Running a tiny nonprofit with a small budget and no full-time staff, Kevin Johnson knew he had to find a creative way to target a new demographic of donors.
The idea came to him over a pint of beer: Partner with a brewery and launch a red ale to boost awareness about his Roseville nonprofit, Footprint Earth Foundation, and drum up money for its environmental projects.
“A few thousand dollars is significant for us,” he said. “We think it’s really important to get out in front of people … in a demographic that wouldn’t normally gravitate to your cause.”
As corporate foundations and major organizations narrow the focus of their grants, nonprofits face a changing landscape in giving and have to rely more on individual donors. Some Minnesota nonprofits are tapping into the state’s booming brewery scene to find new ways to raise money. They hope that leveraging the popularity of beer sampling events or launching collaborative brews will pique someone’s interest in a nonprofit or bring in donations.
St. Paul-based Fresh Energy, a renewable energy research and advocacy nonprofit, teamed up with 56 Brewing in Minneapolis this spring for the second year in a row to launch a beer with honey harvested from bees on solar farms.
In June, Good Company Brewing, a nonprofit of home brewers, will host an event for people to try samples while donating to an educational nonprofit, Think Small. And in July, the Ronald McDonald House Charities-Upper Midwest will hold an annual craft beer tasting that’s grown over the years to include more than 30 breweries, cideries and distilleries and nearly 1,000 guests.
“I think this is an opportunity to reach a younger generation … an audience who may not think of early childhood,” said Tracy Nordstrom, a board member at Think Small, which advocates for early education and trains child-care providers.
While the nonprofit does a big annual fundraiser, Nordstrom said the Brew for Good event in June is part of a growing trend of nonprofits also looking to casual, smaller events that may be more appealing to younger donors than an expensive black-tie gala.
“They can come in their flip-flops … you don’t have to have a tuxedo,” she said. “You can have an adult beverage and it’s benefiting the little kids in your community.”
She said last year’s event, which raised $4,500 for Think Small, drew donors in their 20s and 30s who may not have children of their own but could become advocates of the nonprofit after learning more about it at the event.
“It’s combining fun and philanthropy at the same time,” said Josh Janos of Plymouth, who started Good Company Brewing in 2016 for home brewers like him to raise money for nonprofits in a grassroots way. “This is a way to do more with something we love doing.”
Eighty percent of nonprofits’ private funding nationwide comes from individuals, and “it’s likely to trend upward,” said Jake Blumberg, who teaches fundraising courses and is executive director of GiveMN. “Individuals are becoming even more important.”
Blumberg said brewery events won’t work for every nonprofit, such as one that deals with substance abuse. Fundraising events should fit with a nonprofit’s mission, he said, and help a nonprofit build a longer-term relationship with new donors.
Many breweries, from Surly to Indeed, also have charitable initiatives of their own, and Finnegans, a nonprofit beer organization, has long donated 100% of its profits to charity.
But in St. Paul, Fresh Energy took the initiative, approaching 56 Brewing to come up with a beer called Solarama Crush, and dubbed it “Minnesota’s first solar beer.”
“Breweries are bipartisan and usually when there’s a beer involved, people will make time to attend or learn something,” said Rob Davis, the director of the Center for Pollinators in Energy at Fresh Energy.
It may be tough to engage the public over a discussion on biodiversity, he said. But launching the beer, which contained honey harvested from bees on a solar farm, gave the nonprofit a less formal platform to discuss its push to grow pollinator-friendly meadows on solar farms. The beer can featured the nonprofit’s name, and 56 Brewing donated proceeds from the launch events to Fresh Energy, which helped fund outreach and education efforts, Davis said.
“Everyone loves a story where their beer comes from,” Davis said. “The beer is a storytelling vehicle to share an experience with someone.”
The partnership was such a success, he added, that Fresh Energy partnered with Milk & Honey Ciders in St. Joseph, Minn., on a cider made with honey from bees on a solar farm.
Unlike Fresh Energy and nonprofits with development staff who can fundraise, Johnson’s nonprofit, Footprint Earth, has eight volunteers and has mostly been self-funded since starting in 2013.
Johnson said that launching a red ale called Arbeer, a play on arbor and beer, with Saint Paul Brewing this spring helped raise money for the nonprofit’s projects planting trees and providing LED light bulbs to low-income families.
It’s part of the broader trend, he said, of products like apparel that support a cause.
“It’s kind of a way to get in front of people,” he said of beer drinkers. “They feel like they do something good without doing anything.”