NON-PROFIT SUSTAINABILITY MATTERS

Brad Dellinger, left, site manager at the Shenandoah County Landfill, talks with Rachel Clark, landfill administrative assistant and volunteer member of local nonprofit Sustainability Matters, as they look at a sign describing Sustainability Matters’ flagship project, Making Trash Bloom, which aims to grow a pollinator habitat at the landfill.

One of Sustainability Matters’ flagship initiatives this past year has been its pilot program, Making Trash Bloom, a pollinator habitat the organization has planted at the Shenandoah County Landfill in Edinburg.

With plans of eventually expanding to other landfills, Executive Director Sari Carp said the effort made the landfill “kind of a pandemic destination” as people have stopped by to see what’s been blooming.

“Things are actually coming up, so that’s exciting,” she said. “We are planning to expand that project significantly this year.”

Another initiative is the upcoming Backyard Food Bank, a pilot program to teach food-insecure families to grow vegetables at home while mentoring them throughout the process.

Carp plans to launch the project on May 22 and has limited it to households making $40,000 or less annually. For more information or to donate to the effort, email jen@sustainabilitymatters.earth.

Carp said the idea started more than a year ago but became even more urgent during the pandemic.

“This can mean the difference between having fresh food for your table and not,” she said.

She hopes it also will be a bonding experience for families.

“They garden as a household,” she said. “It’s something that’s healthy on so many levels.”

Like other area nonprofits meeting during the pandemic, Sustainability Matters had to rethink how it connects with the community while its volunteers and community members couldn’t gather in person as usual.

Before COVID-19, the conservation-focused organization would host more than 50 in-person events throughout the year, Carp recalled.

“Like everyone else, we were panicking in the beginning,” said Carp, the organization’s only paid staff member. She recalled thinking, “What are we going to do?”

The pandemic, which prompted school and business closures and stay-at-home orders starting in mid-March 2020, came as the organization was planning its biggest event of the year, Earth Day, which takes place each spring on April 22.

“We were expecting 3,000 people,” Carp recalled.

With no experience hosting virtual events, they shifted their focus online to see how they might still connect with people.

Though Carp recalled their “incredibly fussy” standards for the quality of their in-person programming, she said they learned to be more forgiving of the mishaps that can occur in a virtual climate of Zoom workshops, Facebook Live streams and prerecorded videos.

They also had to rethink their strategy for attracting and engaging the public, she said.

What makes a virtual event work “is not what makes an in-person event work,” Carp said.

Ultimately a success, their Earth Day event featured a Zoom team to host Q&A sessions and later attracted a wider group of volunteers than it typically would have in attendees from as far away as California.

“We now have some volunteers we have never met in person,” Carp said.

One of those new volunteers runs the organization’s Zoom events and helps with the website.

Another, who lives in Denver, is the nonprofit’s “data guru,” handling internal databases, contacts lists and other technological details.

The team rehearses each online event to iron out any details and avoid technology fails wherever possible. They also have a professional videographer to shoot and edit their videos before posting.

It’s been challenging to navigate the potential issues that crop up with online programming, Carp said, “but sometimes you just have to let go.”

Another challenge has been continuing fundraising efforts during a time when people are struggling financially.

Even in the best of times, it’s hard to convince people why the environment is worth supporting financially.

Sustainability Matters persisted, though, recently receiving three nationally competitive grants, Carp said.

Though many of its usual fundraisers were either canceled or moved online, she said the organization managed to gain support from national donors and most of its usual business sponsors. More than half even increased their support during the pandemic, she said.

That doesn’t mean the nonprofit hasn’t struggled, especially with volunteer support.

“Volunteers, they have lives,” Carp said. During the pandemic, in particular, they’ve had a lot of pulls on their time and energy.

As executive director, Carp said she has about five jobs, including advertising all of the organization’s events. But the effort has been worth it, as she estimated the nonprofit held about 20 programs during the last year.

Though still about 40% of its usual outreach, she said hosting the events online allowed for a much wider reach. Events that normally would have attracted 100 attendees in person, brought up to 1,000 people online, she said.

Word of mouth made a huge impact as people shared events through Facebook, and guests could attend from anywhere.

“[Marketing is] to some extent organic, but you have to give organic a very big push,” Carp said.

Now gearing up for another Earth Day, as part of a bigger effort she’s calling Earth Month, Carp is planning “a virtual celebration of sustainable business” from 1 to 4 p.m. on April 22.

It’s “an honest examination of how environmental sustainability intersects with economic sustainability,” an event description says.

The Earth Day Sustainable Business Summit offers three one-hour discussions, each led by different area business owners: “The Manufacturer” Sarah Cohen of Route 11 Chips with Carp as moderator; “The Retailers” Randy Andes of Randy’s Hardware and Jon Henry of Jon Henry General Store with moderator Debbie Irwin of the Staunton Creative Community Fund; and “The Locavores” Cara Mroczek and Shane Waller of Star in the Valley Estate Winery and David and Lynn St. Clair of Swover Creek Farm Brewery with moderator Nikki Grant of the Woodstock Cafe.

Tickets are $15 with early registration by April 12, $25 for standard registration and free for 2021 Sustaining Members of Sustainability Matters.

Another part of Earth Month is a month-long auction of area experiences that include wine tasting, area tours, a coffee roasting class, and a vegan dinner from a local chef and musician Amanda Scheetz with signed cookbooks by vegan cookbook author Robin Robertson.

“It’s kind of a chance to get to know Sustainability Matters and our friends and just have cool experiences,” Carp said.

“It’s an auction with a twist,” she said. “It’s a minimalist auction but it’s also a maximalist auction.”

For more information, visit 32auctions.com/earth.

Other April events include a Greener Than Grass sustainable landscaping webinar at 3 p.m. April 18 (tickets are $10) and a free “What’s Up With Recycling?” panel to answer questions on what can and can’t be recycled locally, and why.

“We are doing a lot for Earth Month,” Carp said. “Virtually, of course.”

For more information, visit smatters.eventbrite.com.

Contact Josette Keelor at jkeelor@nvdaily.com