Growing the Board at Project Grow

Philosophical differences surface at nonprofit's annual meeting
garden tomato cages in foreground late season garden in background

Project Grow site at Greenview last Sunday. Near the end of the growing season, gardeners were starting to clear out cages and wire, preparing the plots for the fall tilling. (Photo by the writer.)

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.

half-sheet of green paper on which are printed a slate of candidates for the Project Grow Board

The "Back to our Roots!" slate of Project Grow board candidates.

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.]


  1. By Julie
    October 16, 2009 at 8:43 am | permalink

    New news regarding Project Grow…. I just received an email from Director Melissa Kesterson announcing her resignation as of the end of this month.

  2. October 16, 2009 at 9:01 am | permalink

    I’m still frustrated that City Council failed to renew Project Grow’s funding this year. Neither of my own council representatives voted for it. (Mike Anglin was out of town and Carsten Hohnke voted against it for reasons of his own.) I appreciate CM Briere’s valiant efforts.

    It was a very small amount of money ($7,000), especially when compared with many other city expenditures. As the story indicates, demand for these gardening plots is exceeding their supply and this is an important tool in community food security and even in community cohesion. I’m concerned that county support might be lost in future years too, given that government’s budget problems.

    Perhaps it is a small thing to many but it reveals something about the priorities held by the council members who voted against it. We seem to be operating the city government as a business now (with emphasis on revenue capability) rather than as a service provider.

  3. October 16, 2009 at 11:21 am | permalink

    Thanks, Dave, for this excellent summary of the night’s events. Sadly, I have learned that two additional board members have resigned, largely due to what is felt as mistreatment of staff and divisiveness amongst the board. This is sad, given that all individuals involved truly want the best for the organization. Further, Melissa’s leadership and presence as Executive Director will be missed.

    I trust the board will work to advance Project Grow in a positive direction. As a community-based organization, I hope they will provide a big tent for all to get involved (this includes partnerships with other area organizations; something Melissa did an excellent job of expanding). Right now organic gardening and local food issues are among the many popular civic topics working in favor of Project Grow. There are many wonderful people with past affiliations to Project Grow who are doing great things in the community (e.g. Jeff McCabe at FM@SELMA and Amanda Edmonds at Growing Hope). I hope an open hand will be extended to them as well. By working together the community will only become more connected and vibrant.

    Lastly, I hope the current board listens to the suggestions of the community leaders who provided advice to Project Grow. They have great experience and important recommendations that should be explored. For one, I truly hope the bylaws are reviewed and updated. Currently, any person can show up and simply pay $10 to have a say in how the organization operates. While I am a strong supporter of community-based organizations – I work for a very large and effective one in Dearborn – I am troubled by this flaw in the bylaws (and, I feel this is only one of many). At the annual meeting, there were two people who made donations that very day and had a voice in determining the night’s vote and future direction of the organization. These individuals were not gardeners and have little knowledge of the board’s recent activities. It’s sad to think that people with limited knowledge of Project Grow’s governance and day-to-day operations can have such a major impact on the organization. It would be very easy for a malicious group of outsiders to have a major impact on the future of the organization (yes, a worse case scenario, yet a possibility given the current structure of the bylaws).

    I have too many thoughts to discuss in this limited space, but I do wish the best for Project Grow, and I hope it will continue to have a positive impact on the community.

  4. By sean kesterson
    October 16, 2009 at 12:57 pm | permalink

    I have watched as my wife, Melissa Kesterson, has worked diligently to advance the important work of community organic gardening through Project Grow. She served as the executive director since 2003 in a ‘part time’ capacity. I know, more than probably anyone else, that it has been more than that to her. She has been passionate, devoted, determined, and thoughtful in her approach. When she has lacked expertise, she has engaged able consultants and listened to their counsel.

    On my behalf, as her husband of nearly twenty years, I am very upset that Melissa, so dedicated and professional to the core, could have been treated so poorly by some of the membership at the recent meeting. After all that she has done. I do understand that sometimes change can be difficult, but there are constructive and fruitful ways to debate and move forward with skill and tact. I would be very surprised if people who conduct themselves in such a way are capable for providing the type of leadership the organization needs. I highly recommend that the membership get more involved and aware of the present board composition and their actions, or suffer the peril of passivity.

