Seeking Input: Designing Self-Sustaining, Supportive Nonprofit Agricultural Orgs Using Permaculture

by Robyn Mello

[RE-posted with permission of the author. Original article is published in Spring 2016 issue of Permaculture Design Magazine.]

Please share this article broadly with the appropriate constituents. My vision is to receive feedback, conduct interviews and site visits with various Nonprofit Agricultural Organizations (NPAO) interested in critical self-examination, and compile a report on best practices for designing highly functional NPAO with both ethical and supportive human structures and wide-angled strategies towards regenerative land stewardship.

During an Advanced Permaculture Design Course with Peter Bane in Akron, Ohio in November, I challenged myself to work on a design team offering a redesign of a 115-acre nonprofit farm at the top of two watersheds with depleted soil. Though this farm was a larger piece of land than I’d ever worked with and outside of my familiar inner-city environment, I immediately saw challenges similar to those I’m experiencing among Philadelphia’s NPAO. I feel that I must work to find solutions to these challenges. Therefore, this is simultaneously an introduction, report on observations, contribution to a necessary conversation, series of questions for community input, and plea for more serious self-examination by the permaculture and nonprofit communities.

Designing highly-functioning NPAO--or a larger, emergent pattern Peter and I called “Social Benefit Permaculture Enterprises”--is more about social permaculture design than physical. If the structure doesn’t support human dignity and equality, there’s no hope for the land. When implemented properly, I believe that NPAO will perform a major role balancing inequities in our highly dysfunctional and dangerous farm, food, and property ownership systems. Additionally, NPAO should be able to provide strategies to grow self-sustaining and resilient revenue streams, allowing for a larger number of organizations to drink from the funding pool. As of now, NPAO that I’m aware of have a long way to go before realizing this potential. Permaculture design seems the natural bridge to connect vision and reality.

I’ve been heavily involved in various combinations of permaculture design, community organizing, political activism, vacant lot gardening, farming, agroforestry, small business development, and NPAO work since moving to Philadelphia. Throughout that time, the glaring disconnect between urban farmers, nonprofit administrators, and community members has been consistent. For various reasons--among them, fear of losing one’s job, maddening levels of bureaucracy in massive organizations, conservative boards of directors, having larger external battles to fight, lack of cohesion among workers, and the oft crippling sentiment in low-wealth neighborhoods enabling NPAO mediocrity that “something is better than nothing”--not a whole lot has been done to mend the disconnect. It seems the time has come.

Fortunately, I work for The Philadelphia Orchard Project--a small, wonderful permaculture nonprofit--where I’m able to design solutions around ethical concerns, and my world has been recently inundated with stories of organizations faced with the need to restructure, revision, and develop new strategic plans. Nonprofits are losing large numbers of staff, small NPAO are trying to figure out how to hire from within their target communities, self-examining urban agriculture workers are questioning the status quo, directors are retiring, boards are restructuring, and some organizations are finding it’s time to hand off the proverbial torch to the next generation. This is great news, but there’s no roadmap.

I don’t pretend to be the first to be thinking about these issues, and I surely don’t take credit for all of the ideas presented here. I simply want to act as a medium, presenting to a larger audience to collect, synthesize, and contribute to an action-oriented dialogue, working towards a future of permaculture that is a permanent multiculture of holistic health, equality, and honor. If you have comments on any of the above, have answers to any of the below, or would like to be involved in this research in any way, please e-mail

Some Initial Observations and Food for Thought:

