Welcome to the Marketing in the Wild Podcast. I’m Julia from Stratos Creative Marketing, where we are obsessed with finding real-life, in-the-wild stories about business and marketing.
Julia: Everybody, I’m excited to introduce you to my friend, Christine. We’re gonna be talking about nonprofits today, how to get them set up, how to get them started, all of the things. Christine is gonna be the one who walks us through her story. So Christine, tell us about the work you do, tell us where you are in the world, all the things.
Christine: I will! I’m Christine O’Driscoll. 81% of individuals with developmental disabilities are unemployed. I knew that firsthand because my oldest daughter falls in this population of individuals that are neurodiverse. So we started a nonprofit called New Growth Project. We’re located on a 20-acre chemical-free vegetable and flower farm in Rockford, Michigan, which is just north of Grand Rapids, if you’re looking for a big city context.
Julia: That’s awesome! So clearly, you have a personal connection to this. What was it that you were like, and this is when I decided that I was gonna do something about it?
Christine: It always seems from the outside that it just happens overnight, but it’s been a conversation for years. My business partner is actually my niece. Her name is Carly Van Duinen, and her history and work with this population, running programs in Colorado, being part of a day program on a farm, just seeing how work really play a role in developing individuals that are neurodiverse, their confidence, connections with others, and then pairing that with our need. And she did work with our oldest daughter as a support person and the struggle that we had finding jobs for her, finding a company that certainly wanted to work with her. We have that in West Michigan, which is fantastic, but it’s the know-how of how to peer mentor and continue the training beyond just a couple weeks. So that came together.
So Carly and I have been talking for years about different scenarios, and we’ve walked through business plans for a brick and mortar, we walked through a business plan for a food truck, and we kept coming back to, we really would love to have something that incorporates outdoor activity, agrotherapy, is what we refer to it. Because the benefits that she saw on the farm when she was working at Colorado, how that reduces anxiety, it temporarily can reduce depression, just gives a stage for connecting with nature, which in return produces some calm within the individual. So that’s how we landed on a farm.
And truth be told, she and I were looking for about, oh, I don’t know, two or three acres, something small and manageable, and then we stumbled upon this farm that came up for sale. It had been in the same family for 60, 80 years, like a long time. So to learn the history and how the soil was taken care of was really important to us, because Carly and I both believe that what comes out of the ground and what we put in our body, it really should be clean and the best of the best. So we were able to learn a lot about it and we took the plunge. So we’re on a big old farm trying to find our road.
Julia: So this begs the question, did you have any farming background?
Christine: A garden? Can I just tell you, it’s very, very, very different. The scale is just so new. And then like I had mentioned, Carly had experience. When we originally started the organization, one of our partners was a farmer – is a farmer, so he got us started. He’s no longer with us, but we had the advantage of working with him for a year and just seeing how things on a larger scale go. We have since then brought in somebody else and hired as a field manager. So with their experience and our experience, we’re just gonna make it work. Fun thing, when you jump into things, you gotta own it, but you also gotta own the mistakes you make along the way.
Julia: So what kind of things is your farm producing?
Christine: This year we’re excited. It’s a wide variety, I’ll tell you that, because I don’t know if anyone else can see the picture behind me, but that’s our farm market store. We have a cooler in there, we were open just two days a week last week just to see how it would go. But this year, we’re gonna be open five days a week, and starting in May, we’ll have our microgreens, we have eggs, we have 50 chickens or 48 chickens, and then we have arugula, we have lettuces, we have beets, beans, tomatoes. It’s a long list. I can rattle it off to you.
Julia: That’s awesome! And so, the whole purpose of this is to employ people who have some disabilities or are neurodiverse. What sort of things are they helping with?
Christine: So this is the cool part about leaning on a farm. There’s so many different jobs that are included in a farm that we really can find an opportunity for someone to come in, meet them where they’re at, and then help develop skills. So whether that is starting with planting seeds in our greenhouse, that includes cleaning trays, filling trays with dirt, poking holes, putting the seeds in, watering, all of those things. So those can all be broken down into several different jobs. Then we transplant, whether it’s from seedling trays to bigger trays, or from the bigger trays out into the field, that’s another job. Weeding was a huge theme last year.
Julia: Oh, I’m sure!
