Jennifer attended New Strategies* in February 2018 and was sponsored by American Express.
Tell us about Smile Farms' mission and scope.
Smile Farms creates meaningful employment, vocational, and educational opportunities for people with disabilities at farms, urban gardens, and greenhouses in their local communities. As we have grown, so has our ambition. We now see the organization emerging not only as a leader in providing solutions for the problem of unemployment among adults with disabilities, but as an anchor for K-12 school-based curriculum and vocational programs. At Smile Farms, we are not only growing plants, but also growing people. The Smile Farms model works because we partner with both non-and for-profit organizations to develop agricultural campuses that meet community needs, while motivating individuals, businesses, and civic organizations. In addition, we generate sustainable revenue to fund our partners’ services. All plants, flowers, and fresh produce grown at the Smile Farms campuses are sold in a variety of venues in the communities where they’re located, used in the kitchens of partner organizations, and/or donated to local nonprofits serving people in need.
You attended New Strategies two years ago when you were associate vice president for fund development at New York City Leadership Academy. What practices/tools from New Strategies have you brought to Smile Farms that have generated results?
First, let me say that the emphasis on relationships was interwoven throughout the fabric of my New Strategies program experience – both from presenters as well as the peers I met. I have taken that with me, and at Smile Farms, relationships are what makes the difference between being in the community and being part of a community.
Probably the top three practices or tools were Steve MacLaughlin’s presentation on using data to increase individual giving. I clearly recall Steve telling us “It’s not about the volume of data, it’s about the value.” He also talked about “delighting donors” and all stakeholders. We’re doing that right now as we navigate this pandemic. In response to requests from our nonprofit partners for ways to keep up morale in residences, vocational, and K-12 education programs, we worked with our signature philanthropic partner to create special videos and posts for Smile Farms.
Leslie Crutchfield’s talk about movement’s truly “moved” me, pun intended. She talked about how movements matter now more than ever. In the spirit of Leslie’s “turning grassroots into gold,” Smile Farms takes a grassroots approach to build stronger, more inclusive workplaces and communities that empower members to collaborate on critical issues by tapping into local resources.
Joe Waters’ discussion on focusing on marketing and media provided timeless counsel: “The nonprofit of the future will focus on marketing and media,” specifically content that drives donations. We are becoming more proficient with generating content and acting like a publisher on social media platforms. We are laser-focused on adding value to our partner and supporter relationships. Based on Joe’s suggestion, we are now publishing more on our blog and in other media forums to increase engagement and to provide more meaningful appreciation to the Smile Farms community.
How has COVID-19 affected Smile Farms?
Our top priority is to ensure all Smile Farms community members remain safe from the virus. In collaboration with our partners, employment, vocational, and other core programmatic activities were suspended as well as all volunteer activations at Smile Farms campuses. We also made the difficult decision to postpone our signature fundraiser from April to November. That event is roughly 35% of our annual unrestricted revenue. There was a 15% reduction to the overall budget, including 25% from program expenses and nonessential events.
How has Smile Farms responded to COVID-19?
We created a Coronavirus Update webpage with creative ideas from our board chairman and others for the community to consider during this time of social distancing. Our donors have created video testimonials that we’ve posted as part of our new communication campaign. Our messaging and call to our supporters is simple: “Thank you for being a part of our Smile Farms community, and what we can do to help?” Further, we have redirected the time we ordinarily would spend to plan our signature fundraiser to other initiatives, delayed payments, and renegotiated better rates for event venues.
Given all the budget changes, how are you feeling about Smile Farms revenue going forward?
Our #1 goal is to serve our Smile Farms community and add value to our partners, so I am optimistic. We continue to seek ways to strengthen the signature philanthropic partnership with 1-800-FLOWERS.COM, Inc. The company has supported Smile Farms programs through a combination of philanthropic donations, cause-related marketing promotions, in-kind assistance, and national-level fundraising and promotional activities led by the enterprise’s customers and talented employees. This support – along with our various community partnerships – has been crucial in expanding the mission of Smile Farms and growing the organization from a single greenhouse operation into eight campuses and counting. The Smile Farms community is strong and resilient.
*New Strategies is a four day forum for nonprofit executives. Learn more here.