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It’s your business: Nonprofit searches for a business model that’s built to last

By Glenn Burkins
Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting CharlotteĀ’s African American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.
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JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Robin Emmons, founder and executive director of Sow Much Good, a nonprofit food producing organization.

Sustainability. It’s what every business leader strives to achieve. But when your mission involves serving the poor, finding a business model that works can be all the more daunting.

Take, for example, the Cornelius-based nonprofit Sow Much Good, launched in 2008 with the goal of distributing locally grown produce to families in “food deserts.” (The organization also has a strong component that teaches healthy eating habits.)

In 2013, Sow Much Good’s founder Robin Emmons was a finalist to receive a CNN Hero award. But in a recent Shop Talk interview, she said the international exposure that came with that honor did little to solve her sustainability issues.

“People think that, as a charity, that you should be free,” she said. “Free is not sustainable, nor is chasing a limited pool of grant dollars that are available year to year. That’s a very volatile space.”

According to the organization’s 2012 filings with the federal government, Sow Much Good had an annual budget of slightly more than $122,000, and Emmons, who works as executive director, was paid $17,000.

Emmons said virtually all of the organization’s revenue comes in the form of grants and individual donations. She said her goal is to change that by bringing some market-based approaches to the organization.

In May, for example, she launched a community-supported agriculture, or CSA, program that allows low-income families to buy “shares” in two urban gardens where Sow Much Good grows its chemical-free produce. In return, the “shareholders” each week receive a box of organic vegetables. Prices range from $12.50 per week to $27.50 per week, depending on family size.

So far, she said, about 10 families have bought in. Her goal for the year is 25.

Such co-ops have become common in recent years, she said, but rarely are they established at prices the poor can afford. To better accommodate her clientele, Sow Much Good offers bi-weekly payment plans and accepts payments under the federal food stamp program.

“We’re really happy and proud to be doing that,” she said of the co-op. “We think it’s rather groundbreaking in this space of low-income people having that as another option to ensure food sovereignty and food security.”

As with most for-profit companies, Emmons said her challenge is to grow capacity in the organization, with an eye toward expanding beyond the Charlotte region into other states. But that requires staff, office space and other “critical needs.”

Emmons said she has started talks with a handful of blue chip companies about assisting in that endeavor – doors opened by her CNN exposure – but so far she has gotten no commitments.

Longer-term, she said, sustainability will rest on finding new “streams of revenue that gives us more autonomy and allow us to serve more people in a variety of ways.”

In addition to the CSA, Emmons said she is looking to partner with organizations that have similar missions, or even to raise revenue by selling fresh produce to local businesses.

“Sustainability needs to be sustained,” she said.

Glenn Burkins is editor and publisher of Qcitymetro.com, an online news site targeting Charlotte’s African-American community. He is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and Charlotte Observer business editor.
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