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Build a non-profit

Got an issue that somebody really needs to look at? Here’s how two farm entrepreneurs created Do More Ag, and learned important lessons along the way

"If you don’t run your non-profit like a business,” Kim Keller says, “the chances are it’s not going to be around very long.”

Charities and other non-profits are such an everyday part of Canadian life, they can seem as imperceptible as water to a fish. Everything from local library boards to hospital foundations are run largely on non-profits, together with an increasing number of organizations that advance the cause of agriculture in every conceivable way.

Establishing and running a successful non-profit takes effort and thoughtfulness, however, so Kim Keller and Himanshu Singh, two of the founders of the Do More Ag foundation, popped open the hood of their new non-profit to let Country Guide readers could see how the engine runs.

The early days

Do More Ag is a not-for-profit focused on mental health within Canada’s agriculture industry, with two major objectives:

  1. Driving awareness and education, and breaking the stigma around mental health in the agriculture community.
  2. Building a community where people can connect and find resources related to mental health.

Founders Kim Keller, Himanshu Singh, Kirk Muyres and Lesley Kelly registered the non-profit and in January 2018, they launched their brand-new foundation at FarmTech in Edmonton.

The launch coincided with the #BellLetsTalk social media campaign to raise awareness around mental health challenges. Using the #DoMoreAg hashtag, they published videos of ag people talking about mental health. The founders also spoke at farm shows and talked to media.

They had expected the Do More Ag launch to be successful, Keller says. But it was much more successful than anticipated. They’ve received plenty of support, and although Do More Ag’s focus has been on Canada, Keller says they’ve already had requests from other countries wanting to start a similar organization or bring the foundation to them.

In many ways, though, Do More Ag started well before 2017. In 2015, Keller and Singh were running Farm At Hand, a tech startup they founded to help farmers manage everything from bin storage to field activities.

They also launched the #HereforFarmers T-shirt campaign to raise awareness around mental health, donating money raised to the farm stress line. Since then, Keller and Singh have sold the company, and the T-shirt campaign has stayed with Farm At Hand.

After selling Farm At Hand, Singh and Keller left the company’s Vancouver headquarters and moved on to other things. Keller is now farming with her family in northeastern Saskatchewan, and is very happy to be back, she says. Singh moved to Saskatoon and took some time off before working for a software company, followed early in the winter of 2018 by moving into consulting full time.

But, as it turned out, fate would bring them back to advocating for mental health. Last summer, Keller received a private message through Twitter from someone in the ag industry she didn’t know. He had lost a farmer client to suicide. He had seen what she and Singh had tried to do with the T-shirt campaign, and was looking for help for the farmer’s family and his other clients.

Keller was moved. She drafted a series of tweets about farm stress, suicide, and the need for the ag sector to do more. Before tweeting them, she deliberated with Singh. He encouraged her to post the tweets, which she did, and the tweets sparked a conversation about mental health in agriculture.

A couple of weeks after Keller’s tweets, Lesley and Matt Kelly sat down at their kitchen table on their Sask­atchewan farm and did something that would have been almost unthinkable a few years before. They shared their own experiences with mental health through an internet livestream.

Since then, they’ve talked to media about their experiences as well. Lesley has discussed feeling overwhelmed after the birth of their second child. Matt has spoken about his experience with anxiety. The couple also talked about how they got through those challenges.

That type of openness marks a landmark change in the agricultural community. It’s a culture that has equated toughness with stoicism. “Cowboy up” has been a common catchphrase that encompassed farming and ranching folks’ approach to adversity. They’d always push through hard times, usually with few complaints.

This commitment to silence has come at a high cost for people struggling with mental health issues. Do More Ag’s website cites stats from a national survey on farmers’ mental health. The survey found that 35 per cent of producers met the criteria for depression, 58 per cent for anxiety, and 45 per cent had high stress.

But talk to those of us living in rural communities about the price we all pay for not addressing mental health, and many of us will have a much starker response. We’re starting to say that we do not want to bury any more people who have died by suicide. We have been to too many of these funerals.

“Maybe we’re realizing as an industry that we can’t keep going down this road. And that, as an industry, we have to step up and we have to do something,” says Keller.

Even if we don’t know what we should be doing, it’s better to try something than to do “a whole lot of nothing.”

Keller thinks society at large has started to change. In the last few years, there have been more conversations about, and more understanding of, mental health. It’s also become a focus at the corporate level, both within agriculture and in other industries, she says.

Singh says that after Keller sent out the tweets and started speaking on panels, more and more people reached out. They soon realized that the scale of the challenges around mental health in agriculture was huge. They also saw that those challenges were widespread.

“And we realized that if we were going to have any meaningful impact or change, this was going to require the entire industry to come together,” says Singh.

A little help from their friends

Putting together a great team that works together collaboratively is part of a non-profit’s success, says Singh. In many ways, that’s how Do More Ag came about, he adds. He and Keller simply started talking to other people.

Shortly after Matt and Lesley Kelly opened up, Keller received a message from Saskatchewan curler Kirk Muyres. Muyres wanted to give back by donating to a charity that focused on mental health in agriculture, and he was looking for ideas from Keller. Meanwhile, Keller had already been talking to Singh and Lesley Kelly about starting something. Muyres threw his hat into the ring.

The four of them kept talking. Singh says they also spoke to other people to find out what resources were already out there. At first, they just had a vague idea of what they wanted to do. So they got together in Saskatoon one day to hammer out the foundation’s structure, vision and values. Singh adds they also decided what they would focus on, and what they wouldn’t be doing.

“We knew what success looked like coming out of that meeting — a name, vision, mission, values, goals and a light strategy framework,” Keller says.

Keller says they had an action plan going into that first meeting. If you go into a meeting like that without a plan or common goals, other than to throw spaghetti at the wall, “you’ll just end up with a lot of spaghetti on the floor,” says Keller.

They appointed an executive director to keep everyone on track, and assigned different tasks to different people. While everyone had the same goals in mind, they were flexible about how they would reach those goals. This, Keller says, allowed everyone’s creativity to shine through.

By the end of the day, says Singh, they had a good initial idea of what the non-profit would look like. “And then we kept moving forward along that path.”

The four founders brought different ideas and perspectives to the table, says Singh. For example, Singh and Keller had started and built a tech company. Keller also had experience with non-profits. Kelly had worked for various ag companies, including Farm Credit Canada. She also runs a blog (High Heels and Canola Fields), and is now the brand manager at WorkHorse Hub, a job site for the ag sector. Muyres is a mortgage broker and runs his own business.

“We all have a unique skill set. And each of those skill sets is incredibly necessary,” says Keller.

Singh says they all naturally took on certain responsibilities to start Do More Ag, such as completing paper work, and articulating and communicating ideas. They also decided to find people who have skills and background they don’t have to fill a board of directors. That board will also provide long-term guidance to the foundation.

It’s also important to set up bylaws and governance structures right off the bat, Singh says. The founders have been in touch with people who have plenty of experience with non-profits. That includes people who have founded non-profits or who are currently directors. Those people urged the founders to be specific when thinking about what they wanted to do with the Do More Ag foundation. They outlined the governance issues the Do More Ag crew should think about. Keller says these people also introduced the founders to the law firms they worked with.

Approaching a law firm can be intimidating, and that introduction removed some of that intimidation, she says. They also knew that they were working with a professional while they developed Do More Ag’s governance and then applied for charity status. This was important, since that governance structure would be a large part of Do More Ag’s foundation, says Keller.

Staying focused

“Starting something like this, a lot of people reach out, and everyone has really, really great ideas on what we can do,” says Singh. But taking on a bunch of projects in the first year would be a big risk to the non-profit’s long-term survival.

“Because if we start to create all kinds of campaigns and take on a whole lot of different projects, the execution kind of falls apart, and we won’t have the impact that we want to have,” he explains.

There’s a lot that needs to be done, he adds, “but it’s important to stay focused and get things off the ground.”

Singh says the founders are keeping their eyes on what they can do right now. “There’s so much that needs to be done, but it’s important to stay focused and get things off the ground.”

Having a clear vision, mission and values helps the founders stay focused when they’re making decisions, says Singh. “It almost serves as a guiding star.”

Right now the priority is breaking down the stigma around mental health in the ag community, he adds. Until they can break that stigma, they can’t do the other things they want to do. They will also be developing partnerships within the industry, to help meet their goals.

Keller says that this year they’ll be creating one or two more campaigns designed to shatter that stigma and promote education. They’re working on a hub of resources, so people can easily access help when they need it. They’re creating a resource package for companies who want to bring in speakers, for example. And Do More Ag is also partnering with care providers to bring mental health programming to rural areas.

This winter Do More Ag partnered with Bridges Health in Saskatoon to facilitate mental health first aid sessions. Keller says mental health first aid is similar to other first aid courses. It teaches first aid providers to help until the professionals step in.

How can people starting a non-profit avoid becoming overwhelmed?

Keller says start by knowing what you want to achieve.

“Break it down into manageable pieces and understand that you don’t need to do everything in the first year,” she says. After that, she says, it’s about taking the first, second, and then third step.

Singh outlines a practical approach to setting goals. Determine what you want to do first. Figure out how you’re going to do it. Then, once you feel like you’re having an impact, set more goals.

Keller suggests planning for your non-profit to be around for the next 50 years. Of course, a person can’t really plan for 50 years down the road. But new non-profits can plan for 12 months, 18 months, and 24 months.

“You run your non-profit like you run a business,” says Keller. This means minding the finances, setting up roles and responsibilities, paying attention to branding, content, and creative.

“If you don’t run your not-for-profit like a business, the chances are it’s not going to be around for very long,” says Keller.

Watch out for spreading yourself too thin, says Singh. With any new project, it’s important to stay focused and not pursue every opportunity at the same time.

Keller agrees. It’s important to manage all your roles and responsibilities properly, she says, and to be aware of how you’re feeling and reacting. Sometimes it’s about deciding what the priorities are for that day, or maybe that half-day, she says.

Keller adds that it’s also about “not letting the excitement of a non-profit take over your entire life, because it could.”

Charity or non-profit?

What exactly is the difference between a charity and a not-for-profit?

A charity is, in fact, a type of non-profit.

But not every non-profit is a charity. Membership corporations are non-profits that exist primarily to serve their members — for example, sports groups. Membership corporations can also be registered with provincial agencies such as Saskatchewan’s Information Services Corporation (ISC).

That’s according to Saskatchewan’s Information Services Corporation, the provincial agency which registers the province’s non-profits. Regulations in most provinces are similar, but it’s important to get good advice for the jurisdiction you’ll be operating in.

There are other key differences between membership corporations and charities. For example, if a membership corporation dissolves, members can receive the remaining property. This is not the case with a charity. And the revenue sources are often quite different. Charities are more likely to receive donations and grants. Membership corporations are more likely to raise money through membership fees and fundraising.

Charities can also issue tax receipts for donations and gifts. They must meet the criteria set out by the federal Income Tax Act. And a charity must be designated as a charitable organization, public foundation, or private foundation.

It’s always a good idea to register and incorporate your non-profit organization, even if it’s not handling millions of dollars. For one thing, an unincorporated non-profit has no legal status, so members and directors may be personally liable to creditors and legal claims.

An incorporated non-profit is a legal entity, similar to a person, reducing liability risk to members and directors. Once it’s incorporated, it can also own property and offer more continuity to members. An incorporated non-profit is also much more likely to receive grants than an unincorporated organization.

Speaking from personal experience, while it takes some time to craft articles, bylaws, and other governance documents, actually incorporating a non-profit in Saskatchewan is relatively painless. It costs well under $100, requires information such as articles, the organization’s name and physical address, and names and physical addresses of directors, mailing addresses and other contact information. It can be done online at the ISC website. Co-operatives and for-profit businesses can also be registered at the same website.

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther

Lisa Guenther is a field editor for Country Guide.

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