WNC Businesses and Nonprofits: Collaborating for the Community

Nonprofit organizations are, so to speak, big business in Western North Carolina. Nearly 14% of the region's workers are employed in the nonprofit sector, which (according to the North Carolina Center for Nonprofits) represents at least $15 billion in annual wages. Nonprofits represent a larger share of the economy in WNC than they do nationally.

There are more than 4,500 nonprofit organizations in Western North Carolina. Even when churches are sorted out of that calculation, there are still more than 3900 initiatives with the federal 501(c)3 designation. More than a third of these are in Buncombe County, with the rest centered primarily around Hendersonville, Rutherfordton, Boone, Canton and Franklin.

In an era when the federal government seems less inclined toward providing services for those in need, nonprofits are increasingly called upon to take up the slack. And while many nonprofits rely upon individual giving and volunteerism, a significant portion of civic-minded involvement is channeled through the region's businesses. A number of leading companies are making and honoring commitments to be responsible corporate citizens by putting their resources toward good causes. This feature spotlights some -- but by no means all -- of the most notable ways in which Western North Carolina businesses and nonprofits are working together for a better world.

TSAChoice: Bringing technology to LEAF's new downtown Asheville venue
With five divisions -- information technology, voice, audio/video, security and cabling -- TSAChoice, Inc. helps clients integrate technology into their businesses. Founded in 1982 as Telephone Systems of Asheville, the company also maintains a sales office in Greenville, S.C.; TSAChoice employs about 60 people in total. As communication technology has evolved, the company has helped its clients keep pace to make the most of those resources.

Decisions regarding levels of corporate giving are made according to a set formula, explains Lynn Lowdermilk, the company's marketing coordinator. "We allocate an amount for direct financial contributions based on our previous year's success. And when we know we will be present at an event, we may dip into our marketing funds [instead of] using the nonprofit allocation," she says.

As a company, the decisions TSAChoice makes with regard to its support of nonprofits are also driven in part by the passions of its employees. If one is "involved with a nonprofit they feel passionate about and make the request, we will find a way to help," says Lowdermilk. Sometimes that help takes the form of financial assistance; other times TSAChoice signs on as sponsor for fundraising events. Other ways of giving back to the community include providing discounts, organizing in-house collections and making training rooms available for organizations to meet.

More specifically, in October, the Asheville TSAChoice team worked a volunteer shift at Manna Food Bank; they brought along the company's annual donation to the nonprofit as well. Other initiatives supported by TSAChoice include Enka Middle School District's annual Christmas drive and Disability Partners' CyberPals program; the latter puts refurbished computers in the homes of persons with disabilities.

The company also supports nonprofits by "explor(ing) various options to reduce costs" for its not-for-profit clients, reports Kate Justus, project manager at Elly Wells Marketing (EWM is profiled below). She also notes that often when a TSAChoice nonprofit client outgrows its current technology and upgrades, "TSAChoice will organize a donation of the outgoing technology, if it is still current, to [another] nonprofit."

"We want our nonprofit clients to know that we appreciate their trust in our company and appreciate the value they bring to our community," says Lowdermilk.

But the highest-profile cause to benefit from TSAChoice's giving is the LEAF Global Arts Center -- what LEAF executive director Jennifer Pickering calls "a brick and mortar experience" -- newly opened in downtown Asheville. A centerpiece of the new venue is the set of interactive Go Global World Maps. As Lowdermilk explains, Pickering was committed to sourcing those and related components locally.

TSAChoice installed five 55" touch display monitors along with state-of-the-art directional speakers that allow each individual to "access their preferred area of the world -- even though these displays are side-by-side -- and hear only the information that pertains to what they have chosen," Lowdermilk explains. Also, the venue's Cultural Dive-Ins Wall features three more TSAChoice-installed interactive displays with audio soundbars.

The company's partnership with LEAF included a discount on TSAChoice's standard margins, and creation of a video clip that can serve as a public relations tool. The Covid-19 pandemic forced the temporary closure of LEAF's new brick-and-mortar facility shortly after its opening, and TSAChoice is working toward the future. "We're working on a plan using our digital resources to get the word out to our client base and followers outlining the project and announcing their re-opening," Lowdermilk says.

