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  • Writer's pictureHillary Frances

Kayla Birdsong: Building a Culture of Philanthropy in a food desert

Updated: Jun 2, 2022

Kayla Birdsong is Executive Director at The GrowHaus, a community-based nonprofit in Northeast Denver. We are honored to have The GrowHaus as one of the site visits during the Seed Gathering in October.

In this interview, Hillary Frances asks Kayla about including program participants in fundraising efforts, especially through storytelling. We learn how The GrowHaus has activated generosity in low income donors and built a sustainable fundraising plan that includes corporate sponsorships, grants, events, major gifts, and annual giving.

This blog post version has been condensed for quick reading. You can listen to the full conversation here.

Could you describe The GrowHaus to people who aren't familiar?

The GrowHaus is a nonprofit farm educational center and healthy retail marketplace. We are working to ensure lasting access to healthy food in an underserved food desert community in NE Denver. There's 10,000 people in our neighborhood with no full service grocery store. We are working with the community to help people overcome some of those barriers themselves.

To learn about the history of The GrowHaus, listen to the full conversation here.

What are your umbrella fundraising strategies?

Historically we've been pretty foundation reliant. Really reliant on a couple of big ones. One thing that we've been working on is diversifying our fundraising across the board. Even within the foundation bucket, we are looking to smaller family foundations. We've really been working with local foundations. That said, we have been pretty reliant on foundations, but it's a dynamic that we definitely want to decrease over time.

We do have corporate partners. We only have a handful of these, but they've actually turned into really great partnerships where it's not just transactional. There's a lot of back and forth. One of our partners has a board seat and that has been really amazing. Then they get involved in other ways. We do a lot of volunteering for their teams.

Our strategy overall, in addition to diversifying, is working more on individual giving. That's where we really want our future to be. We've had a lot of success at bringing people in at low amounts and building the pipeline and moving people up through that pipeline. We have a monthly giving program called También. In Spanish, it means together or too. The idea behind that program and that name is that together all of Denver can come together in solidarity and put our money toward healthy food being a right and not a privilege and reaffirming that we believe in this community and supporting this neighborhood in that way.

We just completed our second campaign to get new members. We aimed to bring in 100 new members over the summer. It ended last night, and I just found out we have 82. I'm actually not sure where that leaves our number, but we're in the 300’s as far as monthly members.

What specific tools do you use to transition people from También into major giving?

That's kind of what we're working on right now. This is where we're at as a development department in our growth. What we've been doing is put a bunch of people on a list and we went through and ranked everybody, did our prospecting as a team, and figured out who are our top people. We each took a group of those people. We have regular meetings where we go through and say, “have you talked to the people on your list, who do you need to reach out to?”

It takes so much effort to figure out, “what do I even do with these people?” “What's our follow up strategy?” So over the last 2 years we've gotten great at the follow up. Now we're ready for people to come. We know what to do with you. This will be the first time we go back to the people we've been stewarding and say, “OK great, now is when we need you to commit to a certain amount or a multi-year commitment”

How many people do you have on your fundraising team?

We just added a new member a month ago or so. We now have 3 full time people plus me. But they also do all of our communication, marketing, and impact evaluation.

Would you say 1/3 of their role is fundraising?

Two thirds.

How does fundraising intersect with the participants you serve? How are participants in your program involved or not involved in fundraising?

We have been hesitant to fundraise from this community, which is weird because really we should give everyone the opportunity to contribute, we shouldn't decide that people in this neighborhood can't afford it. We know that people with lower incomes proportionately donate more. Our board chair, who is from the neighborhood has been pushing this, which I really love. For me to go out and say "Let’s fundraise from this community," feels weird. But you have a Latina woman who's the board chair and says, "No, go ask everyone. Go, do it." To me it's really about that community-driven piece again.

So at our community block party that we do every year, for the first time this year, we put a jar out. Our staff went around and asked for donations of any amount at all. We had 10 bicycles donated, so anyone who gave even $1 was entered to win a bicycle. We fundraised $75 or something, but 38 people gave from the neighborhood, they probably have never given before.

For so long our fundraising efforts were behind closed doors. I think that's how it naturally happens. We've put in a lot of effort to make it part of the culture and part of the conversation, especially when you're working in a community-driven space.

We've been actively working on that culture of philanthropy over the last couple of years. Now we were in a staff meeting and someone came in to speak, and asked, "who helps with fundraising, who are the fundraisers?" The whole team raised their hands.