Cristine: I don’t know if you ever read the Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz, but we were weeding like nobody’s business because that creates the best fruit. And then we also harvest; we clean, we package and then we deliver to the store. And we’ve done pop-up markets too, like farm markets, where customers can come to us. We do those closer in towns so people can come to us. So a lot of jobs there. I didn’t even mention the flowers; cutting flowers, putting them in bouquets, all of that stuff has been really great.
Julia: That’s awesome! It sounds like so much fun, because I think that even for those of us who are working desk jobs, we forget that there is something beautiful about working with our hands. I’ve always heard people who work with their minds need to relax with their hands, or people who work with their hands need to relax with something in their minds. And I find it true for myself, where I’m like, I don’t garden, I actually am bad at it. Plants come to my house to die. But they get to live a really great end of life. But I do find that I enjoy them because it is something physical and tangible. So how cool that you give people these opportunities!
Christine: Yes! And I gotta add in, I left this out. That’s a great spring, summer, fall. I’m in Michigan, so we have hard winters here. So we started also an apothecary line, which includes candles and soaps and bath salts so that we can develop winter hours, and we’re still developing that line. But what’s been cool about doing that with one individual specifically that loves doing repetitive things with their hands, and just labeling and wicking candles. And it’s been neat, because they are able to master that skill and then own it. And then the confidence and pride that comes with that is really cool to see, whether it’s in the field or in our office, making our products, it’s been neat to match people up with different opportunities.
Julia: That is so cool! And I love that even with all of the opportunities, you can meet people where they’re at, whether it’s mobility or whether it’s behavioral, cognitive, whatever it is. Like you have something for probably anybody who needs it or who wants it.
Christine: We really try to, and we’re identifying this population that came into our lives quite literally through my daughter, is the invisible disability. Someone that’s pretty capable, but they need support to really experience success on the job. That’s where I feel like our program’s a little bit different because we’re a nonprofit for employment, but we have built in a peer mentor program. We have staff work alongside our employees to be there to support, whether it’s, I need better direction, or I forgot this step, or maybe I got distracted, and I’m going to see the kittens. You know what I mean? So having that piece as part of it all has set up our employees for success in that aspect too.
Julia: I love it!
Christine: We try to come to the table with a lot of understanding and grace. Some individuals are gonna come to us and having had a bad morning for example, and their anxiety is off the charts, and maybe they need to start their day with a break so they can calm and come to work. So it’s just having that ability to be flexible, and understand who we’re working with has paid off tremendously, not only for our organization, but for the people we’re serving. And we’ve gotten a lot of that feedback that that has helped them to stay with the job. So that’s been kind of fun.
Julia: That’s awesome! So I’m curious, there are businesses with a mission, there are nonprofits, I think about like TOMS Shoes, it’s a business that does something awesome. Why did you choose to go this nonprofit route? And everybody else might be like, Julia, this is dumb question, no brainer. But I have the question. So Christine, tell me, what pulled you into the nonprofit direction?
Christine: It actually was a hard decision, so I think it’s a great question. The founders and I talked about this for some time. And I’ll give you a little caveat. So I’ve been in the non-profit business on and off as a marketing person just throughout my career, and I see opportunities in non-profits to act and behave more like a for-profit, but maintain the tax status because the mission remains bigger than the income, however, to get a nonprofit out of the poverty mindset, if you will. So part of that is to show an example that a nonprofit can function well, but the other thing, and I was thinking about this when I saw this question come across, really, what was that catalyst? And I think it was to allow more people to engage with our mission.
If we were a for-profit or for-profit with a mission, we’re really just focusing on getting that product out and churning for revenue. This way, we’re asking for volunteers, we’re asking for people to work alongside as a volunteer mentor or working out in the farm field to help us or helping us in the backup. There’s just ways to bring more people and engage. And some people, not even for volunteering, they may not have the time, but they may donate, or they may actually share our story. And we’re finding that has been a very powerful thing in sharing our story. Because if you think about it, there’s not many people you don’t know that aren’t affected by someone who has an intellectual developmental disability. It’s becoming more and more common.
So considering all those things, we felt like a nonprofit will invite more people in, and the dirty little secret is there is not a lot of money in farming. There just isn’t. We’re working toward that. We’re all going into year two, and I feel like our business strategy is gonna take us to where we’ll be more self-sustained, but not entirely. And that’s another reason, Julia, if we went with just a for-profit and our farming, we wouldn’t be able to employ the individuals that we did. Like last year, we had up to 10 employees, up to 54 hours in peak season, and we wouldn’t have been able to do that on the other model, because it would’ve been based solely on just revenue. So it just allows for more engagement, allows for a bigger impact. I don’t know, it felt right for us in the end.