Lynn Lowdermilk believes that the beauty of Western North Carolina brings with it a certain spirit. "The people in our WNC counties strive to preserve that Southern spirit and hospitality," she says. "They're genuine in their efforts to support nonprofits and realize the importance of supporting our local businesses." For her part, she emphasizes that as a business and a team of community members, TSAChoice "give[s] back to help people, to make our community stronger, and to solidify our standing in our community."

AVL Ride and Food Connection: The drive to make a difference
Highly customer-rated AVL Ride (originally known as AVL Taxi) started business about six years ago. The Asheville-based taxi company positions itself as a locally-owned and -operated business that is "focused on a living wage for our drivers and dispatchers," says Woodward McKee, the company's owner.

Sensing customer demand, in recent years the major ride service companies got into the food delivery business. Uber Eats launched in 2014, and Lyft instituted its "Essential Deliveries" program earlier in 2020. And AVL Ride has been offering a similar service.

But it has been going farther. Even though it's not a large company, AVL Ride leverages its infrastructure to support a cause in which McKee believes passionately. "We provide free transportation to Food Connection," he says, noting that AVL Ride drivers have delivered "untold tens of thousands of meals over the past five years."

Food Connection seeks to feed those in need in and around Asheville by rescuing unused food from local restaurants and catered events. The nonprofit organization's website claims that more than 200,000 fresh meals have been delivered since it began. Food Connection was founded in late 2014 by a team of local entrepreneurs led by Flori Pate, co-founder of the Dig Local app. McKee has been part of that team from the start, and Pate credits AVL Ride as a key component in getting Food Connection off to a strong beginning. McKee notes that AVL Ride is ideally poised to help the effort.

"We're in a particularly key position to move people and food around town quickly and inexpensively," explains McKee. "Because we operate 24/7/365, we nearly always can get a person or delivery accomplished quickly." He notes that mounting a similar effort with volunteers would pose a serious challenge, "because there's no way to know exactly when, where or how much is going to be required. It would be difficult to have a volunteer on standby at midnight on a weekend, or to be at a wedding venue within 15 minutes before the staff has to shut down and go home for the night." In such cases, AVL Ride's quick response can make all the difference. Lacking that rapid-response component, a volunteer-based program might mean that the food donation would be lost.

McKee says that AVL Ride doesn't have a set budget for its service work. "I make choices intuitively," he says. "Our projects aren't very expensive. It's more a matter of making [the company's work with Food Connection] a priority and making sure we are available to help."

McKee understand the tough situations faced by persons and families in need. "I lost everything in the last recession," he admits. "I didn't have a car for years, or even a place to stay for a couple months. It was a difficult time." Once he got back on his feet, he decided that he wanted to "help other people make it through similar difficult chapters. And it makes me feel good, basically."

AVL Ride actively supports other local nonprofits, too. The local chapter of crisis intervention organization Our VOICE serves victims of sexual violence in Buncombe County. The organization has been at work for 40 years, and gained 501(c)3 status in 1983. "I approached Our VOICE myself," explains McKee, "after personally picking up a person in a particularly distressing situation."

McKee explains the motivation for AVL Ride's civic-minded approach. "I like to use the mountains as a metaphor," he says. "We live in different places on the hill, and the higher up you go the more you can see. As a smaller community -- but one with both incredible wealth and desperate need -- we can be more responsive and efficient with resources." And he says that the connectedness that is a character of a small city like Asheville lends itself to support of worthy causes. Growing up in Cashiers in the '70s, he learned life lessons about dealing with challenges. "You either figured it out yourself, or someone came and helped you because they wanted to, not for money.

"That's how a real community is built," McKee emphasizes. "Not by writing a check."

PubCorps: changing the way people volunteer
Food Connection isn't the only local organization committed to addressing food insecurity. The challenge is so great that there's room for multiple approaches to fighting hunger. Building on the thriving beer scene in Asheville (named "Beer City USA" four times in a national poll) PubCorps launched in 2019. The organization's foundational goal, says managing director John Richardson, is "to fundamentally change the way people volunteer." Richardson is also the founder of Black Mountain Ale House and Black Mountain Brewing.

Richardson explains how the idea for PubCorps came about. "Every year, my staff from Black Mountain Ale House would volunteer at Haywood Street Community serving lunch," he recalls. "We would often find ourselves sharing a beer afterwards." Participants dubbed that informal gathering PubCorps.

After witnessing up-close the devastating effects of depression -- he's lost a dozen friends to suicide or overdose -- Richardson was moved to do something. "One the best things to do if a person is feeling depressed is to find a way to give back," he says. "But as a country, we have not made volunteering easy. In March of 2019 I quit my corporate job to launch PubCorps, because I knew we could do better."

