Guest Blogger: Amanda Edmonds

Amanda Maria Edmonds believes that food – and in particular growing, cooking, and sharing health food – is something that can build our health, communities, and economies.

A native of University City, Missouri, she moved to Michigan in the mid-1990s to attend the School of Natural Resources & Environment at U-M. During that time her community involvement led to the founding, as a volunteer, of the Perry Learning Garden in Ypsilanti in 1999, which led to the founding of Growing Hope in 2003. Fast forward a decade-plus, and this now-loyal Ypsilantian is the founder and executive director of the near-decade-old nonprofit Growing Hope. The organization is dedicated to helping people improve their lives and communities through gardening and healthy food access, and is known for its leadership training for community gardens, for managing the Downtown Ypsilanti Farmers Market, for youth education and employment programs.

An active community member locally and statewide, Amanda serves as vice-chair of Ypsilanti’s Downtown Development Authority and sits on the Michigan Food Policy Council, where she chairs the Healthy Food Access Task Force. She previously served six years on the Ypsilanti Parks & Recreation Commission, several years on the MSU-Extension Advisory Council, and just transitioned her role from the leadership team of the Ypsilanti Health Coalition. She was profiled in Practical Idealists: Changing the World and Getting Paid, and was photographed in Organic Gardening magazine. A former board member of the American Community Gardening Association, she facilitates trainings nationally with her peers in organizational development, community organizing, and marketing. She also puts creative energy into running a side business, AMEPIX, making and selling photography-based and button-based arts and crafts.


Enterprise: The Next Frontier for Nonprofits
 
In 2013, Growing Hope will be 10 years old. What a decade it has been! For us, though, growing older doesn't give any excuse to slow down. In spring 2012 we reached the major milestone of finishing renovations and moving into our permanent home – the Growing Hope Center on West Michigan Ave in Ypsilanti. In 2013, we're now able to look forward to what the next decade will bring. The frontier is exciting, but also uncharted. In concert with a year-long strategic planning process, we're figuring out how to transform ourselves so that we can be in this work – furthering our mission of helping people improve their lives and communities through gardening and healthy food access – for decades more to come.   We're exploring what sustainability – such a multi-layered term – really means for our budget, for our work, and for our community. For me, social enterprise is a big piece of that picture, and for us, and for our sector, that type of innovation is equally exciting and challenging.
 
I was fortunate to do a deeper dive into social enterprise (something we've been dabbling in for years), and develop our own enterprise plans, through the Enterprising Health Fellowship starting last June in Detroit. Funded by Ascension Health (locally affiliated with St. John's Providence Health System), the fellowship supports social entrepreneurs working with health disparities, including people working in nonprofit, for-profit, and yet-to-be-determined legal structures. We wrote full business plans (but with mission primary in them), pitched for start up investments, and as a result, we received seed funding to launch our enterprise – housed within Growing Hope – that will expand both products and services to help you grow healthy food at home. We'll install a raised bed veggie garden at your home, deliver small truckloads of compost, sell you plants, season extension kits, raised beds, et al. And, the enterprise will allow us to sustain the work we do providing these same products and services to families who can't afford to pay, and for whom the food they grow at home may be crucial to their family's health and nutrition. We hope people will check out our website in March for the full launch.
 
I last blogged for Concentrate over two years ago, and I talked about our approach at Growing Hope to social enterprise then. Find the win-wins, follow your gut in terms of what is truly mission aligned and can bring revenue, and go for it.   Seems pretty easy in a way. But an enterprise approach is still fairly new in the nonprofit sector, so how to communicate about it, how to operationalize it, how to balance it internally, is not so clear. When you're innovating, there may be no best practice, no expert to turn to as a resource, no clear answers of what way will most likely work.
 
A friend and mentor, Yodit Mesfin-Johnson, characterizes the shifting nonprofit sector from moving from entitlement to empowerment, shifting from a view as a charity to an enterprise. Nonprofits now enter business pitch competitions, write business plans, and even seek traditional start-up entrepreneurial funding. Foundations are beginning to allocate some resources – called Program Related Investments – more like business loans than charitable grants.
 
We generally laud a business that takes on a social or environmental mission as part of their core enterprise. 'Doing good' helps the bottom line. How authentic that 'good' is, what 'good' means, or when and where it's just a marketing ploy without actual investment or commitment behind it is an entirely different conversation and debate. But, overall, particularly in newer and small (not multi-national corporate) enterprises, when the good work is presented as a core part of the mission, we're happy. As a consumer, I look for that – I look carefully and closely – but those companies that 'do good' authentically get my business.
 
But what about the other way around, when a nonprofit incorporates enterprise into their work? One board member questioned whether in focusing on how we enterprise whether we are "monetizing our mission." That sounds like a bad thing, but is it okay?   
 
The IRS set up the 501c3 nonprofit status because of the recognition that there were important services needed in our society that our free market economy and capitalist system could not support, thus allowing charitable tax contributions as an alternative way to bring revenue to support this work. At Growing Hope, we are continuing to grow our base of charitable support, and this will always be core to us – in 2013 that supports about 30% of our budget and we'll continue to grow that percentage. We value the $5 and $5000 donations we receive in the mail and at events, and feel that these contributions are an important way that everyone can help participate in our mission. But as we've grown, and continue to grow, in response to the interest, need, and demand for our work, those charitable gifts – which I think of more as community investments – only sustain part of what we need to keep going.
 
A diversified budget is a strong one. This principle we know from ecology – that a diverse ecosystem, or a diverse garden is most resistant to being wiped out by pests or diseases. The same holds true for an economy – if we rely on one sector, or one company, as the primary economic engine, we are at greater risk of failure.   Autos once fell.   Pfizer left. The company town loses their company, and all is lost. The same is true in nonprofit budgets – diverse revenue streams make a stronger system. And, as we promote self-reliance and sustainability in our mission-work, we must reflect that in our own operations and budget. Ultimately, we must sustain ourselves if we're going to be able to further and grow our mission. That's why we're on this path.    
 
And, we hope that as we become more sustainable through a diversified budget that our donors will see their investments not as unneeded, but as even more worthwhile, because they can feel confident that while they support our missions and success, we are also investing in it. And, we hope that as we build a larger base of customers for our products and services they, too, will see their purchases as something that both fill their needs (and helps them grow) and thus grows community, and hope, all around.
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