Ayers Brook Goat Dairy

A Slow Money Journey

The idea was simple at the beginning, back in 2006: find a fund in which my clients could invest their money that would finance farms and businesses involved in sustainable agriculture. I quickly discovered that no such thing existed. Instead, the inquiry set me off on a rewarding decade-long journey of learning, collaboration, and co-creation.

I have served as a portfolio manager for high-net-worth individuals and families for almost 20 years. All of our clients at Clean Yield aim to align their money with their values, and for many that means finding ways to invest in their local communities and regional economies, especially in the food and agriculture sector. Ten years ago, just about the only vehicles for doing so were preferred shares in the Organic Valley and Equal Exchange cooperatives. They were a great start, but we were looking for more options, in particular something structured like the already popular community loan funds that support a range of economic-development activities around the globe. My search led me to Woody Tasch, who I already knew from Investors’ Circle.

Woody was busily brewing up the ideas that would eventually become Slow Money, but we came to the issue from different investment perspectives. My clients and I were familiar and comfortable with lending money through relatively safe and predictable community loan funds, but had little experience with angel or venture-capital investing, the part of the world in which Woody had been operating. Putting our clients’ assets in illiquid investments in individual farms and small food enterprises was more risk than was appropriate for most of my clients at the time.

There were also myriad administrative challenges around these potential investments: how to value them on client statements, whether to charge for our services, and how to custody the assets (our standard custodian, Charles Schwab, was reluctant to hold them). So my energy went into helping develop the organizations laying the groundwork for a more robust financing landscape for these types of businesses.

Woody invited me to participate in the gatherings that helped craft Slow Money, and Dorothy Suput asked me to join the board of the nascent Carrot Project, which aimed to address financing gaps for farmers in the northeast. The discussions that took place in both organizations deepened my understanding of the challenges to rebuilding healthy local and regional food systems, as well as the role that access to capital can play in catalyzing that process.

The Carrot Project developed relationships with existing community investment institutions in New England and launched specialized funds focused on small loans to farmers. This gave us an appealing investment option for some of our clients to begin directing capital into local and regional agriculture in a relatively low-risk way.

But it was the push we got from a handful of our clients who are deeply committed to sustainable agriculture that accelerated the flow of capital into this space. They had the risk tolerance and inclination to take the lead. So we started in late 2007 in our own backyard with an investment in High Mowing Organic Seeds, a Vermont-based company that needed capital to meet soaring demand.

High Mowing Organic Seeds

High Mowing Organic Seeds staff harvesting garlic

At the time, I was at Trillium Asset Management, but through my research on High Mowing, I got to know Clean Yield founder Rian Fried, who was the one conducting due diligence on the deal. I eventually joined Rian at Clean Yield in 2009, in large part so that I could spend more of my time working on Slow Money opportunities. The move allowed me to cofound Slow Money Boston and, later, Slow Money Vermont.

Meanwhile, as the Slow Money movement emerged and its networks launched in Boston, Maine, the Pioneer Valley, and eventually Vermont, the pipeline of investment opportunities in food and agriculture businesses significantly increased. The establishment of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund’s Flexible Capital Fund in 2010 played a key role in allowing more of our clients to participate, by offering a professionally managed, diversified investment vehicle focused on agriculture and clean energy. This was a dream come true for Rian and me, and I can’t thank Janice St. Onge enough for her imagination, leadership, and persistence in creating and managing that fund.

By 2011, having had a positive experience with High Mowing Organic Seeds and having become more comfortable going beyond straight lending, we were ready to ramp up our direct investments in food and agriculture businesses—and we had clients who were more than ready to take the plunge. In particular, the Lydia B. Stokes Foundation set ambitious goals for the percentage of its endowment to be allocated to impact investments in sustainable agriculture. Happily, our home state of Vermont was fertile ground for these types of investment opportunities. Vermont Smoke & Cure, Vermont Natural Coatings, the Northeast Kingdom Tasting Center, and Ayers Brook Goat Dairy all raised capital between 2011 and 2013 with our clients’ participation.

