GIVING HAS BEEN A part of The Mitten Brewing Company since the very beginning, but it took us a while to learn how to do it right. We began (as most organizations do) with affinity; in our case, we partnered with organizations that our investors chose. And this was a good way to get started—it engaged our earliest supporters and ensured our early fundraisers would be a success. But the relationships with these causes weren’t as deep as they should have been. No disrespect to our investors, but these weren’t our causes; they were theirs. My business partner Max and I knew that if we wanted our giving mission to grow and thrive, we had to develop the same conviction for it that we had for our business mission. In early 2013 we sat down to think about what truly connected us to the neighborhood, and though it was rare in our 50/50 partnership, for once we completely agreed on what that was.
Most startups with deep pockets hire lawyers, architects, and contractors to guide them through the process. We could afford none of the above, so we had to figure it out ourselves. In the winter of 2012, months before we opened, we went exploring in our new neighborhood. Our talks with other businesses in the area pointed us to the City Development Center, where we learned that because alcohol production was considered a “change in use” for our real estate, we had to work with the city Planning Department to make our use meet the zoning standards. Planning encouraged us to seek the support of the local neighborhood organization before we went any further because if this group opposed our business, it was unlikely our idea would become a reality. And that was horrifying to prospective business owners, to learn their dream could be dashed with a single stroke of the Planning Commissioner’s pen.
Max and I contacted the West Grand Neighborhood Organization (whose office was only two blocks away from the engine house) and told its members weʼd like to discuss our intention to open a brewery. They invited us to attend their next public meeting, which, it turned out, also happened to be their Christmas gathering. When we walked into the “gathering” and saw that it was actually a cocktail party, one bustling with a veritable “who’s who” of local business owners and politicians, we were nervous. Expecting a completely different atmosphere, I had prepared a very professional speech about our plans for the Mitten. I had even practiced it in front of the mirror. Yet it now seemed silly. As we looked around for anyone who appeared as if he or she might be in charge, a woman yelled out from across the room, “Hey! Are you the brewery guys?!”
A hush fell over the room, and everyone stared at us.
“Yes,” we said meekly.
The woman then ran across the office, bear-hugged both of us, and tearfully whispered, “Thank you for doing this here.” That woman was Nola Steketee, the executive director of WGNO, and as long as I live, Iʼll never forget that moment and how important it was. In an instant, we went from hat-in-hand to feeling wanted and welcome. We soon learned that Nola always radiated that kind of emotion and selflessness, and that night she galvanized our relationship with the West Side. We felt at home. But her support didnʼt end there. She spoke to neighbors on our behalf, pointed us toward property grants, and even showed up to our Planning Commission hearing to support us. It was overwhelming, and it bonded us to the organization for life. Iʼm proud to say that years later, I jumped at the chance to serve a term on its board.
Although Nola has since retired, her impact on the West Side is still apparent, and we think and speak of her often. She taught us never to underestimate the power of supporting things we believe in. No matter how insignificant it may seem to us, we often have no idea of the difference it can make to someone else. Nola had changed our lives. She had given us our first deep nonprofit connection.
Nola was instrumental in showing us the need for community giving in our neighborhood, even in unintentional ways. Although her organization ran programs for impoverished residents and seniors, it was, in fact, impoverished itself. It was always on the bubble of insolvency and relied on small grants and timely donations to stay afloat. This was disheartening to us, so in May 2013, Max and I chose WGNO to be one of the first non-investor nonprofits we benefited.
After the fundraiser, I called Nola to tell her we had raised $1,200 for the organization and would deliver the check the following week. She thanked us profusely but asked whether it was possible to bring it down sooner. She needed to pay the group’s electric bill to prevent the service from being shut off. Max and I were floored. We had no idea how dire the circumstances really were. Though we were saddened, we felt some pride in knowing we had just given this vitally important organization the ability to continue to provide its services, as opposed to spending its time and energy raising funds just to keep the lights on. This was a real and meaningful gift.
Whether a gift is big or small, the impetus to giving it is connection. Nola cemented our connection to the West Side. Her support encouraged us to invest here—not only in building our business, but also our mission to improve the West Side. We wanted to give in the way that she gave to us. Seven years and more than $300,000 in gifts later, I hope she’s proud of what she started.