Kenny Rogers, in his Grammy-winning song “The Gambler,” famously sang: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” Real Change gambled when we opened our first satellite distribution site in Kitsap County last November — and last week, we folded.
For an organization accustomed to success against tough odds, the decision to discontinue our first experiment in geographic expansion was difficult. Yet, it has quickly become obvious to our staff and board that in closing one door, we are opening up a world of possibilities.
Over the course of eight months, we devoted hundreds of hours of staff time into developing a partnership with the Kitsap Rescue Mission, which served as our distribution site. We invested in program promotion, recruited potential vendors and built community relationships. Our goal was to have 15 active vendors selling the paper after eight months. We had one. Even the executive director, Walt Le Couteur, acknowledged, “I can totally understand why you all need to move on. It’s an awful lot of resources to invest in an entire program that is currently just benefitting [one active vendor].”
Our supporters in Kitsap had said, “If you build it, they will come.” They didn’t. We had to coax and cajole almost every one of the 38 vendors who walked through the door for orientation. And those who did come for the initial orientation rarely came back after they sold their “starter” papers. Kitsap Rescue Mission’s staff didn’t have the capacity to follow up with these vendors, and there were limits to what we could provide from across the water.
In Kitsap, we learned it takes a lot of start-up capacity to launch a satellite, especially one in a remote location. It wasn’t enough to send someone from Seattle once a week; we needed a local person to recruit vendors and provide ongoing support. We also learned that it takes a community for vendors to succeed. When vendors come downtown and buy papers, it’s not just a transaction. We create a family experience for our vendors, and it sustains them when they have hard days on the street. We didn’t have the resources or critical mass of vendors to replicate that feeling of community in Kitsap.
During our recent strategic planning retreat, our board and staff pondered: So now what? Do we carry our goal of geographic expansion into the next strategic plan and try again in another location, or do we reinvest resources elsewhere? By the end of the retreat, the answer was obvious: Rather than undertaking a new pilot based on a goal that was three years old, we have decided to re-invest in growing our local readership, rebuilding our circulation base and establishing a presence in underrepresented parts of the city.
Three years ago, when the board selected geographic expansion as a priority, we’d heard from vendors the Seattle market was saturated, and there were arguments between vendors over selling locations. Geographic expansion seemed like the way to address these concerns. Not only did expansion prove more challenging and drain more resources than expected, but also the local environment has changed.
The price increase has resulted in a 25 percent dip in circulation. Whereas vendors used to fight over selling spots, customers are telling us they can’t find a vendor. The elimination of the Ride Free Zone two years ago and increased transportation costs have taken a toll on our vendors. And we continue to hear that more and more customers simply don’t carry cash.
The changing local environment calls for innovative and creative responses. Letting go of the idea of expanding to areas beyond Seattle and Bellevue frees up resources to pursue development of a mobile app that will accept cashless payments and to implement a mobile distribution strategy to reduce transportation barriers for vendors. Real Change isn’t abandoning expansion. We’re just redefining what we mean by it.