Although investing in private companies is inherently different than investing in the stock or bond market, we applied the same rigorous analysis to these offerings. Given that we were sticking our necks out in considering these investments at all, we wanted to have a high degree of confidence that these businesses would succeed and be able to pay back their investors. As fiduciaries, it was also essential that we ensure that each investment we made was suitable for each client’s financial objectives and risk profile. This entailed increased communication with clients and increased administrative costs on top of the time being put into researching the prospective investments. However, we weren’t earning any additional revenues from these activities.

It was clear that this would not be a profitable line of business for Clean Yield, but there was never a question as to whether or not to do it. Our clients were enthused by the opportunity we had given them to go beyond having a “clean” portfolio of stocks and bonds to having holdings in their portfolios that reflected their deeply held vision of a truly sustainable local/ regional economy and food system. Once they had a taste of it, they clamored for more. The feeling was mutual. We took great satisfaction in the service we were providing, both to our clients and to the local economy. We accepted that this would lower our profit margins somewhat, but we also found that our leadership in this arena started to bring us new clients.

Rian’s untimely death in 2013 was a critical moment for us. He had been a pioneer not just in Slow Money investing, but in the broader realm of socially-responsible investing. In attempting to honor his legacy, we settled on hiring two people instead of one. The first would focus primarily on impact investing. Karin Chamberlain filled the role that fall and brought additional concentration and structure to our impact program, catalyzing even more activity. In the three years since she came on board, our impact investments have soared from about $5 million to nearly $15 million in 25 different vehicles for more than 50 clients. The Stokes Foundation has continued to push us to bring them new opportunities and has ratcheted their allocation to impact investments to nearly 50 percent of their portfolio. Not all of that is in food and agriculture, but we have continued to find new companies and funds to invest in, including Real Pickles, Iroquois Valley Farms, Root Capital, and Fresh Source Capital.

Real Pickles

Addie Rose Holland, worker-owner and cofounder of Real Pickles

With more than five years of very active Slow Money investment behind us now, we’re beginning to see meaningful financial returns. Our first investments have matured or been renewed or extended. Our clients continue to receive regular interest payments from those investments where it was expected. We’ve even had one unexpected “home run” where a private-equity firm took a majority stake in a company, resulting in a quadrupling of our clients’ investment value.

While we fully expect that the reverse will be true as well—that despite our due diligence some of our investments will lose money—the early results are encouraging, especially given the ultra-low interest rates available from conventional investments.

The social and environmental returns remain hard to measure, but are undeniable. Our clients’ commitment to financing the food system makes capital more accessible—and often cheaper—for the companies that are building a more just and sustainable food system.

We recognize that in the context of the global food system, it’s barely a drop in the bucket and that the playing field remains tilted in favor of industrial, petroleum-drenched agriculture, but we also know that our efforts are making a difference in our region and hope that our example will inspire others.


Eric Becker is chief investment officer at Clean Yield Asset Management. He has been engaged in social and environmental investing since 1993. Eric co-founded Slow Money Boston and Slow Money Vermont, as well as the Vermont Food Investors Network. He is a founding board member of Soil4Climate. Eric serves as a Trustee of Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont. He was also a founding board member of The Carrot Project.

Buttercup Farms, Howard, Colorado

Buttercup Farms Receives Loan From Slow Money Investment Club

Bonnie Yarbrough, owner of Buttercup Farms, was referred to Local Matters Investments, our Denver-based Slow Money investment club, by Tamara Campfield, one of our founding members and treasurer. Tamara had previously made a personal loan to Buttercup Farms.

In November 2014, Local Matters loaned Buttercup Farms $6,000 for the purchase of two cows. She paid back that loan on time. Then in May 2016, Local Matters made another loan to Buttercup Farms in the amount of $10,000, enabling the purchase of three more cows and Bonnie’s enrollment in artificial insemination school. Bonnie planned to breed her cows with Miniature Jerseys in order to increase the profitability of her business.

As Bonnie put it: “I am living out my dream! As a young girl, I would go to a farm in Coaldale, Colorado, to get raw milk. I vividly remember everything about this dairy farm and the milk room. A spring ran through the barn in a concrete trough. Stella, the owner, would chill her milk in that spring water, and the locals would come pick it up with their jars. I loved going there: I loved the cows, the atmosphere, and the smell of the milk. Even as a young girl, I told myself that if I ever got the chance to have milk cows and do what Stella did, I would.

