy to speak about what we do and I’m so proud of how we do it.
What we need, and we need to stay focused on it, is to have the community continue to support us. We can do our job. We need the resources to do it. That’s my message.
We need to get more people under the tent. We really do. Because unfortunately, the demand is only growing. Our volunteers are amazing and I sometimes feel greedy but we need more. We do. It’s an ever-growing cry for help with our support base and our volunteers.
What are you hoping to bring to your new role as board chair?
I think my first goal is to activate our board members, an amazing group of passionate people, and help them bring in their networks on behalf of Nourishing Hope, encourage and empower them to do their things, and then get out of the way. The collective power of these incredible people and their networks, coupled with CEO Kellie O’Connell and her staff is going to produce tremendous results for our neighbors in need. There’s still so much more to do. Nourishing Hope’s work is a very high calling. I hope our staff and our board go home each evening and appreciate just how meaningful their work at Nourishing Hope is. What they do matters in the most real and immediate sense.
Do you have anything you’d like to add?
The real work gets done by our staff. Everytime I interact with them, both on a personal level while volunteering and through board obligation, I’m blown away. It is humbling. It is inspiring. These people, every day, are doing the work. That is not lost on me. We have an incredible staff. We’re very lucky.