  • NPAO missions and/or programming must address and improve upon inequality and social injustice through a framework of true empowerment, not a framework of dependency.
  • Have difficult conversations about race, class, and gender. Admit to confusion or ignorance. Face challenges. Question who’s paid in the organization, and how much. Acknowledge and seek out what the community already knows related to your mission! As an employee or administrator in a NPAO, realize your privilege and use it to help level the playing field. Structural oppression is not personal, but it is everyone’s personal job to address it daily.
  • If growing food, addressing food justice, and including community members and their knowledge in every part of the process is not historically part of a nonprofit’s mission, or if a nonprofit is experiencing “mission creep” due to new funding opportunities in the realm of farming and food justice, its members should seriously question their justification and qualifications in creating new programming or seeking such funding.
  • NPAO boards should absolutely be populated with people of color, women, and members of the target population. Figure out how to hire or recruit paid interns that have lived experiences necessary to the mission. Seek help and reach out to nonprofits successfully doing this. This is where novelty emerges.
  • Farming is hard work, community building is hard work, and both take very unique skillsets. Asking a human to not only farm full-time (which often means more than a 40-hour week) but also run community programs, oversee interns, manage volunteers, distribute produce, and more is unrealistic. Combine that with low hourly wages or low-level salaries compared to other NPAO “superiors”, and negligence, burnout, and high staff turnover result.
  • Similarly, part-time and/or “seasonal” farming (i.e. March or April through October or November) is unrealistic, especially with large spaces or multiple sites. Farming is a year-round beast whose tasks change cyclically but don’t stop in the winter. NPAO need to recognize this and commit to paying farmers year-round.
  • Many NPAO have very high farm staff turnover, and some have the annual hiring of new farmers built into their structure. If no one is connected to a piece of land or community long-term, the design (or lack thereof) and health of the ecosystem will reflect that. It’s also a direct reflection of an organization’s dysfunction to the community, and bad reputation may result in fewer qualified applicants seeking positions over time.
  • Perceptions of necessary community work swing widely depending on whether one is “on the ground” or “in the office”. Often, NPAO farmers have far more contact with their target community than administrators, yet they often go unheard. Sometimes a young girl confiding in a farmer about being abused, or the need to bury a neighbor family’s dog, or a really important game of hide and seek, or the community’s interest in turning a garden into a basketball court are more important concerns than building trellises for legumes or harvesting all the peaches before the squirrels descend.
  • NPAO that receive funding for training youth food growers are primarily run by older staff farmers. Youth programming is often far less time weekly or seasonally than is needed to grow food. This structure must be modified to accurately train the next generation.
  • On-site or neighborhood-based housing must be available for farmers and their families if farm is outside of an urban area, if livestock is being managed, or if median income in the area where the farm is located is higher than the farmer’s salary.
  • Many nonprofits are just as intent on self-preservation and perpetuation as for-profits. The goal of nonprofit farmers and organizations should ultimately be to perform such effective work as to render themselves irrelevant.
  • NPAO could consider leveraging their land, status, and funding to incubate landless farmers or historically marginalized individuals interested in farming.
  • If presented with professional designs and strategic plans, people with large parcels of land laying fallow or being rented to corn, soy, and hay monocroppers may be willing to work with NPAO instead. The tax breaks for agricultural use, tax-deductible donations, and the appeal to “make a difference in the world” are all valuable assets.

Questions geared toward NPAO Administrators and Board Members:

  • Why do you do what you do? What is your nonprofit’s mission?
  • Is it a nonprofit with many programs of which farming is one, or is it specifically a NPAO? Are you experiencing “mission creep”?
  • When it comes to agricultural programming, what are you most proud of? What is the greatest challenge?
  • What is the demographic makeup of your board and staff? What is the demographic makeup of the community or communities you serve? Are they at all similar?
  • Where are farmers or food-related workers within your organizational hierarchy? Are any of your administrators or board members experienced agricultural workers? How often do you hire new staff?
  • Is there a model NPAO that can be designed in which farm or food cooperatives are involved in the structure? What about an NPAO acting as a land-holding, training, or small agribusiness development hub?
  • What is the percentage breakdown of your revenue streams? Do food or value-added products or programming generate any revenue? If not, how could you change that?
  • How are issues of race, class, gender, and ecology factored into your programming?

Questions geared toward NPAO Employees:

  • What are your thoughts on the above questions? Do you think your answers would differ from administration? Why?
  • What kinds of work do you do in your day-to-day? In what ways does permaculture design factor? Why are you doing the work you do?
  • Do you have a community of peers or colleagues to whom you are able to reach out?
  • Do you feel adequately supported by your employer? Do you feel that you’re compensated appropriately? Are you full or part-time?
  • Is there enough transparency within the nonprofit where you work? With you? With the target community?
  • Do you feel qualified to do the work you do? Why and why not? What kinds of professional development and training do you feel you and others in your NPAO need?
  • Are you from the community where you work? If not, would you be willing to train your replacement if they were a community member?

Questions geared towards community members impacted by, but not directly involved in, NPAO:

  • What are your thoughts on the above questions? Do you think they would differ from NPAO administration or employees?
  • Do you feel the NPAO is adequately serving you and your community? How could it do better?
  • How does the NPAO seek community input and involvement? Does that outreach feel sufficient?
  • What were things like prior to this NPAO entering your community? Would you rather see something else in its place?

Question geared towards all other permaculturists, farmers, and readers:

  • What are your thoughts on any of the above questions? How do you feel that you can contribute to this conversation? How can permaculture design facilitate the creation of model NPAO?

Robyn Mello lives in Philadelphia, PA. She is Program Director for the Philadelphia Orchard Project, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that has planted over 1,000 fruit trees in 50+ partner community orchards throughout the city since 2007. She also consults, designs, organizes educational programming, and teaches permaculture at regional music festivals and is lead siren and guitarist in earth-worshipping fusion band, The Radicans (,

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position of our organization.