Julia: That’s awesome! I would imagine even the messaging changes in my mind. I think about your farm store, there is more of a draw, and whether it’s our own helper mentality, where I’m like, oh, I would rather stop at a farm store and support a nonprofit than to support a business with a mission. And not that either is bad, but the messaging changes a little bit. What have you found with marketing and nonprofit? Has it been different than what you expected?
Christine: Oh yeah! I knew it, because of my marketing background and all of that, I understand that you have multiple audiences. Managing it day-to-day, and we’re on social media, we’re emailing, we send out newsletters, print newsletters. We actually still believe in mail.
Julia: That’s awesome!
Christine: But it’s managing the different audiences consistently, because we have the people that we serve, our mission, audience, we have our customers that are buying from us, we have our donors, and we have volunteers. So we have four different audiences that we are managing. I think the biggest struggle we’ve had, and that is how to talk consistently to all of those populations without overwhelming just the general audience. So that’s been a challenge, but certainly, there are differences between each audience and how you approach them, 100%, segmenting to the rescue.
Julia: Can you share a little bit about that? What are some of the differences that you have found?
Christine: So individuals that maybe have signed up for just our store, what we call a CSA membership, which is Community Supported Agriculture, where you can get a weekly share from the farm. They’re really interested in knowing what we’re growing, what’s happening at the farm, what’s the latest with the greenhouse. We just finished our hoop house, we’re gonna be able to extend our growing season. They wanna know that. When we come out and have a full giving Tuesday push that we had in November for nonprofits, they’re not really that interested. Not as much. So I’ve learned that you’ve got a core along the buyers longer, the customers longer, before you start staring, “Hey, we’re a nonprofit as well.” And then we have on the other aspect, people that are happy to give, but they don’t really have the bandwidth to know all the nitty gritty of the farm. So it’s just a balance. And then you have people that wanna know it all, which is fantastic. And I didn’t even mention this audience. I mean, I did kind of when I said the people that we serve, the adults that we hire, but their families are affected by this too. So we have that audience too.
And we try to incorporate what we call community conversations. Throughout the summer, people come out and we highlight different support services in our area. Because that’s one thing I learned raising someone that’s neurodiverse, is where do I find the support? I don’t know what questions to ask. So that’s been a fun thing to do too. So, it’s learning. That’s the challenge. How much do you tell? What part? It’s like social media, how do you segment on social media? You don’t! I think that’s been one of the biggest challenges from a marketing perspective. Who am I talking to consistently? And who wants to hear what?
Julia: No, totally! Because I can even see those community conversations where you’re talking about resources. Your donors might want to know that they’re happening, but they don’t need to know all of the details. Like usually, donors are like, I just wanna know my money is doing something that is worthwhile. So give me a story here and there, and I’ll be happy. And I can see even the CSA members who are like, I really just want my vegetables every week. They’re like, have fun with those community conversations.
Christine: Yeah. Exactly!
Julia: So I think that that’s so unique and a struggle that a lot of nonprofits have. Because at least most of them have at least their serving audience and then a donor audience. At minimum, there’s usually two audiences.
Christine: I find that you can do a lot of the messaging on the social media platforms, but where you can put in the fun, and the backstory through reels and stories, that has really helped us reach a broader audience because they wanna know. So just learning that nuance as well, and this messaging belongs here, but these fun things go to stories and reels.
Julia: That’s awesome. It does take a bit of planning. Strategic thinking. Anyway, a few other questions that I have, to me, every once in a while I’m like, oh, this would be a great nonprofit. Starting a nonprofit seems absolutely intimidating. What was the process like for you guys?
Christine: It is a bit! But anyone can do it if you have the patience and the resolve to really find out what is necessary. Because of the size that we were going after and the breadth of how many people we wanted to reach and the community connection, we sought an attorney out to help us create our bylaws, making sure all of the documents are filed appropriately. It is very lengthy forms that the government needs to see, which they should.
Julia: That’s fair. Yeah! Or else everybody will set up a nonprofit.