“After years of working in various areas of agriculture—raising beef cows, breeding quarter horses, working on ranches and for veterinarians—and seeing the interest in local, raw, and organic foods, I decided to start a small raw-milk dairy.”

Bonnie Yarbrough

She started with Buttercup, her first cow (and, she reports, still one of her favorites), and now has seven. She has some customers from more than 100 miles away and more inquiring every week. She sells raw milk and cream, cottage cheese and yogurt, and all the butter she can make. The “girls” currently produce about 28 gallons of milk a day. Bonnie still works for a local veterinarian several days a week, but looks forward to when she can spend all day at home with her girls, making cottage cheese, separating cream, and churning butter. She also sells cow shares—shareholders pay a boarding fee for their cows and are then entitled to milk.

Buttercup Farms

From Local Matters’ perspective, Bonnie and Buttercup Farms are just the type of person and business we desire to support. Our investment club has 21 members, who have put in a total of $107,100 in capital. Since 2013, we have made 11 loans to eight small food enterprises.


Tom Abood is the founder of Local Matters Investments in Denver, CO.

Don Lareau and Daphne Yannakakis, Zephyros Farm and Garden

How a Zero-Percent Loan is Helping This Colorado Farm

Zephyros Farm and Garden has always sought diversity and quality in its organic production. When Daphne and I started this farm 13 years ago, like many young couples starting out, we wanted it all; every vegetable under the sun, flowers, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, children, worms, compost, and a life for ourselves. After many years and struggles, we came to focus on a niche that made it possible to make a living and have a life with our kids. Years of practice brought us to the thing we do really well: growing flowers.

At Zephyros, we grow more than 1,000 different varieties of flowers. When you grow 99 different dahlias, it is easy to reach these numbers. Passion helps, too. We still grow a couple of acres of vegetables. We only have eight chickens though, just enough for eggs for ourselves. Oh, and we have a few goats.

Zephyros Farm and Garden

When we expanded our flower operation, we realized that we had outgrown the farmers’ markets appetite for the quantity of flowers we could grow. So we started doing weddings. Then we started to sell to florists. We became immersed in the movement of flower growers across the country. We became early participants in the Slow Flowers movement. When we first started out, people thought about what went in their bellies, but not much about what adorned their tables.

We have taken it a step further by being certified organic. Today, 80 percent of the flowers you see in a store, a florist shop, or a hotel are from another country and are not organic. We are part of a growing movement that has not only localized the production of flowers, but is also increasingly organic. This is important not because you eat the flowers, but because growing organically is good for the planet, for people who work in the fields and the greenhouses, and for florists. It’s also awfully nice to know that the bouquet on your table is not coated with pesticides.

We started getting more and more orders from our florists, not because our flowers are organic, but because they were local—that is, not “jet fresh” from Ecuador. We can grow a lot of flowers that a producer thousands of miles away cannot get to market alive.

Zephyros Farm and Garden

As we grew, we had a hard time delivering all the orders in our Honda Pilot. Our farmers’ market trailer could hold a lot, but it was hard to drive down tight alleyways and maneuver into the parking lots where the florists and our private clients have their businesses and homes. Also, the flowers would arrive quite hot, which they do not like. If we wore sweaters and hats, the Honda A/C did an okay job, but we needed something else.

After local banks scoffed at us and loans for a new truck seemed way too expensive, we heard about the 2Forks Club, a local Slow Money investment club. We sent a proposal to have them help us buy a used refrigerated truck. They gave us a $23,500 zero-percent loan, which we are paying back over a few-year period.


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The part that amazes me to this day is the degree to which the members of 2Forks worked with us to customize the loan for our benefit. For example, they said, “You are not asking for enough to get a good truck,” so they gave us more than we were originally asking for. “This is not how a bank works!” we thought. If that wasn’t enough, they also looked at our cash flow and structured a bit more time to pay the loan back, with some discretion built in. They understood that we are not selling widgets, that we are dealing with Mother Nature and biology and many variables not in our control, such as late frosts, early heat, hot winds, and the like.