    And to Melissa, I love you and I am am very proud.

  5. October 16, 2009 at 1:15 pm | permalink

    As a former board member of Project Grow, I’d also like to chime in with my sadness at the departure of Melissa (and Devon). They worked for very little compensation or no compensation (in the case of Board members) and worked their tails off. I find it very sad that it had to come to this and rather worried about what the future holds for such a fine organization.
    And, although obviously not in the same way as Sean :), I love you too, Melissa :)

  6. By melody 1964
    October 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm | permalink

    The important work of community organic gardening!!!, you have got to be kidding me. With everything that is going on in the economy, the job losses, and the budgets of local and state govt AND we are worried about money for gardening. Now I know why they refer to Ann Arbor as 14 square miles surrounded by reality.

  7. By Mike Scholl
    October 16, 2009 at 3:48 pm | permalink

    As another former Board Member and chair prior to Devon, I wanted to express my deep sadness and the turn of events.

    I have nothing but respect for both Melissa and Devon. I think that their talents and leadership will be sorely missed. I also think the manner in which they were treated is disrespectful and unfortunate.

    I am aware of some of the issues that were brought up and I believe that the organization has needed to update its bylaws for a long time. Unfortunately, there are a few on the board who are deeply resistant to any type of change, even sensible measures.

    I suspect for those who acted poorly, this will be a pyrrhic victory. They have argued for their own limitations and now they own them.

    It’s very shameful and I think Melissa and Devon should be lauded for their work and commitment. It is a sad day for Project Grow.

  8. By Julie
    October 16, 2009 at 3:54 pm | permalink

    Melody, good grief! The cost of this is miniscule compared to the benefit…. and the amount of money saved when one can grow, freeze, can and cook their own produce is not unsubstantial, if you want to look at this from a purely economic standpoint. Never mind access to food that is really food, and therefore good for you, and therefore contributing to health and ultimately decreasing medical costs associated with unhealthy diets and lifestyles. Seriously, think in the big picture here. Project Grow reaches out to all sorts of underserved communities, including Avalon housing, and donates a ton of food to Food Gatherers!

  9. October 16, 2009 at 9:07 pm | permalink

    Melissa please do not leave Project Grow. You have done a wonderful job. BTW our plot did great this year in a new Project Grow Garden.

    City council must be looking back on the vote, not to help fund Project Grow, as a major failure. Maybe on their way out of city hall they may reflect on it. We are giving away, to one of the most profitable companies in the world, millions in tax payer dollars for parking and can’t help Project Grow? Very telling of our current government.

  10. By Bob
    October 16, 2009 at 9:36 pm | permalink

    Is is true the several of the people that quit
    Do garden a plot?

  11. By yet another
    October 18, 2009 at 9:29 pm | permalink

    “…although Akmon sketched out the possibility of a member-driven organization that still grew its board systematically, facilitated through a nominating committee, for example.”

    While not involved in Project Grow, I’ll hazard a guess that seven specific syllables in the line above — nominating committee — hold a key to understanding PG’s grassroots bureaucratic row. As an outsider reading this article, it’s the only context I can think of so far in which to explain the apparent intensity of emotion and breakdown in trust.

    Such a committee can be organized as an informal gathering, open to all, seeking other members and community residents as potential board members. The group might create a short laundry list of needed skills that they keep in mind, but these are never intended as necessary requirements. The process creates no litmus test, only mild preferences.

    Or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, it can operate as a formal, autocratic gate-keeper that, with the board’s rubber-stamp, unilaterally determines which names appear on election ballots. This process seeks to perpetuate the present direction of a board while marginalizing dissent. Any other aspiring board member must run only as a write-in candidate with limited access, at best, to the organization’s internal communication.

    In both corporate and nonprofit environments, an initially informal nominating committee may evolve over time into the latter style of management. Might there have been an unallayed fear of something like this happening within Project Grow, that its member-oriented process would transition to de facto full control by board and staff? Portions of text in the green sheet above indicate a sense of distrust. Though I do agree with Devon in regard to someone (like me, let’s say) spending $10 to get an instant vote on PG affairs — how about having no voting rights for new members during their first 90 days?