It brings the topic of our view of money. I love that your team has been activating generosity from your community.

We're just kind of starting to be able to do that at all. We have a young man on our staff from the neighborhood. He has never worked in an organization like this at all. He's only really worked with Latinos. He has a lot of preconceived notions about who supports us. It's been really interesting to also hear and see that and try to break that in a way. These are just people. They're just people who have a normal job. Most of our donors are not rich. Most of our donors just give a little bit because they can and they want to. It's really about all of us giving a little bit. We're not chasing three rich people. We know a couple, but not very many.

The way that we think about major donors is someone who's giving a gift that's meaningful to them and who is giving a gift that makes you slightly uncomfortable.

That's what I ask my board to do. I want to make sure we have board seats for community. For a community member maybe the amount is very different from someone else. But it's about The GrowHaus being their top philanthropy and that gift being, "oo, wow, ok. I'm going to do this."

The GrowHaus site visit for the Seed Gathering will focus on storytelling and telling the story of impact. So often nonprofits struggle to find a way to tell the stories of need without exploiting the subjects of those stories. I want to read this quick quote from Pastor John Gray who was on Oprah's podcast said, "We must validate humanity without highlighting brokenness." I wondered what that meant to you?

What we generally do is notice someone who had a significant reaction or experience going through one of our programs or classes. We're asking people who we have some trust built up with. Sometimes what we'll do is we'll have our fundraiser go and meet with one of our community health workers and promotoras, so that person has the person they know and one of our fundraisers. First it's about helping them understand how much effort fundraising is and why we're even doing this. We say, "A lot of times it can be really powerful to have some stories of impact individuals and Guadalupe noticed that you had a really amazing story that you told her and we're wondering if you'd share that with us and if it's OK for us to put that in grant applications to help us raise more money for the programs we offer and that you love?" We have found that people are excited because it makes them feel like they're giving back, they're contributing in a way.

In the story we're always careful to not focus too much on the broken part, but focus on the hope and how their life is better, not how it was bad before. It's a hard line to walk.

I really struggle with the question, "how has your experience with (fill in the blank organization) helped you or changed your life, or made things better for you?" Asking them to make that connection is really presumptive, but it's the exact connection we want to share with our donors?

I think we're more like, "You told Guadalupe something, would you tell us more about that?" We're not like, "How did we save you?" It's more like, "what did you learn in that class?"

Can you tell us about a donor stewardship process that you're really enjoying right now?

We made a donor cry recently. It's one of our consistent donors, just barely in the major donor category. He's like a regular guy and loves what we do. He just turned 50, and so we made him a huge card and we all wrote long notes on the inside. Then we knew that he was going to show up for a yoga class on his birthday. When he got here, we all ran out and gave him this big card and then he cried. We don't get to do that all the time, it's not that common, but I think it's really about how he feels connected to our whole staff, not just the fundraising team.

One thing I've really enjoyed is having our whole staff understand that donors are just another participant in our organization. They're slightly in a different category but they're part of what we do. They're not this other. They're not scary. They're just people.

Then I'll add on the process side, we've been working really hard on the gratitude piece, but we've found that we made calls when people just joined, but then not talk to them again. So I think one thing we've been working on our follow up throughout the year. We follow the growing season and that makes it easy for us. We use the seasons as ways to connect with people and a lot of that is through emails and newsletters. Then we do a lot with events and try to do stewardship events, which is purely gratitude, which is really hard because every time we have people in the space we want to ask. But we sometimes do just stewardship events.

Speaking of the seasons and rhythm of practices, do you have any habits that you yourself have established for fundraising?

I mentioned we meet regularly as a team for our stewardship check in. We do that every other week now. That has been a really helpful thing to have on the calendar. It took us a really long time to work up to that. It's not an easy thing to all of a sudden every other week be doing. Then it means that it's actually on your mind more often than not. I try to think about what's going on and who on my list might be interested in what's been going on. My team is much better about this than I am, but say we'll have someone come in to do a guest presentation or a speaking engagement. Then we'll think about "Oh, well this person mentioned they were interested in this thing, and maybe we should invite them." So trying to keep those interests in mind and reconnect people with things beyond giving.

In general, I think our donors are amazing and I love getting to know them. They're such awesome people and I genuinely want to go to lunch with them. It's really reaffirming when you have people who are not in the work, but they care so much about their work that they want to take time out of their lives to connect with you and hear about it.

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