PubCorps seeks to make volunteering simple, accessible, and fun. "We create volunteer opportunities that aim to introduce communities -- restaurants, breweries, and pubs -- to high-energy meal packing events," Richardson explains. Those events provide bagged, shelf-stable meals for distribution throughout the community by local food banks. "Then we celebrate by sharing a beer, coffee, or other beverage of your choice."

PubCorps began during the annual ChowChow culinary festival in Asheville. Two local breweries -- Richardson's Black Mountain Brewing and Pisgah Brewing -- collaborated in the making of PubCorps Blonde Ale. At the launch of that brew, PubCorps unveiled its plans. "We wanted to highlight that one out of five kids in Buncombe County doesn't know where their next meal is coming from," Richardson says. "On the Sunday of Chow Chow, PubCorps was able to say that statistically, everyone in Buncombe County had a seat at the table."

Organizers had hoped that at least 200 volunteers would show up for the nonprofit's inaugural packing party, putting together about 80,000 meals in eight hours. But their estimates were significantly wide of the mark. "We had over 530 volunteers show up." Richardson says with pride. "And we packed 108,000 meals in just over three hours!" Then volunteers headed to an after party at Wicked Weed's taproom in downtown Asheville; Wicked Weed bought the first round.

Since that launch, PubCorps has expanded its reach to other breweries and restaurants. "Almost everyone we have spoken with has wanted to be involved and provide support," Richardson says. "Restaurants, breweries, and pubs are about building communities: At our core, the owners of these ventures are social entrepreneurs, and the Asheville community understands this. Strong restaurants and breweries make strong communities."

Richardson gives credit to the Asheville Investment Club and Symmetry Financial in Swannanoa for their founding sponsorship; along with the enthusiastic volunteers, their help was key in getting PubCorps started. The PubCorps platform "makes it easy for breweries, restaurants and pubs to host volunteer events." The organization created a webinar that introduces its concept so that other nonprofits or programs can get involved as well.

And as 2020 began, PubCorps was gearing up for its biggest year yet. "We had four events planned in March and April, including a 150,000 meal pack aboard a cruise ship out of Miami," Richardson says. A representative from the Guinness Book of World Records was scheduled to be in attendance. "We were going to establish the world record for the largest floating meal pack," he says, with a mild hint of disappointment in his voice. "The next morning we were planning on delivering the meals to a hunger relief nonprofit in Haiti." The Covid-19 pandemic put a stop to that event, but not to Richardson's enthusiasm. "2021 is going to be a great year," he enthuses.

We Give A Share: creating a nonprofit model that can be expanded and replicated
A new initiative, We Give A Share is focused on the food and nourishment needs of those living in Western North Carolina, too. Based on the CSA (community supported agriculture) model, We Give A Share works in a manner similar -- but substantially different -- from Food Connection. According to WGAS co-founder Elizabeth Sims, the nonprofit organization's mission is to "nourish the health and well-being of our community by championing food equity for all, financially sustaining local farms and producers, and incubating economically successful individuals through culinary and entrepreneurial training."

In practice, We Give A Share "completes the circle" between farmers, culinary professionals, on-the-job training recruitment and the under-served, all through the generosity of the local community. Sims explains that the organization was launched in direct response to "the sudden disruption of food security and local agricultural food systems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic."

We Give A Share operates on three levels. First, it gets food to those who need it most. Second, with its Beyond CSA program, it focuses on keeping businesses in business. "We provide a platform for local farms to grow and produce food to be used to feed the under-served," Sims explains. "Funders purchase 'shares' of the farm which are then dedicated to growing specifically for that purpose." Gaining Ground Farm in Leicester is one of many locally owned agricultural enterprises that is participating in the Beyond CSA program. Shareholders receive weekly updates.

Through its work, WGAS also supports the efforts of other nonprofit organizations. Working with Asheville Housing Authority's Southside Kitchen in the Eddington Center, it created a destination for a sizable portion of the food grown. Sims says that its success with Southside Kitchen is leading WGAS to a new goal of "expanding into other kitchens and neighborhoods." Those locations would follow Southside Kitchen's lead as both "a training facility and a nexus for community connection and support," she says.