    Lastly, speculating on points brought up by Vin and Vivienne, I wonder if City Council’s defunding of its modest support for PG represents a political payback. Somehow it wouldn’t surprise me if among Project Grow-ers there’s a fair concentration of folks, including some election activists, who regularly vote for opponents of Council’s political majority.

  12. By continue this discussion....
    October 21, 2009 at 12:46 pm | permalink

    Please visit the Offical Project Grow Page on Facebook. Continue this discussion…..


  13. By Katie
    October 21, 2009 at 2:43 pm | permalink

    I was at last year’s meeting and this one. Last year I just went out of curiosity, since I was gardening a plot and wanted to learn more. At that meeting Royer Held was nominated for the board. I thought it seemed like an excellent idea, since I’d been to several of his workshops and they were great. I was touched by his obvious care in volunteering his time to help people learn more about gardening. Though I had no idea he’d be nominated, I was enthusiastic in my support of him when I found he was being proposed to sit on the board. I was quite surprised, then, to see what appeared to be an effort by the existing board to keep him from sitting on the board.

    At this second meeting, I again saw one person who has been one of the most helpful people in my local garden. She is upbeat, very hardworking as a volunteer, and will stop what she is doing in her own garden to share her knowledge of gardening. She was one of the members running for the board on the green paper. Again, I was happy to vote for her.

    I was quite surprised, at both meetings, to see a fairly sour attitude by the existing board toward people that I knew and respected as great gardeners and selfless volunteers.

    I cannot guess at the motivations of the then-existing board who seemed to want to exclude people that I knew, from experience, to be selfless volunteers with a lot of expertise in gardening. I’m glad the new board got voted in.

    Most of the membership seemed to think it was a good idea, too, since the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of the new folks serving on the board. Most of the people attending the meeting who voted were people I’d seen at previous meetings or during gardening. I didn’t see evidence of people who just paid $10 and attended in order to vote. Quite the reverse. Not that it is not a danger for the future. This should be changed.

    While some may see community gardening as a frill, I beg to differ. Many of the gardeners garden for food for their families. I know some of them and think they would have trouble affording healthy food otherwise. Not all of Ann Arbor can afford to shop at the organic food stores.

  14. October 21, 2009 at 3:49 pm | permalink

    Speaking very generally, I think that Katie’s comment might have pointed to a factor in the thinking of the existing board members, which is that active volunteers and knowledgeable, experienced gardeners don’t necessarily make effective directors. The skill sets are valuable and they’re quite different. It might even be the case that an active volunteer who becomes a board member no longer has the time to provide to the membership what they have in the past simply because they have new responsibilities and concerns as a director. This somewhat subtle recognition might not be obvious to voting members, and the directors might not have successfully communicated it to them for consideration.

    Secondarily, “the more the merrier” doesn’t necessarily apply to boards, depending on numerous factors, including the maturity of the organization and its mission.

  15. By David Rosenberg
    October 22, 2009 at 11:14 pm | permalink

    Wow I am ever more confused than before. I read the article and all the comments as well. I don’t understand why anyone has decided to resign because there will be three extra board members ? None of this makes any sense to me. I think Royer Held has led some great workshops and it seems to me he would be an excellent board member. I wasn’t at the meeting to vote for board members but I don’t perceive any problem with him being a board member. I don’t understand some of the comments like, “active volunteers and knowledgeable, experienced gardeners don’t necessarily make effective directors.” That really seems odd, the active volunteers, might be the most in tune with what is going on in certain aspects of the organization. I think Melissa brings very valuable leadership skills to the table, and I really appreciated getting to know her and I am sorry she is leaving. I still don’t fully understand why she is leaving. Much of this conversation seems cryptic and oblique.

    Also, I am shocked to read that 65 gardeners were turned away from being able to get plots to garden. There is potentially a whole bunch more space at the Ann Arbor Airport Garden, and it is quite a great place to garden. It is secluded and I haven’t encountered much trouble with animals eating up the gardens there. There are predator birds (owls and hawks) that keep the rodent population in check.

    Couldn’t we just have some kind of meeting where we talked about all the differences and concerns, and just come to some kind of common sense agreement ?