It’s an experience everyone knows. There’s a kid at the door—maybe a stranger, maybe a neighbor, maybe even your own child—with a brochure full of overpriced junk food. You know you’ll never eat any of the high-fructose caramel corn or chemical-laden candy, but you want to support the cause. As you write the check, you think, There has to be a better way…
That’s what FarmRaiser CEO and founder Mark Abbott thought, too. But unlike the rest of us, Abbott—a founding member of AmeriCorps, expert in service-learning, and entrepreneur with past start-up experience—knew how to make that idea a reality.
How FarmRaiser works
“The whole purpose of FarmRaiser is to raise money while getting kids and families to think differently about the foods they eat,” Abbott tells Organic Connections.
Using venture capital money as they scale up, FarmRaiser works as a bridge between schools and local artisans and farmers—including cheesemakers, fruit and vegetable growers, bakers and more—via a model that puts at least 90 percent of total sales back into the school.
Unlike traditional fundraising models, which count on the low cost of goods and central warehousing locations, FarmRaiser pays local suppliers a fair price and doesn’t warehouse anything. Instead, farmers pledge to deliver the goods sold directly to the schools on distribution day, cutting down on FarmRaiser’s overhead. “It’s a huge potential nightmare for distribution and delivery,” Abbott admits, “but vendors love the fact that our reservation system keeps track of sales for them. In fact, people love this idea so much that nine out of ten vendors we ask to participate sign up.”
Local products, national goals
FarmRaiser, based in Michigan, ran its first pilot campaign in Flint, Michigan, in June 2013 and now has programs in Michigan and Washington. According to Christina Carson, who heads up campaign sales for FarmRaiser, “We’ve coordinated forty campaigns so far, with another ten or so on the books for this winter and spring. We have a unique model that we can recreate just about anywhere by working with connections in the local community.”
FarmRaiser is engaged now in opening the Virginia-Maryland market, where participation of wealthier communities can help offset the costs of working in “food deserts” without access to healthy local food. The goal for the coming year is 220 campaigns, but the company plans to be available in eleven markets within the next four years and to eventually scale up to run 3,000 campaigns annually across the country.
That may seem ambitious, but it’s all about market share. “Eighty-one percent of households purchase something from a school fundraiser each year,” says Carson. “What if 50 percent of those sales were healthy local products? It would have a huge impact on the whole food landscape.”
And FarmRaiser’s model includes ways of supporting schools even if households don’t want to make a personal purchase. Almost 20 percent of funds gathered are in the form of cash donations, simply because people feel moved to support projects in their community. “And there’s one additional way to donate—the community basket,” Carson notes. “People can make a purchase and we’ll deliver it to a local food pantry; so those in need get high-quality local food.”
Scaling up for the future
The next step for FarmRaiser is new platform development, which will allow kids to showcase products for sale via an app on their phone or tablet and will give vendors real-time updates on the amount of product sold.
“When we have the technology platform finished, we can combine smart use of technology with principles of community organizing to build a movement that isn’t about just product fundraising but also sustainable agriculture and school-centered communities,” Abbott enthuses.
The app will additionally feature a library of educational facts on each product as well as curriculum for teachers to use in schools. “I love the fact that it gives kids a chance to be ambassadors for eating healthy and eating local,” Abbott says. “Kids can actually get service-learning credit for participating in these fundraisers.”
With multiple bottom lines, a focus on health and sustainability, and a scalable model that costs less to administer and puts more money back into the local community, FarmRaiser is poised to shake up the stale world of school fundraising for good. “We help the schools, the local producers, and the consumer,” Abbott marvels. “It’s a triple win.”
To learn more about FarmRaiser or to launch a local campaign, visit www.farmraiser.com.