When you have an idea that you think could change the world, getting from idea to implementation takes work. And perhaps one of the most difficult decisions to make in that process is what kind of model you want to use to achieve your goals.
Do you want to set up as a non-profit? A social enterprise? As we’ve seen, there are pros and cons to both options. These days, a rising number of impact-driven ventures are opting to operate under a hybrid model. This can be as a non-profit social enterprise, or as a non-profit working in tandem with a for-profit social enterprise.
This is the case for Chicago-based Yellow Tractor Project, a non-profit organization that empowers people to grow their own fresh, healthy, food in an easy and affordable manner, and its affiliated social enterprise, Yellow Tractor LLC. We had the chance to connect with the woman behind it all, Wendy Irwin, about the work they’re doing and how they operate.
Here’s what she had to say:
Let’s just talk a little about the non-profit aspect of your model, the Yellow Tractor Project. How did it come to be?
So the Yellow Tractor Project came to be in 2009. I was actually the Grants Chair for an educational foundation in Wilmette, and this grant application came through that was so simple and I thought could have such a profound effect. So, I very unprofessionally picked up the phone and called the grant writer, and she thought I was calling to award her a grant. I felt terrible and tried to explain that we might be interested in piloting it. With her idea, I told her I thought we could change the way America thinks about food in ten years; and change the world in twenty. She was really taken aback – she wanted to do one garden in one building, not change the world.
But we met, and the idea for the Yellow Tractor Project was born. We operated for years without a 501c3, and while we raised money and got all of the logistics in place for the application, I was in testing mode. I had the social enterprise hybrid piece in my head from day one, and I started off by pitching our programs as paid programs to see if they would work.
I went into each meeting with potential partners prepared to ask them for funds from specific budget buckets. I knew they’d go for old school foundation money if I didn’t, which we couldn’t get because we didn’t have 501c3 status. Without it, we had to think creatively about which buckets to draw from – marketing, advertising, recruitment.
Then I quickly realized: This is so much more than food access. This very simple, easy, turnkey thing is such a solution for job skills training, for employment, for rehab. We wanted to help those who don’t have access to nutrition, and started pilots that targeted senior citizens who live in subsidized housing. They’re the last generation who has knowledge of gardening in their bones, and yet they have no access to it and their nutrition bottoms out as a result. We now have two programs in Evanston, and they’re just knocking it out of the park. One thing we were somewhat surprised to find was that, for them, the gardening was almost as good for their mental wellness as it was for their nutrition, because it built a sense of community. That was really profound for us.
We want to make it easy for people to improve their health, starting with the basics – and do it wherever they need to.
And how does Yellow Tractor, the social enterprise aspect of your model, tie in? How did it develop?
As I thought through how we should develop the social enterprise piece, I realized that rather than starting at schools, we should start with the parents. Teaching kids how to garden will only work in a sustainable way if the parents know how to do it too. We tried at the YMCA at first, but it just became really obvious that we should go for corporate wellness programs. That’s where adults spend the bulk of their lives – at work. We decided it made sense to reach them there. And it was sort of perfect convergence of things: a broken health care system and a loss of any innovation in corporate wellness programs.
And then we just did experiments to see if this would ultimately reduce health care costs. We have a five year pilot here, and for the first time ever – at this global firm we were working with –its over 100 years old – their insurance premium didn’t go up. So we made sure at the beginning when we were developing the non-profit to build relationships with businesses that might eventually be interested in the social enterprise aspect, and it seems to be paying off so far.
Now, we offer customizable corporate wellness programs that are centered around gardening. If a corporation wants to put in garden beds and have us come in and teach their employees about how to garden, we can do that. If they want us to bring in a chef and show them how to use that healthy food to cook meals, we can do that. But one of our key differentiators is the education that we provide. When you start one of our programs, we look at your climate and location, and put together a newsletter with all of the information that you need to sustain your garden. This would take a ton of research and knowledge on the part of the individual.
Beyond the garden-based wellness programs, we also offer something called “Your Company in the Community,” and this is where CSR comes in. This is where the engagement dollars come in. We’ll take anywhere from 5 employees in a department to the whole company, and we take them out to a local community non-profit – either one that they partner with or one that we know – and take them out to do gardening projects there.
And how do they function relative to one another?
It’s sort of a classic non-profit / social enterprise hybrid model. The non-profit preceded the social enterprise, and the whole thing kind of becomes a social enterprise. They function separately, which is hard for external parties to really understand. Yellow Tractor LLC is focused on corporate wellness programs and providing customizable paid solutions in that sector. The Yellow Tractor Project is focused on donating beds to underserved populations. Both are centered around nutrition and food access, and providing education around those things, but they function separately.
Their connection is financial: Once sales from Yellow Tractor LLC reach a critical mass, a percentage of the revenue flows to the Yellow Tractor Project as one of its diverse revenue streams. On top of that, we still do our traditional fundraising, donor cultivation, all of the things that you do in a traditional non-profit.
What is the key differentiating factor between what you offer and what people could do at home?
When we were figuring it all out, we first decided to learn manufacturing and develop a garden bed that could stand on its own and was as high quality as possible, and we created a kit of sorts that included the soil, the bed, plant sourcing. Those are the main things that have to be right in order for it to work. The wood itself has to be quality, and without it, most gardens go bad. Without good wood, people use railroad ties or anything inexpensive. These are generally treated, which leeches into the soil, which leeches into the food…and we’re right back at square one with bad nutrition. Moreover, it disintegrates in a few years, and then no one wants to do a new one again. So we put the time into developing this product that is safe and we know will last about fifteen years.
And we use these same high quality beds on the non-profit side. Even though many business advisors have told us it’s a bad model, because they’re too expensive, we refuse to budge on that. We’re not willing to compromise the integrity of the product. When you use lower quality widgets, not only does it have an effect on nutrition, but when they fail, it lowers morality, and detracts from the entire mission.
What’s the biggest challenge that you’ve faced in getting your programming off the ground?
We’ve faced the challenge of getting people to really adopt a new way of thinking, and understand the importance of nutrition. For Toms shoes…no one is going to turn down a free pair of shoes if they need them, or for Warby Parker…no one is going to say “Nah, I don’t need my grandfather to see.” But when it comes to nutrition, people often want to opt for the Cheetos because it’s what they know and can afford. They don’t feel like they need to make the change, and it takes work on their part.
That’s why we’re trying our best to make it easy for them – to provide the beds and materials that they need and supplement that with education.
What is your best advice for someone who wants to start a social impact project?
Don’t look before you jump – everyone’s going to tell you that you need years of research, but that’s not always true. It’s an iterative process and you’ll never learn more than what you get from just trying things and listening to people. Sometimes it will take people awhile to understand what you’re doing, but that’s innovation.
We love that Yellow Tractor and the Yellow Tractor Project are creating change on such a fundamental and crucial level. If you’re interested in their work, stay on top of their initiatives and connect with them here:
Yellow Tractor (Social enterprise)
The Yellow Tractor Project (Non-profit)
Do you know about a social impact venture that is using the hybrid model? We want to learn about them and share their story with the WhyWhisper community. Here’s how you can tell us about them: