Founded in 2006 by Davin Wentworth Thrasher, Tori Jacobs and Sam Hartman, the Ecology Center of San Francisco (ECO-SF) was developed to educate the community about ecological and sustainable ways of living on this planet. “We were college students learning about terrible problems and horrible things going on with the environment,” says Sam. “We weren’t content with learning about doom, so we said let’s do something about it!”
None of them came from a business background, but they wanted to start a non-profit to give back to the community and promote environmental education. They began by working with schools to grow gardens, and saw how successful their efforts were at unifying multigenerational communities that came together to help out. Word of mouth quickly spread and seven other schools in the area reached out to ECO-SF to create more gardens. Over time, they were able to get paid contracts setting up gardens, educational programs and natural building projects like cob benches and ovens made out of clay.
In addition to establishing and maintaining community- and school-based gardens and farms, ECO-SF offers workshops that cultivate sustainable living skills and practices, like natural building, organic gardening, raising chickens, soap making, solar cooking, gray water use, food preservation such as canning and fermentation, cheese making, and more.
Like all 501(c)3 organizations, budget is always an issue when considering marketing costs. As a small group, all the ECO-SF co-founders do a little bit of everything. Whenever they attended community events or hosted volunteer activities, they would use a sign-up sheet to acquire email addresses because staying connected with volunteers is extremely important. But, keeping their lists updated on an Excel spreadsheet proved to be tedious.
“Every time we had new emails, they were pretty much their own list,” says Sam. “We had different lists of 10 or 20 contacts. We labeled the different lists because there wasn’t an option to segment.”
Before long, they knew they needed to find a cost-effective email marketing system where they could keep track of their subscribers and communicate with their database of about 1,000 contacts at once.
“We wanted to use an email marketer who’s involved with the community,” says Sam. “VerticalResponse is locally owned, locally run and exhibits social responsibility. Being owned by a woman is also a plus because it’s nice to have the female population represented in the corporate world.”
Supporting a local business was the main attraction for ECO-SF, but the extra perk was VerticalResponse’s non-profit email marketing discount. Non-profits receive 10,000 free email credits a month to communicate with their subscribers. They also receive a 15 percent discount on event, postcard and survey subscriptions, as well as a 50 percent discount on the social media marketing tool, which ECO-SF plans to use very soon.
“ECO-SF depends on email as their primary form of outreach, but we’re getting more involved with SF Funcheap and Facebook,” says Sam. An email marketing platform with social media sharing and tracking capabilities appealed to them for future marketing opportunities.
ECO-SF’s email newsletters feature sustainable energy topics or content related to the work they do on the farm. When ECO-SF first started email marketing, they were sending long newsletters with lots of content. They’ve since learned to scale back a bit on their content so that recipients could read their emails from beginning to end more quickly and easily. The tactic worked; their open rate now averages 20 percent.
The organization quickly found that using VerticalResponse saves time and is easy even for those without a lot of technical or HTML expertise.
“Sending emails without an email marketing program was pretty impossible,” says Sam. “We use VerticalResponse to send newsletters and event invitations. People love that stuff! We get a lot of great responses from people saying it was informational and they love that we put a bunch of links to other Web resources, our website and Facebook page in the body of the email.”
These days, ECO-SF is able to effectively communicate with their network of volunteers and schools, while being able to spend most of their time doing what they love: creating communities that are ecologically, socially and culturally diverse, and in balance.
Biggest challenge being a small business owner:
It takes a lot of organization and learning about what it means to run a business: accounting, marketing and keeping up with connections. That was hard because none of us came from a business background and we had to teach ourselves with the few resources we had.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned as a small business owner:
A little bit of planning up-front makes a lot of difference down the road. It takes a lot of organization to grow a financially sustainable business. But, if you have a vision and the determination to go into the unknown, then you can go a lot of places. We’ve been able to build something and have come a long way.
What do you like best about your work? What keeps you going?
It’s amazing to see what we’ve been able to work on and put together. Even though we may not be that big or have a lot of funding, we’re still positioned as one of just a handful of organizations in the Bay Area that does this kind of work. You can do a whole lot with people power. We’re located at a beautiful space at the base of Twin Peaks. We offer a productive model for growing food locally and learning through hands-on education, and our headquarters offer a great demonstration and workshop space. Design/build services, workshops and school tours are available for booking on our website at http://www.eco-sf.org/home.