I’m a country boy at heart. Don’t get me wrong, I love a lot of the things that living in the city has to offer – live music, diverse restaurants, nightclubs that pulse to underground rhythms, festivals and exhibits, curated spaces, and more. When it comes to culture and vibes, the melting pot of the city offers unlimited inspiration for the creative mind. And yet, there’s something limitless about a clear blue sky. There’s something innately grounding about taking off your shoes and socks, letting your bare feet connect with the earth. There’s something awe-inspiring about looking up at an unpolluted night sky, and recognizing that you could spend lifetimes counting all the stars and not even get close to completing the task. The city gets my heart pumping, but the country reminds me to listen to its innate beat.
In many ways, I revere Mother Nature. Her patterns and rhythms are my Commandments, and I often use my understanding of the natural world for inspiration and guidance in my life. If a way of living exists in nature, to me, it is ordained. And I’ve often been frustrated about living in a world that seems to ignore nature’s cycles and laws. So when I learned about permaculture and ecological gardening a decade ago, I was instantly drawn to these ideas.
If you’re unfamiliar with permaculture or ecological gardening, essentially they’re ways of living (and gardening) that seek to work with nature as much as possible. They are design systems that understand the garden, farm, or homestead as an interconnected network of contributors – just like the ways we think about bigger ecosystems. So a permaculture garden isn’t just about planting tomatoes, it’s about ensuring that the garden creates and sustains everything the tomatoes need to thrive. Need water? Better find a way to capture the rain when it falls and direct it towards your plants. Need sunlight? Better arrange your plants so that the tall ones don’t overshadow the short ones. Need fertilizer? Better find a way to get the nutrients the garden loses back into the soil as compost or mulch.
In many ways, ecological gardening is a form of magic. When done well, the garden becomes more rich year after year, while the gardener intervenes less and less. In a few years, a barren patch of land can become a food forest, lush with flowers, fruit trees, and vegetable vines that produce in abundance. By connecting the systems, the gardener closes loops that western agricultural methods leave open and helps cultivate balance. Every living thing within the garden contributes to the health and survival of everything else. And while there is still loss – everything dies eventually – even those deaths are part of the cycle, the resources used to make the ecosystem stronger. It is essentially everything we want for our social sector and vibrant communities.
Note: permaculture and ecological gardening are heavily inspired by, with some methodologies taken directly from, indigenous peoples from across the planet. More often than not, they do not receive the credit or benefit of others practicing their ways. At this moment, I’d like to say thank you to all the people and ancestors whose knowledge and practices have become part of my life and worldview. Thank you! Asé.
Recently, I’ve been a little lost on how to take the next step with NEW’s fundraising. As a values-driven person, I have a hard time in this role in the sector. I’ve said it before, but I don’t like that so much traditional fundraising is about appeasing those with privilege and power. In 2023, we know that wealth in this era has come from the exploitation of people – many of whom look like me – and our planet. It doesn’t sit right with me that I should be working to convince people to help return some of what they’ve got to the communities who really earned it. So I’ve been trying different ways. I’ve been trying to move in ways that honor the community as much as, if not more than, the donor. I’ve been trying to move in ways that honor every dollar donated, spending less on performative acts of gratitude and expensive galas. I’ve been working to draw in more grassroots funding, so NEW is more accountable to the people we serve and less to those who aren’t impacted or even proximate to the issues. And yet, by the measure that matters most in this role – dollars in the door – I’m not getting the response I’d like. I don’t want to abandon my values, AND I also can’t afford to let the people and organizations we serve down because of my pride.
So, as I often do when I’m confused or don’t know how to move forward, I’m returning to the earth. What can permaculture, the cycles and seasons, the patterns of the ecosystems teach me about how to do this work? What does it take to cultivate NEW as a lush and verdant garden, one where grassroots gifts can thrive alongside an orchard of endowments? What do we need to do now to ensure that the garden requires less and less intervention over time – so we can put more of our resources towards the actual mission-related work? Looking back on my learnings and experiments from over the years, the answer is simple…
Start with the soil.
If you ask many practiced ecological gardeners, they’ll often tell you, “I’m not really a plant farmer, I’m a soil farmer.” To grow a vibrant garden, you don’t necessarily need to nurture the plants themselves, you have to create the conditions in which they can thrive. And in most ecosystems, the foundation is the soil. Regardless of where you are on the planet, the structure and contents of the soil determine what takes root and matures. The soil is where plants absorb water and nutrients. It’s where they interact with other plants and the microorganisms that support their root networks. The soil is everything. If your garden doesn’t support succulents or only produces veggies with weak flavors, it’s likely because the soil isn’t right for those plants.
Of course, there are other factors, too. The amount of sunlight, the amount of precipitation, the intensity of the winds, the general climate or microclimate of the area all play their part. But these things aren’t usually within your control. Unless you’re Ororo Munroe, you probably can’t slow down a storm or shift the direction of the winds. You can, though, with your own hands, nurture and change the soil.
You can add rocks to make it drain more quickly or sand to make it drain more slowly. You can add compost to bring in nutrients or mulch to protect the soil from the elements. You can let weeds and fungi grow, allowing them to pull heavy metals or toxins out of earth. You can help a seed grow, you just need to create the conditions it needs.
That’s where I’m at with our fundraising right now. I realize that for the past few years, I’ve worked on bringing in the seeds, but haven’t focused as I should on cultivating the conditions in which they can thrive. I haven’t spent nearly enough time ensuring that the culture here allows our supporters to take root in this community and grow. I haven’t been stewarding the soil.
That feels like the next step. Without abandoning my values or the manifesto, how can I make this an ecosystem where supporters are cared for? How can I create the conditions that allow us to support each other, this interconnected network of mission-driven people?
At first, these questions frightened me, because it felt a lot like some of the questions that donor-centric fundraising is based on. In recent years, many values-driven fundraisers – myself included – have moved towards a community-centric approach, seeking to correct the uneven power dynamics of traditional fundraising. But what about when the community are your donors? Is it ok to be a little donor-centric then? When I look at the list of our regular supporters, the majority of folks are alumni of our learning communities and staff of peer organizations. Our supporters are our community, the people NEW serves. In this instance, isn’t it my duty to help them thrive here?
I’m still not exactly sure what this means from a practical, tactical standpoint. As always, I’m open to the insight and perspectives of others who are holding similar values and trying similar approaches. Feel free to send me an email if you want to connect, share ideas, or talk through some of the challenges you’re facing in your work. And if I don’t respond right away, it’s probably because I’ve got my hands in the dirt, tending the garden.
If you’d like to join our garden of supporters, you can do so by pledging a grassroots gift today. Gifts of $10+ each month can truly make a difference in our work. Thanks for your support!