Christine: Because you’re soliciting other people’s money, you got to make sure it’s on the up and up. So that was super helpful. Patience is a necessity. Things don’t move fast. They just don’t, especially when you’re trying to get approval from a government entity. And then the other piece of it was sharing our story in a way that we could have investors that were interested, so that when we were ready, they were ready. So that was an important part of just seeding our story, a lot of face-to-face conversations. And like I had said earlier, there’s not many people you don’t know anymore that aren’t touched by this situation with a neurodiverse individual in their life, or neighborhood, or whatever. So we had a lot of listening ears, but trying to find people that we knew may have an interest and the ability to support us when we started. That really helped too. But that’s a lot of groundwork.
So it’s intimidating, but I love puzzles in a way that I just wanted to put it together somehow, and I knew we could, and Carly’s expertise and writing individual programs, I knew that part was gonna come together. It’s a huge need. I mean, we had more applicants this last year than we could fill. So it’s a huge need. So that was the drive.
Julia: And I feel like that’s like the important part, and you have this personal connection because of your daughter. I don’t even know of a nonprofit that’s not set up because they’ve seen a need, or else the nonprofit wouldn’t exist. And I feel like if you use that to fuel you, then in a way, you’re like, “Well, if I don’t do this, who’s going to? And who’s gonna serve these people? What are some of the things that have surprised you about leading a nonprofit? I know you’ve had experience working in the marketing side of nonprofits, being one of the leaders has to be different than just as a marketing consultant.
Christine: Well, I did development work years ago for a nonprofit. So I had a taste of fundraising, and events, and cultivating investors and all of that. But you have to do all the things. All of the things, all the time! And so to me, I’m a big picture person, so that was okay. And all the nitty gritty, it gave me a better appreciation for those that did marketing for us. I would roll out this great plan, put in the sales funnel, do these email campaigns here, and that’s overwhelming for a business owner. So I know how to do these things, but I don’t have the bandwidth anymore. So that was a surprise. It was gonna be hard work, but just a lack of time to get all the things done really was a jolt. So learning how to delegate, find the people that can support you and volunteer or hire, whatever it may be.
And then the paperwork from a nonprofit standpoint is overwhelming. Wow! So you really got to make sure you’re dotting your Is and crossing your Ts, because there’s a lot of legalities with a nonprofit, from acknowledging gifts, to making sure your filing is correct. And then we’re selling things, so making sure you got your tax documents all in so that you can collect sales tax. There’s a lot of nitty gritty that doesn’t take away from the shine of the larger picture, but it is something you have to plan for consistently, or it will quickly catch up that you’ve got to have those things done, and if you don’t, you’ll regret not setting aside the time. So I think that was one of the bigger surprises, that like, wow! Okay. Lots to do!
Julia: And I think it’s all those behind the scenes that we don’t think about. Like, somebody’s doing it, or at least hopefully somebody’s doing it.
Christine: I’m making sure.
Julia: I think that’s incredible. So as we close out, I’d be curious if there’s somebody listening who’s like, oh, I have a nonprofit in my heart that I want to make happen, what are a couple tips that you would give them?
Christine: I think the first thing is to write a business plan, and it doesn’t have to be 20 pages, but I think it needs to be very clear in your mind of how this is going to work. Because then it will beg questions of you of, okay, are you selling something? No. If you’re not selling something, what is the hook? Is it the need? Walking through that process will make you think, how are you going to engage the people in the community that you need? And I think that would go back to really making sure your mission statement is clear. And if you listen to Donald Miller at all, that mission statement usually is financial goals by this cause and by what time, and killing it. It’s knowing specifics every year. Because we had a business plan written before we even filed so that we had an idea of, okay, this is how much revenue we can bring off the farm, but we have this gap, and these are the donors we need, and who do we know that could potentially fill in that? So we’re writing a game plan for the year. And now we just finished the one for this year. It changes every year. So I would start there.
I would highly encourage anyone that’s looking to start to be okay with starting small, and mastering that and understanding that, okay, if I start small and I can do this, then I can do the next thing. And one thing we learned this past year is do everything like it’s a pilot program. We’re gonna test this out, we’re gonna see if this concept works or this item. Or like we did candles and baskets and all that, we’re gonna see if this is something that the community wants. For us, when we did our holiday gift baskets and boxes, we had several companies hire us to send to them.
Julia: Oh, that’s awesome!