The 2Forks loan has allowed us to load our truck full of flowers that stay fresh, so now we throw on extra flowers and invite florists onto the truck. They usually cannot resist buying more. If we do not sell them all, they stay cold and we can sell them through our other market channels.

Zephyros refrigerated truck

The refrigerated truck in action!

It has been a fast season, with temperatures in the high 90s much earlier than other years, so flowers are blooming quickly. It has been a great peony season. This is why we are diverse: one flower does well, while another does not. We are well underway in our repayment to 2Forks, and they have been actively making other loans. Access to capital is the bane of the small farm, given all the risks and slim profit margins. So loans from 2Forks feel like a cool breeze in summer.

Thanks.

Boulted Bread

Investment: Boulted Bread

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal »

When Sam Kirkpatrick and Fulton Forde got together to open their bakery, Boulted Bread, in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina, they had an ambitious goal. They wanted to use fresh-milled, locally sourced grain and improve the design of currently available commercial stone mills. Fulton had traveled in Europe and North America learning from bakers who use heirloom grains and researching various age-old mill designs, and creating a plan for a new type of stone mill using locally quarried, natural granite and American-made motors and parts.

The current consumer market, Sam and Fulton believed, was “shifting away from inexpensive conventional practices and beginning to value high quality and process.” Their business would honor this shift toward intentional consumerism and serve the growing number of people interested in sustainably produced food in the greater Triangle area of North Carolina. Their customers would experience “the inherent value, sublime flavors, and simple elegance of bread as craft.”

A Slow Money lender provided $3,000 to cover the construction of a custom stone mill that was more effective, more attractive, and less expensive by thousands of dollars than the few other commercial mills available. Another Slow Money loan for $10,000 covered build-out costs, and Boulted Bread opened for business in August 2014. Sam and Fulton added another partner to the team, Josh Bellamy, who brought along excellent baking experience and a shared philosophy.

Carol Peppe Hewitt and Fulton Forde

Slow Money NC cofounder Carol Peppe Hewitt and Fulton Forde

The bakery supports numerous local farmers by purchasing heirloom varieties of Southern grain that might be otherwise unavailable or lost, as well as vegetables, eggs, milk, and cheese for their breads and pastries. And they have hundreds of happy consumers. “Bread respects and pays tribute to all the players—farmer, miller, baker, and consumer,” Fulton explains. “Many of our customers are avid home cooks,” Sam told me, “and our moist, naturally leavened, seeded levain is something they can’t find anywhere else.”

Their business has been so successful that they paid off the smaller Slow Money loan two years early. “Our lenders were thrilled for the opportunity to help us get started and proud of us for paying it all back so soon,” said Sam. “We are enormously grateful.”

“My next project,” Fulton shares, “is building stone mills for sale to the public. I first wanted to build a mill when I worked at Farm & Sparrow in Candler, North Carolina. We used a German-made mill that allowed us to use a wide variety of locally sourced grains, but it had many shortcomings. There is an American mill-building company, but their mills also often leave people disappointed and dissatisfied.”

So, he investigated possible design improvements that could make the mill both much more effective and user friendly. He traveled around North America to research mills new and old, and slowly his ideal mill design emerged.

“I built a 26-inch stone mill for a small grain farm in California, another for Boulted Bread, and a third for Farm & Sparrow, to replace the German mill on which I first learned about milling,” Fulton explained. “There is a nascent local-grain movement seeking to extricate grain from the industrial model and in desperate need of high-quality American-made mills. I had orders from four bakers and two mill/grain projects. I began construction on the first three mills ordered. We needed $12,000 to help finance these orders. We planned to pay the money back in 18 months or less.”

Two Slow Money NC lenders who are frequent customers at Boulted Bread made loans of $9,000 and $3,000, and New American Stone Mills is on its way.

Fulton's Stone Mill

Fulton’s stone mill

Fulton is now collaborating with Andrew Heyn, owner of Elmore Mountain Bread in Vermont, to offer a larger, 40-inch stone mill for use in medium-production bakeries or specialty gristmills.

Farmers are planting more heirloom grain varieties, local milling is growing, and for us eaters, the bread and pastries just keep getting better— for the planet and for us.