The nonprofit's early success has created a wellspring of optimism that Sims hopes will push We Give A Share to new heights. She says that the generosity of the local community is allowing the WGAS team to "think bigger than its original goal of providing the freshest, most nutritious food available to those who need it most." And job training is a central part of that initiative. "We also want the projected outcome to provide interested residents with a foundation for work in the food and beverage industry," she says, "as well as the networking and knowledge base that can translate into new business development."

Still, Sims believes that the post-Covid-19 world will present ongoing obstacles. "It will be challenging for the foundation of our economy -- our independently owned small businesses, including restaurants and farms -- to rebound and maintain the same level of philanthropic and charitable giving," she predicts. "Nonprofits will need to build strong reciprocal relationships with our small businesses so we can work together to help one another." And that's a fundamental goal of the We Give A Share model.

The We Give A Share team is already at work building a "sustainable framework" for its efforts so that the nonprofit's model will continue long-term. They're also laying the groundwork for the WGAS concept to be scaled and replicated in other communities around the country.

"There are many initiatives -- nonprofit as well as private and corporately funded efforts -- working diligently to address issues of economic distress, community well-being, independent enterprise survival, social inequities and other fallout from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic," Sims says. But even in the face of unprecedented challenges, she looks toward the future with enthusiasm and determination. "Our country is at a turning point on so many levels," she says. "And it is the sheer goodness of people that will show us the way."

White Oak Financial Management: nonprofit activism on several fronts
Some business' approach to contributing to the goals of nonprofits are more conventional. But in the big picture, they're no less significant.

Launched in 2003 by sisters (and Asheville natives) Laura Cummings McCue and Priestly Cummings Ford, White Oak Financial Management is a fee-based, discretionary investment management firm for individuals and small businesses. White Oak supports its chosen nonprofits "in just about every way possible," says Ford, the company's chief financial officer. "Board service and leadership, donations, volunteerism, sponsorships, and advertising."

Like most businesses that provide support to nonprofits, White Oak's choices reflect their perspectives. "The employees of White Oak Financial choose to support those organizations whose people and work are of special importance to us personally," Ford says. That means that the company supports nonprofits like the WNC Nature Center; White Oak was one of ten sponsors of the center's (virtual) Brews and Bears event in September.

Ford served two terms on the Asheville Humane Society's board and continues to volunteer there, and White Oak has sponsored several Asheville Humane Society events. Ford points out that in addition to raising needed funds, those events serve to "lift up and support the employees there who do difficult work."

To a large extent, White Oak Financial Marketing's high-profile support of its chosen nonprofits takes the place of other marketing/PR efforts. "White Oak receives requests and opportunities from our favorite nonprofits," Ford says. "We feel that our marketing budget is mostly reserved for those opportunities as opposed to traditional forms of marketing."

Other causes that benefit from White Oak Financial's help include the Southern Appalachian Highlands Conservancy and the Boy Scouts of America; CEO McCue also holds a leadership position with the Daniel Boone Council Boy Scouts and serves as a Council Representative on Eagle Scout Boards of Review.

In the end, helping nonprofits is about the good feeling that comes from supporting a worthy cause. "We give back because it feels good, and [because] the results of our efforts are visible for the nonprofit," Ford says. "We can see that our giving is worthwhile to their missions."

Edward Jones: doing their part to help eradicate polio worldwide
Headquartered in St. Louis, Missouri, Edward D. Jones & Co., L.P. is a privately held financial services firm that works with serious long-term investors. The firm has more than 14,000 offices across the United States and Canada, including more than a dozen in and around Asheville. According to financial advisor Katherine Morosani, Edward Jones is a national sponsor of Alzheimer's Association. According to the company's policy, each Edward Jones financial advisor can support the nonprofits he or she chooses.

When making that decision for herself, Morosani says she asks three questions: "Is this nonprofit supporting a cause I am passionate to support? Does this nonprofit have opportunities to be involved besides just writing checks? Can I make a difference by supporting this cause?" Morosani found that with respect to her choice -- the Rotary Club of Asheville -- the answer to all three questions is a resounding "yes."

"I am fortunate to be able to give through my time, talent, and resources," Morosani says. She volunteers her time, participates on the club's Board of Directors, and contributes financially. Morosani joined the organization in 2011, with Highland Brewing Company founder and vice president Oscar Wong acting as her sponsor.

