At the Project Grow annual meeting, held on Oct. 8 at the Leslie Science Center, the same contentious issue surfaced as at last year’s meeting: Should the organic gardening nonprofit add members to its board or not?
Last year the answer was yes: Kirk Jones and Royer Held were voted onto the board by the members present at the meeting. [Chronicle coverage: "Project Grow Board Expands"]
This year was no different. In addition to re-electing Damaris Suffalko as a continuing board member, members elected Andrew Comai, David Corsa and Alice Telesnitsky as additions.
The ease with which board members can be added by a member vote is a function of Project Grow’s incorporation as a 501(c)3 membership organization as contrasted with a 501(c)3 directorship organization.
And although the meeting’s written agenda indicated board president Devon Akmon as a candidate for re-election to the board, he withdrew his name in the course of the meeting, which an attendee aptly summarized at one point by saying, “It feels very tense in here.”
The departure of Akmon from the board prompted board member Catherine Riseng to caution the roughly 40 people in the room: “We’re going to miss his skills more than you can possibly realize.”
The tension at the Project Grow annual meeting was driven both by philosophical differences on the board about appropriate strategies for expanding that body and as well as the logistics of how some green half-sheets of paper were distributed during the meeting. The green sheets listed out a the slate of candidates – Suffalko, Comai, Corsa, and Telesnitsky – and were passed around before the executive director of Project Grow, Melissa Kesterson, had finished her presentation on the organization’s accomplishments over the last year.
The move was characterized later during the discussion by one attendee as “slightly rude.” For her part, when the slate was distributed, Kesterson remarked: “I’m feeling a little distracted. I was feeling good about what we’d done and I thought other people did, too.”
Annual Status Report
Among the achievements for the past year that Kesterson ticked through at the meeting were the establishment of three new gardening sites: Northside Park, Wines Elementary, and Hunt Park. [Chronicle coverage of a meeting to plan the Hunt Park garden: "Project Grow Gardens at Hunt Park?"]
And six existing gardens had been expanded to create 20 additional plots. A plot measures roughly 25 x 30 feet. Eeking out an extra plot here and there, plus the new gardening sites, meant that more than 300 plots were gardened by a total of over 1,300 people, Kesterson reported. She explained that there are groups who garden some of the plots, and some of the plots are gardened by multi-member households.
The demand for gardening space is high: There were 65 applicants for garden plots who could not be accommodated this year.
Kesterson also introduced a collaboration between Avalon Housing and Project Grow to bring gardening to Avalon residents in the form of raised bed gardens – built of over 24,000 pounds of stone block donated by Fendt Builder’s Supply. The venture is called Edible Avalon, and is funded by the Ann Arbor Area Community Foundation with a grant made jointly to Food Gatherers and other community-based organizations.
Kesterson also highlighted Go! Gardening, an experiential school gardening program that operates at area elementary schools. Project Grow staff help teachers coordinate activities, lessons and schedules so students get the most out of their time in the garden, with lessons drawing on Grade Level Content Expectations (GLCEs).
The 2008 financial picture showed $57,769 in income against $60,864 in revenue for a net loss for the year of $3,095. The financial statement offered increases in water costs at the gardening sites, as well as rain during a fundraiser as reasons for the shortfall. Cash reserves were used to cover the loss.
Division on the Board
As Kesterson’s presentation blended into the discussion of board elections when the half sheets of green paper were distributed, there was some confusion as to whether the “Back to our Roots!” slate was a ballot. It was not.
Early in the discussion, which Akmon led as board president, he indicated he was withdrawing his name from consideration for re-election. He would later during the meeting attribute that decision to the distribution of a slate of candidates – especially its premature distribution – characterizing it as indicative of an “activist board,” which he said he considered to be “toxic.”
Akmon described how the board had sought advice from three different consultants. Among them was Sabra Briere, who represents Ward 1 on city council, and who earlier this year argued the case unsuccessfully to her council colleagues that Project Grow should be allocated a $7,000 grant from the city in its FY 2010 budget.
The other two consultants, Akmon said, were Jim Frenza, who’s a past president of Ann Arbor’s Hands-On Museum, and Diana Kern, of the NEW Center (Nonprofit Enterprise at Work). What the board had heard from all three consultants, he said, was that Project Grow should be planful in expanding its board. The nonprofit should identify the skills of existing board members, and figure out what skills were missing, then recruit people with those skills – as opposed to allowing the board to grow by adding people who had a willingness to serve.
It was board members Devon Akmon, Joan Bulmer and Catherine Riseng who seemed to be more interested in a systematic and planned growth of the board, as contrasted with Held, Jones, and Suffalko, who wanted to open the board to those willing to serve.
In the end, it’s Project Grow members who must vote on the issue, and ultimately, the argument that seemed to carry the day was the fact that the Project Grow bylaws allow up to 15 board members. With the net increase of two members, they’d still have only eight board members – plenty of room to expand in whatever planful way the board might desire. The Chronicle recorded a show-of-hands tally of 33 yes, 1 no, and 6 abstentions to elect the green slate of candidates as a block.
How Does an Organization Organize Itself?
The discussion at the Project Grow annual meeting was couched in terms of whether the nonprofit should be member-driven or not – although Akmon sketched out the possibility of a member-driven organization that still grew its board systematically, facilitated through a nominating committee, for example.
In terms of nonprofit organizational structure, the power that the members of Project Grow have within the 501(c)3 classification derives from the way it was incorporated – as a membership organization. That contrasts with a younger gardening nonprofit, Ypsilanti-based Growing Hope, which was incorporated as a directorship. Growing Hope executive director Amanda Edmonds emailed The Chronicle with the clarification: “We’re directorship-incorporated. When we started we didn’t have anything that would really define a membership.”
Membership organizations, of course, need not be 501(c)3 nonprofits. Think cooperatives. At the last meeting of the Ann Arbor city council, a proclamation of October as “Co-op Month” was presented to Eric Lipson, who’s general manager of the Inter-Cooperative Council, based in Ann Arbor.
Between now and the next annual Project Grow meeting, one measure of how effective the organization has been will be how many of the 65 applicants who did not get gardening plots last year will be provided with a plot in the summer of 2010.
[Editor's note: The Chronicle gardens with Project Grow at the Greenview site. We specialize in potatoes. The potato harvest is donated to Food Gatherers, in part because the favorite vegetable of Food Gatherers executive director, Eileen Spring, is the potato.]