This article was originally featured in ColoradoBiz magazine. Click here to read the full feature.
In this ongoing series, ColoradoBiz magazine sits down with a Best for Colorado company to learn all about the impact they have in our state. We sat down with manager Pat Lynch and owner Emily Baratta for this interview.
Hope Tank was founded in February 2012 by Erika Righter with the goal to connect the community to lesser known nonprofits. The company is a retail store that gives back to the community. When it started, Hope Tank sold local and handmade products from artists who (like Hope Tank) donated a portion of their sales to a charity of their choosing. In the seven years since, the store has expanded to now sell products from all over the world.
The impact, however, remains local. (Unless, products being sold already have a give-back component already built into the cost.)
Best for Colorado: How does your give-back model work?
Erika Righter: We started with a model that 10% of each item will go back to a nonprofit of the artist’s choosing but that has since shifted. My requirement now is, when it comes to a nonprofit, we want to look at different impact areas and they must be organizations where one human can actually move the needle. We are very firmly committed to impact in the United States and I am very upfront about it.
Knowing that I’m not going to be donating large sums of money, I want it to go far. In a small grassroots organization there is a lot more than just money that can move the needle. It’s mostly awareness and capacity-building and that can come in the form of volunteers.
Best for Colorado: What differentiates you in the marketplace?
ER: I want people to be more informed consumers and the store should be the first step, not the only step. I want people to come in, look up the organization being supported by the product they buy, volunteer at that organization, post about it on Facebook, post photos of their products, tag the nonprofit, and come back and do more.
We are not purists, but we do things with integrity. Our most valuable asset is the one-on-one exchange with a human about their organization. Then it’s the products that give back, the products we donate and the money we donate.
BFC: What was the inspiration for you to pursue this type of corporate social responsibility?
ER: I was a social worker working predominantly in the foster care field, but I also worked for a bunch of nonprofits.
In this work, I always saw myself as being a creative connector, I had to find ways to connect whomever I was working with, with what they needed. In doing that, I became really aware of how hard it is to find these connective programs even though I was in the field. But, I knew if we could connect more people to these youths we could help create more organic and sustainable exchanges with them in our community.
I don’t know exactly when I decided to have a store but I knew how to activate a space and I knew I could trust artists. I thought if I could find artists to who care, I could work with them to do something impactful.
BFC: Who are your suppliers and how do you choose the organizations you work with and give back to?
ER: When I first started I had 250 nonprofits, which is crazy. Now we have about 12. I am definitely looking to do fewer to have deeper impact. We want it to be a valuable exchange for both ends and we usually only work with them for a year. This upcoming year we’re going to have a stronger focus on black-, brown- and indigenous-serving organizations.
I do not vouch for how companies make their product, but we will make an impact with it because you’re going to buy it anyway. We do have some stuff that is super well-sourced and reputable, but as a business I have follow trends and sell to survive.
BFC: For the products that don’t have their own giving back component, how do you decide where the donations go?
ER: We have a letter that explains what we’re about we send our reps a list of nonprofits we work with. There are multi-million dollar companies that very much care about our little tiny store in Denver because we are putting a sticker on their product that makes it seem as if they are part of the giving back component even though they might not technically be.
I had to learn how to do things with integrity. I meet with the organizations and ask how we can be valuable to them. We don’t typically do large financial gives because we don’t have the funds, but we do if that is what will be most valuable. For us, it’s easier to leverage our relationships. A lot of companies will send me their products to donate. They know we are a small business and it’s a lot less expensive for them to donate product. They know if they do it, we’ll post photos to social media and they will get marketing out of it, so it’s worth it.
BFC: What has been the value of this journey for you and the business?
ER: I think as a woman, I am taken more seriously because of this business. Nothing about what I am saying is different than what I said 10 years ago as a social worker. It’s been very eye-opening. People who would not give me the time of day then, now want to have meetings with me. It has been a great vehicle. We’ve reached a lot of people and it has definitely been a very effective tool.
Another component is we are having fun here. Making people feel bad about serious stuff doesn’t move them to action. It makes you feel horrible. My goal is to treat people well when they come in. They are given information on-the-spot, they leave feeling happy, and they come back wanting more information.
BFC: What areas are your most concentrated on right now and why?
ER: We want to explore new avenues with the store structure. I’d like to come under a fiscal sponsor so that I can grant write for different positions. We want to develop an online store and have a gift delivery service, but I want a partner first because I would like to add a social enterprise component and need support to do that.
I’m really prioritizing the development of Hope Slinger’s Guide, which is a database on our website with information on local- or minority-owned companies. My goal for this is to shift how people think about how they spend their money, and for them to be aware about how they are spending their money. I want it to be a truly open source database so everyone can access it and use it how they want.
You have to make it easy for people to make a better choice. It’s the whole premise of Hope Tank.
My Intention for Hope Slingers Guide is to show investors the incredible stuff these companies are doing and what they stand for. What if, rather than investing $100,000 that is literally just a drop in the bucket for some; you put $1,000 into a small grassroots organization that literally changes their opportunity path. I think that’s the part that people miss. We know how to run really lean. Businesses like mine and non-profits know how to stretch a buck.
BFC: What is most rewarding/challenging about this aspect of your organization’s work?
ER: The most rewarding part of my work is the incredible community I have created. It’s amazing. I’ve taken the time and I’ve worked in those communities and I have trust in those communities. It’s incredibly rewarding to have people acknowledge my authenticity in the work I do.
I care too much and it can be painful sometimes. I think that is one of the hardest parts. It takes a toll on my financial situation. There’s not a lot of investment in micro-businesses like mine.
BFC: What can we do to change that?
ER: I think there needs to be a higher bar set for what kind of social enterprises are being funded and I think the culture has allowed for a lot of small businesses to get in a lot of financial trouble.
I think business for good and social enterprises can be seen as a trend. Millennials have awakened people to how they want to spend and the market adjusts. As a result, many are now manufacturing the intent.
There are small businesses that do so much work in the community, but they’re not telling everybody about it. They just do it. I would say that is across-the-board the truth of most micro-businesses. People who are in mid-to-low income brackets statistically give more of a percentage of their income to their communities than wealthy people.
The investor space needs to understand that it’s good business to invest in business for good. Therefore you should be investing in the people who are already doing it authentically, but somehow it hasn’t caught up.
We’re trying to disrupt the economy because the money’s there, that’s not the issue. The issue is how it flows.
If companies choose to not use Amazon once a week and only source locally, or if companies cater into all of their business meetings from black and women-owned businesses, it changes that changes the dynamics of the economy and the implications are huge. I think people who actually have the dollars would be happier to see their dollars move more. It’s a difference of how you invest in the big picture of the problem.
And we can’t make philanthropic work only for white people, because it doesn’t work. If we want to use words like equitable and accessible, we have to do it the whole way.
What we are doing isn’t fancy, but it is working. I want people to expand their vision of what that looks like. We’re pushing people buttons and it’s OK.