Morosani is passionate about Rotary Club's international focus. The club is committed to helping eradicate polio, a disease that's largely eradicated in the United States but still strikes children around the globe. Rotary is a founding partner of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative; that program claims to have reduced polio cases 99.9% since 1979, when it launched a project vaccinating children in the Phillipines.

Morosani has participated in two Rotary friendship exchange programs. She says that her 2019 trip to Lagos, Nigeria was of particular interest. "I was able to see the Polio Eradication Command Center and hear about their efforts to eradicate polio," she says. "This August, the World Health Organization designated Nigeria -- and therefore Africa -- as polio-free." Ridding the world of the debilitating disease is a huge task, but it's one that resonates with Morosani. "I can be a part of [protecting] kids from paralysis and create a healthier world," she says.

Elly Wells Marketing and Project Management: leveraging expertise to help local nonprofits
Some local businesses take the approach of applying their specific and unique skills in a way that provides important resources for the nonprofit sector. Elly Wells' firm is just such a company.

A four-person business started in 1998 and located in Asheville, Elly Wells Marketing and Project Management plans and executes communications strategies for businesses and nonprofit organizations. Wells says that her company has "niche expertise in family-owned and locally held businesses as well as in the nonprofit sector."

Wells' work with nonprofit clients has been a cornerstone of her business since its inception. "It's important to point out that the nonprofits first supported me," she says. "And perhaps more importantly, those in leadership positions -- staff and board members of several organizations -- were generous in sharing their wisdom and experience with me."

Wells has sought to reciprocate as her business has grown. As part of its business plan, Elly Wells Marketing and Project Management provides services to its nonprofit clients at reduced rates, and Wells and other members of her team have donated time via project hours.

The relationships that Wells has forged with nonprofits sometimes go back decades. "Our firm has been the longtime marketing arm of the Diana Wortham Theatre, now the expanded Wortham Center for the Performing Arts," she says. Her company worked with the venue as it expanded to three venues under one roof.

Elly Wells's firm has also provided marketing experience to another growing client: Mercy Urgent Care. "Being part of its growth -- now an eight-center network in Western North Carolina -- has been incredibly rewarding," she says. With branding partner Mark Wilson, Wells and her team have worked on other expansion and rebranding projects for local nonprofits including cultural heavyweight LEAF Global Arts and Rainbow Community School in West Asheville.

Wells' interest in -- and passion for -- working with nonprofits is something that she developed and cultivated early. She received a Frank Fellows Program entrepreneur scholarship for her undergraduate degree at Guilford College in Greensboro. That program paired scholarship recipients with CEOs and executive leaders. In her senior year, Wells worked with the marketing head of the British Red Cross in London; that experience gave her firsthand insight into the workings of a successful nonprofit. "From then on," she says, "I was hooked on pairing my business acumen with nonprofit work."

A number of local nonprofits benefit from Wells' expertise. She was a board member at the YWCA of Asheville, and after a several years as a marketing committee member for the Asheville Humane Society, this fall she joined that organization's board. But she's careful not to get overextended. "The trick is not spreading too thin what you have available to contribute, whether that's time or money," she says. Wells sticks to working on a few key causes that line up with her wider concerns, "rather than trying to give to every deserving organization that asks ... and in Asheville, there are many."

Wells is quick to point out that she's merely one of many business leaders offering support -- in dollars, time and effort -- to the region's nonprofits. "Western North Carolina is still a fairly small pool, so [I haven't met a business leader yet who doesn't also have some involvement in an area nonprofit,"she says. "And that's the way it should be." She believes that WNC is uniquely blessed with leaders who are radical thinkers. "I believe that only through out-of-the-box changemaking will we make significant progress on the issues our nonprofit organizations are working to address," she says.

Like the other business professionals profiled in this story, Wells says that the rewards for working with nonprofits are significant but intangible. "Unfortunately for nonprofits, the 2017 tax law got rid of the tax benefit incentive for all but the wealthiest of donors," she says. "Luckily, that has not dissuaded the vast majority of people -- myself included -- who give in order to actively invest in their communities and will continue to do so."

A global crisis like the current pandemic has the potential to bring out the worst in people. For understandable reasons -- health and safety foremost among them -- many people turn inward during times of severe crisis. But as these brief profiles illustrate, a great many people -- on their own and with/through the businesses they own -- are applying their resources to the community and beyond. These and many other businesses in the Western Carolina region are going above and beyond to make their community a better one. And that's a hopeful sign as we enter an uncertain future.

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