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Central Grazing Co

Investment: Central Grazing Company

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal »

I have been a sheep farmer for 15 years. It is my life calling. Quite an unexpected path for me, since I didn’t grow up in farming and my knowledge of sheep was very limited. I was, at one time, one of those people who didn’t know the difference between sheep and goats—and yeah, I can admit that now.

My career in sheep farming began with my former business partner. She had a dream to open a sheep dairy and creamery, and she wanted my help. Neither of us had any background in farming, so it took us a very long time to learn how to wear all the hats small-scale dairy farmers wear: businesswomen, grass farmers, mechanics, electricians, animal-welfare experts, and more. Together, we put in the years and created one of the best-known sheep dairies and creameries in the Midwest. We started selling our cheeses and yogurts at farmers’ markets and, finally, through national distribution.

By 2014, we had expanded our operation through collaboration with other small family farmers. We shared experience with and purchased sheep milk from these farmers. We built a great new revenue stream for our farmers and ourselves. However, we didn’t anticipate the problem this expansion would create—the fact that with the increase of milk came an increase in lambs. We grew from one sheep dairy to 10, and all of our lambs were sold directly to the livestock auction. They likely became feeder lambs and spent the rest of their lives in confinement, being fattened on GMO grains. This problem weighed heavily on me and fueled my desire to seek an alternative market for these lambs.

In 2014, I went to the Slow Money National Gathering in Kentucky. I was very curious about Slow Money. I had a lot of reservations, but I went with an open mind and what I experienced affected me profoundly.

It was at the Slow Money national gathering that the seeds for Central Grazing Company were planted. I was proud of the work my business partner and I created. However, when I returned home from the conference, I started to piece together my exit from the dairy business. My business partner was very supportive in my desire to start Central Grazing Company—something I will always be grateful for. I contacted Nancy Thellman, the founder of Slow Money Northeast Kansas, and applied to be an entrepreneur for their first-ever Entrepreneur Showcase. At the showcase, I made my pitch for the company to a room full of potential investors.

Central Grazing Company’s mission is to provide consumers with Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) raised lamb, while providing the farmers a value back for raising their animals with high animal-welfare and environmental standards. We encourage these high standards by sharing profits with our farmers. Central Grazing Company purchases lambs directly from farmers at a very fair commodity rate. At the end of the year, we share 50 percent of all net profits with our farmers. My family farm is one of seven farms currently providing Animal Welfare Approved lambs to Central Grazing Company.

My partner, ReGina, and I (along with our two small sons) rotationally graze our sheep just northeast of the Flint Hills in Kansas. We purchased this land when we decided to start Central Grazing Company. Much of the surrounding prairieland had been converted to crop or hay fields. We chose to purchase hay land instead of cropland, because we needed to start rotationally grazing immediately. Our soils are very poor and will need a lot of work to restore them, but I know that holistically grazing livestock is one of the best practices for prairie restoration. One year into grazing, I can already see some signs of our soils coming back to life.

Central Grazing Company

My pitch at the Slow Money Northeast Kansas event went very well. A few days after the showcase, one investor loaned me $5,000. This money was used to get Central Grazing Company on its feet. We purchased labels and marketing material for our lamb with this money. In 2015, our first year in operation, we processed 105 lambs from two sheep dairies in Missouri. We placed our lamb in natural grocery stores in five states. Demand grew. I went back to our local Slow Money network looking for more funding to help us meet this new demand. We received $10,000 from two local investors and $30,000 from Cienega Capital, a California-based Slow Money lender. We have used this money to increase our supply of lamb inventory by purchasing 500 lambs directly from our producers and paying for processing of the lambs. With this increase in lamb inventory, we will expand our market into 15 states.

Slow Money allowed me a new perspective on how our individual financial decisions influence our local economy, our sustainable food systems, and our relationships in our community. As a farmer, I was impressed that people actually wanted to invest in companies like mine and I’ve been pleased that we can provide new opportunities for investors. Slow Money hasn’t just been a tool I used to fund my business. It has provided me with a community—a community that has helped me to create an alternative market for farmers, allowing our animals to live and behave naturally, while also preserving our precious grasslands.

