Is There an Education Foundation in Your Future?

Is There an Education Foundation in Your Future?
From #106, May-June 2003

Is There an Education Foundation in Your Future?

B Y   N A N C Y   O ' C O N N O R
Community Mercantile's Camp As part of a $60,000 USDA grant, Community Mercantile Co-op offered a week-long day camp for 30 teens called "Local Food for Local Kids" in the summer of 2002. The Merc will be offering the camp again this summer.


Community Mercantile Co-op (fondly known as the Merc) in Lawrence, Kansas was established in 1974. Like many co-ops born in that era, we've experienced healthy growth as well as challenging growing pains. In the eleven years I've been on staff we have relocated twice, nearly closed our doors, and have grown from $1.4 million in sales in 1992 to $6.3 million in sales in 2002. During this time, one thing that has remained constant is our commitment to education and outreach.

In 1992, a group of Merc members, directors, and staff began work to establish a not-for-profit education foundation that would be affiliated with the Merc. We believed 501(c)3 status would open up possibilities for funding that would allow us to expand our educational capacity and secure its future.

By fall of 1994, our co-op was fully involved in a head-to-head survival struggle with Wild Oats, a national chain which had opened a store in Lawrence in 1993. A turnaround specialist was hired, staff was trimmed to a minimum, and our efforts to establish an education foundation had to be put on hold.

Community Mercantile Education Foundation

After the closing of the Lawrence, Kansas, Wild Oats in 1996, the Merc began to turn itself around. (For a contemporary report, see CG #70, May-June 1997 -ed.) By 1998 we had enough resources and energy to revive our efforts to establish what would become Community Mercantile Education Foundation (CMEF). We created a board of directors completely separate from the Merc, crafted a mission statement and bylaws, and began the long process of preparing the paperwork required by the Internal Revenue Service to establish a non-profit entity.

Amy Fields, the Merc general manager at the time, was instrumental in the establishment of CMEF. Along with her commitment to our educational mission, she was an invaluable resource for the number-crunching required in the application process. In 1999 we were granted 501(c)3 status, the whole process having required almost a year and $1,400 in application fees and lawyer services. Has it been worth the expense and effort to establish CMEF? After all, our co-op already had dedicated budget for staff and supplies to run a highly visible and successful education program. I think the answer would have to be a definite and enthusiastic "yes" for a number of reasons. But it is also important to realistically look at the unique challenges and extra work created by establishing a separate entity.

How do you feel about paperwork?

I remember the day we received our IRS determination letter. It came quickly, with no additional questions asked. We celebrated, then hesitated, for with the birth of CMEF came the corresponding responsibilities.

With official recognition came the requirements of filling out federal and state withholding and income tax returns as well as various not-for-profit annual reports. Since CMEF was new, with its only money from private donations, there was no designated administrative help or bookkeeper to file forms and keep records.

Initially, these duties were shared by Amy Fields and myself. When we received our first grant in 2000, we included a modest amount of salary for bookkeeping. But it wasn't enough. Not until now, four years later, has CMEF been able to hire a five-hour-a-month bookkeeper to help us maintain our records.

Although our 501(c)3 status opens the door to grant funding possibilities, it is a considerable task to write them. To date, CMEF has applied for ten different grants and/or scholarships. Three have been funded, three declined, and four are pending or still in process. These applications all require tremendous amounts of time and paperwork, especially considering that not all of them ultimately bear fruit.

Grant opportunities, gaining validity

CMEF is very fortunate to have a dedicated board of directors, including an experienced grant writer who has committed to writing one grant per year for our organization. He authored our largest funded grant to date, a $60,000 USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education grant for a project entitled "Local Food to Local People; Enlarging a Regional Food System Through Nutrition Education." This grant has brought our co-op and our foundation considerable recognition and allowed us to undertake numerous special projects, such as our weeklong summer camp for youth, Local Food for Local Kids, and a number of Local Food to Local People celebrations held in our store. The grant has contributed funding for new equipment and supplies that shore up our co-op's educational mission.

In addition to the obvious financial benefits of funded grants, the establishment of CMEF has facilitated relationships with organizations within our community that previously were not possible. Those that would not have partnered with a grocery store are more inclined to include a recognized education foundation in community collaborations. We recently co-sponsored Read Across Lawrence with the Lawrence Public Library and the University of Kansas Division of Continuing Education. We are currently a partner on a pending grant with the Lied Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Kansas. We have a well-established relationship with K-State Research and Extension Douglas County. The foundation has also cemented our reputation as an educational leader in our community.

A symbiotic relationship

CMEF is a young organization with a successful beginning. But we couldn't do our work without the continued support of Community Mercantile Co-op. The relationship between the two organizations is intertwined and mutually beneficial. To date, grant money and donations have paid to execute a number of special projects, helped to hire a part time additional nutrition educator, paid for many teaching tools and supplies including a TV/VCR, and equipped a new CMEF office with furniture, a computer, printer, and other tools our co-op's budget couldn't cover. A second computer was recently donated to allow volunteers to help with record keeping. The co-op continues to dedicate office space, and pays a full-time nutrition educator/outreach coordinator who also functions as executive director. CMEF maintains separate bookkeeping and has its own board of directors.

A possibility for other co-ops

It certainly is not necessary to establish a foundation in order to carry out the work of education and outreach. Many co-ops have extraordinary education programs without going through the effort of forming an additional organization to carry out their mission.

Establishing a foundation dedicated to education has worked for Community Mercantile. It involves a constant learning curve, the support of management, and a tolerance for paperwork. Most importantly, it requires enough passion and belief in what we do to carry us through the difficulties and extra hours of work. For the co-op and the Community Mercantile Education Foundation, the benefits have made it well worth our efforts. With few limits for growth, the possibilities for our future are even more promising.


Nancy O'Connor is director of education and outreach at Community Mercantile Co-op and executive director for Community Mercantile Education Foundation ([email protected]).


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