In the Philanthropic Weeds: Cannabis Giving Goes Local


January 12, 2017; Denver Post

Last November, seven more states legalized marijuana, increasing the total number of states where the use of marijuana in some capacity (recreational or medical) is not illegal to twenty-eight. Overall, the legal marijuana industry could gross as much as $20 billion in revenue by 2020. Many of the new businesses making up the legal marijuana industry are looking to give back to their communities, but many nonprofits are hesitant to accept their donations.

Tim Cullen, the CEO of the Colorado Harvest Company, was surprised by the challenges he encountered when he decided to donate some of his business’ earnings. “I have been shocked at how few places will take our money,” he said. Colorado Harvest Company is a chain of shops selling marijuana products. Cullen is also a shareholder of O.penVape, a company producing vaping pens.

Although Colorado legalized recreational marijuana over five years ago, many nonprofits continue to refuse gifts from the industry. Luckily, Cullen felt strongly about the need to give back. “I think philanthropy is what responsible businesses do. It’s not a choice so much as the next logical step,” he said. Eventually, he and his business partners at O.penVape made a donation of $250,000 to Levitt Pavilion Denver to partially fund a new amphitheater in Ruby Hill Park in the southwest part of the city. Once it is finished, the nearly $5 million Levitt Pavilion will host many events, including fifty free concerts each summer.

Accepting this gift was not a simple decision for Chris Zacher, the local executive director. Since the pavilion will be located in a city park, he first reached out to the city of Denver. City officials did not approve or object to the potential partnership but encouraged Levitt to reach its own conclusion, according to city licensing spokesman Dan Rowland. Zacher’s second phone call was to the organization’s national board. “We took it to Levitt, they took it to the board, and as long as it is legal in their state and not promoting the sex trade or tobacco, they were fine with it,” he said.

Although there are 2,966 medical marijuana dispensaries, 3,973 retailers, and 4,200 cultivators across the country, marijuana remains classified as a Schedule 1 drug by the federal government. This is the same classification as heroin, LSD, and ecstasy. At the same time, the public’s views of marijuana continue to evolve. According to a Pew Research Center survey taken in October of 2016, 57 percent of adults in the U.S. believe marijuana should be legal while 37 percent believe it should remain illegal, compared to 32 percent supporting legalization and 60 percent against ten years ago.

This evolving landscape creates risk and uncertainty for the industry, for the thousands of people who legally use it to relieve pain, nausea, muscle spasms, and other conditions, for those who use it for recreational purposes, and for the philanthropic community.

One misconception is why the industry is giving. Although Colorado Harvest Company and O.penVape will be the Pavilion’s headline sponsors, most do not give for marketing or visibility. “I think there is some misunderstanding oftentimes between cannabis (businesses) and nonprofits where nonprofits assume what cannabis wants out of donations is marketing and visibility, and we find the industry does not want that,” said Courtney Mathis, COO of KindColorado. Additionally, since the industry remains illegal in the federal government’s view, businesses can’t write off or deduct their gift on their taxes.

Due to the continued hesitation, the industry as a whole has created a giving campaign through the DoingGood.FOUNDATION. DoingGood.FOUNDATION is a national organization “providing small and local charities with free resources to help them grow and help meet more of our community’s needs!” On April 20th, 2017—yes, 4/20—they are organizing a national campaign to educate the public on the connection between the cannabis industry and local communities. All of the funds raised during the campaign will be given to small nonprofits in the states where the donations originate.

In our opinion, there are far more questionable industries nonprofits take donations from and invest with. As people’s judgment of marijuana and the legal marijuana industry continues to transform, more and more nonprofits will be exploring potential donations and beating back the unease surrounding them.—Gayle Nelson

This article has been altered from its original form. The $250,000 donation to Levitt Pavilion Denver came as two $125,000 donations, one each from Colorado Harvest Company and from O.penVape. NPQ thanks CHC for the clarification.

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The Nonprofit #CuteAnimalTweetOff: Does It Need a Reason?


As an eventful January 2017 ground to a close, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo welcomed a grey seal pup into the world. Its mother, a 33-year-old gray seal named Kara, is the oldest grey seal to give birth in a zoo. The birth was also a celebration of the successful conservation activities leading to the number of gray seals rising to more than 600,000 worldwide and the shifting of the species from “endangered” to “least concern” in 2016 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

This pregnancy received social media attention. In December, the Washington Post had a Facebook Live presentation of the seal’s ultrasound. After the seal was born, the Zoo tweeted its photo. Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center supporter and Radio Free Radio host Sarah Janet Hill thought, “Our seals are cuter than that,” and posted a Twitter challenge to the Virginia Aquarium. The Aquarium accepted the challenge and posted a picture of a seal and osprey.

The tweets started a Twitter war under the #cuteanimaltweetoff hashtag that lasted for days, with activity from zoos and aquariums across the country and worldwide, including Toronto, Tokyo, and Australia. Even other types of organizations participated, including two police departments, which tweeted pictures of their service dogs. On top of that, it received major newspaper coverage, a home run in visibility and attention.

Mashable, an online newspaper centered on technology and social media, described the tweet-off as “social media done right.” But was it? It certainly received enormous attention and lifted peoples’ spirits. Throughout the Twitter war, few tweets weaved in zoos’ and aquariums’ missions. A small number posted uncommon or less-mainstream animals, like geckos and pufferfish. An even smaller number, such as the Lincoln Park Zoo and the Australian Zoo Wildlife Hospital, merged their missions of conservation and fighting the destruction of these animals’ homes in the wild into their message.

These kinds of spontaneous online events are becoming more common and can rarely be replicated intentionally. Of course, we don’t all deal with adorable baby animals, but in this communications environment, we all should be considering what we want people to understand and remember about our organization for use in such moments and even in less cute times.

Thankfully, there is a second chance. The Smithsonian’s zoo has not named its famous seal pup. They are taking names from the public and inviting potential sponsors to participate. Perhaps the seal pup’s name announcement can set off a second Twitter war focused on preservation and protection of our beautiful land for all species.—Gayle Nelson

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