After launching Central Grazing Company, I joined my local Slow Money network as a planning-committee volunteer. Through Slow Money I have developed relationships with neighbors, investors, mentors, and new friends, all of whom share the same values with regard to money and sustainable agriculture. The relationships formed around Slow Money principles elevate our entire community by supporting a sustainable approach to investing in the land we farm. It has been gratifying and exciting to be a small part of this movement.

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It’s important to reduce dysfunction in our national, political and financial systems, but it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to invest in the future we all want to see in our communities. A healthy local food system is the place to start. For every $1 donated to Slow Money, $11 flows to local and organic food enterprises through our network. Our work is supported entirely by donors like you who recognize that our small nonprofit team is facilitating systemic change.

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Two Roots Farm

Investment: Two Roots Farm

Editor’s note: This article appears in the Winter 2016/17 issue of the Slow Money Journal. Click here to learn more about the Journal

Christian and I fell in love with farming not too long after falling in love with each other. Before graduating from the University of Montana, we had our first farming experiences at PEAS farm, the university farm near campus. It was there that we began to grasp the serious consequences posed by our current food system, but more importantly, we learned how it can be completely reversed through sustainable agricultural practices.

Propelled by enthusiasm to change the world one small farm at a time, we set out to California for a full-season internship.

What we didn’t know then was just how many giant hurdles were in the way for not just our country to reverse its habits, but for each individual who sets out to farm sustainable products. We knew that we wanted to own and operate our own farm, but the road was not clear. How would we find the land? The money? The tools?

We decided the first thing we needed was experience and knowledge. We read every book about sustainable agriculture and small-scale farming that we could get our hands on. We enrolled ourselves in an online course for beginning farmers and completed a local course on farming business. After our internship, we spent two years as the agriculture managers at Rock Bottom Ranch with Aspen Center for Environmental Studies, where we gained invaluable experience growing in this mountain climate.

Four (farm-filled) years later, we have now started our own farming business, Two Roots Farm, aimed to fill a simple mission: to provide sustainably produced, freshly harvested, nutrient-dense vegetables to the Roaring Fork Valley community. We are leasing land from friends in Missouri Heights and selling our produce to restaurants, the Aspen Saturday Market, and through a CSA program. We received a loan from Slow Money for $7,500 to help us purchase the materials for a mobile walk-in cooler, drip-irrigation system, and a season-extension structure. By the time June came around, we were hitting our stride. We felt good about the tools we had, the crops we were growing, and the direction our business was headed.

Two Roots Farm

Recently we hit a pivotal moment for our first year. Crop loss is inevitable; no matter how wonderful a grower you are or how carefully you prepare, there is simply nothing that prepares you for flood, fire, tornado, earthquake, or drought. For us it was hail—chunky, powerful, unexpected hail—on an otherwise summer-like July third day.

We came home to it, confused to see white piles spread around the property. Did it snow? We walked into the garden. It was a traumatic sight: kale leaves ripped into fragments or torn off the plant entirely, heads of lettuce that looked like they had been put into a paper shredder, cucumber plants reduced to bare twigs.

It became evident right away that our community cared and supported us—a farming friend donated produce for our CSA, chefs agreed to buy “hail kale,” and many friends offered a hand.

It has been two weeks now, and I am reminded of the resilience of plants. Many of the longer-season crops are valiantly bouncing back to life; regrowth continues and has popped up everywhere. We replanted a great portion of the garden in preparation for fall.

Greenhouse

Christian and I were able to respond with a level head and a sense of calm because we knew that we had lenders who cared and understood. Our loan from Slow Money allowed us to absorb this shock because we had the tools we needed to get back on track.

All entrepreneurs will hit hurdles like this, so you must be the kind of person who can pick yourself back up. However, when you choose a business as risky as farming, you also need to be able to ask for help. We feel lucky to have found a place where people are willing and able to offer it.

Post Donate Form

It’s important to reduce dysfunction in our national, political and financial systems, but it’s just as important—maybe even more important—to invest in the future we all want to see in our communities. A healthy local food system is the place to start. For every $1 donated to Slow Money, $11 flows to local and organic food enterprises through our network. Our work is supported entirely by donors like you who recognize that our small nonprofit team is facilitating systemic change.

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This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

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Donation Total: $25