I recently met Shelley Wascom, Executive Director of Community Shares, at Pearl on Union, a favorite coffee downtown coffee shop and a business that is emblematic of the downtown resurgence. It’s in the historic Daylight Building, which is filled with residents and businesses.
I had no idea we were meeting in the building that housed Community Shares from its inception in 1985 through its first ten years as an organization. They later worked from the Conley Building and the Farragut (now Hyatt Place), and they are now housed at the Joy of Music School, but the Daylight Building is where it all started.
Ms. Wascom said that five or so organizations started meeting to discuss how they might raise money. They researched (pre-internet) other organizations and funding sources. They approached United Way who said they did not fund groups attempting or advocating social change, which is what all these groups were about.
They eventually discovered that other organizations were forming groups of their own, using a similar funding model to that of United Way. They visited the Center for Responsible Fundraising and returned to Knoxville to form their own federation. They began raising money through direct donations and workplace donations for the purpose of giving the money directly to “social change agents.” They don’t give grants, they simply give money to selected organizations.
Under the leadership of the original director, Peggy Matthews, they began approaching employers to ask if they would allow payroll deductions to support Community Shares. They were met with some skepticism, at first, but gradually employers opened up a bit. UT was one of the first major employers to agree to participate. That first year they raised $6,000, which they equally distributed to each of their approved organizations, a method of distribution they have since maintained.
The early participating organizations included SOCM (originally standing for Save Our Cumberland Mountains, they re-branded as Statewide Organizing for Community Empowerment), Mountain Women’s Exchange, Knoxville Communications Coop, Knoxville Recycling Coalition, Legal Environmental Assistance Foundation and Carpetbag Theatre.
A requirement for funding from the beginning has been that any organizations receiving funding must be working for systemic change. Many organizations do good work, but not all share that goal.
Shelley has an MS in Social Work, but “always worked for non-profits, never in a traditional social work job.” She worked for SOCM in those early days, but joined Community Shares as Associate Director in 1996 and became Executive Director in 1997, a position she has held since.
It was one of her previous jobs which shaped her views. She worked for the Appalachian Service Project, a noble organization which repairs homes for people who need it. She worked summers and soon realized she was repairing the same homes she’d repaired before. She realized that in these impoverished areas with their “roads shot, their land stripped,” they were doing good work, but they “needed to do something bigger that produced real change.”
Enter Community Shares, which is an east Tennessee organization devoted to producing real change. They’ve consistently remained with the original model of workplace donations, but they’ve found that system to be dependent on the economy. The Internet shifted fundraising by making online donations possible and the organization is promoting that, as well.
They currently raise about $300,000 per year for their thirty-four member organizations, some of which are very familiar, such as Ijams Nature Center, the Highlander Research and Education Center and Jubilee Community Arts. Others are less familiar, such as the Appalachian Community Fund and the Black Children’s Institute of Tennessee. Community Shares, which is a 501(c3) simply wants to further their missions and places no restrictions on the money given.
And they are comprehensive in the evaluation of organizations before they are accepted for membership. They examine the finances of the organization, they examine goals and accomplishments. “We want to support groups that are making a difference.” They are pleased to have found a niche supporting organizations that work for systemic change as it was a piece they found missing.
The same people who formed Community Shares have helped replicate it across the country and developed Community Shares, USA, which is a loose and broad coalition around the country with different, but often similar, names, such as Montana Shares and Community Works in Boston. It all started in the Daylight Building in Knoxville, Tennessee. They continue to support each other an share resources when they can.
Our local organization has one full-time employee (Shelley) and two part-time employees. They would love to raise additional money for more staff and to fill other needs. The employee donations go directly to the supported groups, leaving Community Shares to search for additional funding to support staff and other needs. So, how did this social change organization get hooked up with beer? It’s an interesting story.
Sixteen years ago, the suggestion was made that perhaps they could work with Brewer’s Jam, which celebrates its twenty-second year this Saturday. They made arrangements through Brewer’s Jam founder Tom Rutledge to become involved. The first year was successful, but Tom soon died and the event was suddenly in jeopardy. The family was very supportive of the organization and so, Community Shares took over the event after being a one-year participant.
Timing was on their side as the craft beer explosion was set to begin. Shelley likes to think Brewer’s Jam had something to do with the rise in popularity of craft beer in Knoxville. “When we started, you couldn’t find the beer we brought in, anywhere else in Knoxville. Brewers came to get their beer in the market. In the beginning, Brewers wanted to publicize their beer and they donated it. Some still do and they are our Premier Sponsors.”
So, Brewer’s Jam is a fundraiser, but not just put on to support an organization, it is put on by the organization. The group, along with volunteers, plans, manages and executes the whole event. After the last beer is consumed, they pay the bills.
The festival has always emphasized regional (and now local) beers and local music. It’s popularity has grown to the point that the World’s Fair Park began to feel cramped. As a result, they have moved this year’s festival to the Mary Costa Plaza where there will be more room for vendors as well as new additions like a game tent for adults. The festival is a 21 and up event.
Cutthroat Shamrock is the headliner, but there will also be a musical surprise with some of Knoxville’s finest musicians joining together for a one-time performance. You’ll find food vendors and food trucks, and always, beer. General admission tickets are $50 and samples are offered from 45 different breweries. Abundant parking is available on site and the trolley runs from the heart of downtown out to the site. It’s also an easy walk from downtown.