Christine: So we landed on something really fantastic, and that was so great to do during the holidays, since it’s over the winter, we can give a couple hours here and there. And our goal is to build year round, and not just a seasonal employer. So allow yourself to start small, be clear on your mission, write out small business plans so you have an idea of this is what’s gonna be asked of me, and what am I realistically gonna be able to fill? So I just think just giving yourself some groundwork and getting really clear on what you wanna do and who you would need to get to those goals, I think that is a good place to start.
Julia: I think that’s amazing. And I feel like even on the starting small piece, what may be perceived as small is still a huge impact. Like, you had 10 people who benefited from being able to find meaningful work. That trickles out into families and communities, and we don’t always get to see the ways that we’re benefiting a whole community actually.
Cristine: Yeah. And I’ll tell you, when we wrote our first business plan, we wanted 100 hours filled. This first season, I look back now and I giggle a little bit because that was a lofty goal. But we did hit 54! We did hit 54 hours in a peak season. That’s per week, and that was a lot. And this is another piece of advice I would give, is learn, take a lot of notes, and allow yourself to step back and say, okay, what did I love about this? What did I not like? And if I love something about it, we’re gonna continue it. And if we didn’t like this, what can we learn and do differently or better, or eliminate? So just being in that constant learning mode and having a sense of humility, it’ll get you a long way.
Julia: I think the beautiful thing about that is that now you know what it took to do the 54 hours per week. I feel like the first year’s goals are always the hardest to set because you’re like, I don’t actually know what’s happening.
Christine: Oh, I think this will work!
Julia: But now you’re like, okay, if it took that much to make 54 happen, then we can suppose that it will take this much to make 100 happen, and do we have the bandwidth for that? Because even in my own business, this is not nonprofit, but I guess it’s professional development. But even I sometimes think like, well, if it took that much effort for it to happen, do I want to do that personally? And I think that it’s the same thing, like, okay, it took this much paperwork, this much behind the scenes stuff, do I personally wanna do that? Do I need to get help to do that? And then it just helps you reframe what kind of growth is realistic
Christine: 100%! We looked at those weeks that we were in 54 hours, and we sat back and asked, was this the best for our employees? Did they learn? Were they given the support that they needed? Did they feel successful? So taking that step back and just learning from – not a mistake – but learning from our experience, we’re gonna create shifts differently this coming summer so that it’s more organized, it’s more supported. Not that it was horrible last year, but we want it to be better. We wanna offer that best experience where everyone’s developing a new skill and growing in confidence. So I think that’s across the board, for-profit or a nonprofit, you’re always gonna look at what’s better, what’s not, where can I grow? Do I want to? Do I have the bandwidth? Can I do it well? I think asking those questions is important, because you can set these lofty goals of, yeah, I can do it! But if you get there and you’re resenting everyday, then you’re missing your whole point of doing what you’re doing in the first place.
Julia: I like how you added, we could do it, but is it gonna serve your personal population for your employees? Even in my case, like our clients, if we’re overtaxed, are we really serving our clients as well as we could be? I think that there’s so much to that in making decisions regarding those goals.
Christine: I agree. I agree. Yeah. Got to leave some white space for rest, for creativity and recuperation. I just think it’s super important.
Julia: I love it! Christine, if people want to connect with you, how can they do so?
Christine: Oh, I would love it! You can find us online at thenewgrowthproject.org, https://www.thenewgrowthproject.org/, or send me an email. I’d love to hear from you. And it’s email@example.com.
Julia: Perfect! Well, Christine, I enjoyed this. I love learning more about what you guys are doing. Now, I’m gonna put Rockford, Michigan on my bucket list of places to travel.
Christine: It’s a really cute town! It’s super cute! They got fun shops, great restaurants. We’re a little bit set aside from there because we’re out in the farm country, but I would highly invite you there.
Julia: I lived in Michigan for a while, and it’s one of my favorite states. Except in the winter! I don’t really have a favorite place in the winter. That’s really the bottom line.
Christine: You would hate today. I’m just gonna say that. It doesn’t look like this today. It looks very white and snowy and cold.
Julia: All right. Well, thank you, Christine! I appreciate you!
Christine: Thanks for having me on. I really appreciate it. Good to see you!
Friends, thanks for tuning into this week’s podcast episode. I’m so glad that you have. If you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have, I just ask you to subscribe so you know each time we have a new episode coming out. If you loved our podcast and wanna give us a rating or a review, I promise, we will read each and every one of them. A special shout out to our friend, Carson Childers, who is producing our podcast. We really appreciate him and all the hard work that he’s done for us.
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