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Achieving Sustainable Growth With Nonprofit Plywood People

Jeff from Plywood People talks about what it takes to thrive as a nonprofit in e‑commerce.

When I think of e-commerce, nonprofits aren’t the type of business that immediately come to mind. But after talking with Jeff Shinabarger, founder of Plywood People, I realized that nonprofits are some of the more creative e-commerce companies out there.

Plywood People doesn’t rely on product sales like the majority of e-commerce businesses, but they do accept donations online and offer paid programming to their customers. Their mission is to lead a community of start-ups doing good and they have worked with many recognizable names including So Worth Loving and Kid President. Plywood People is our first nonprofit we’ve talked to for What’s in Store, and their business model is definitely unique. Over the years, they’ve had to continually focus their offerings in order to achieve sustainable growth.

When it comes to e-commerce funding, Jeff has to get crafty. “If we only rely on individuals, fundraisers or grants for funding, I think we are limiting our likelihood of being sustainable.” Jeff focuses on creating programming that is worth investment from donors. Instead of solely asking for donations, he offers events and online training as ways for people to contribute and reap a benefit as well.

Plywood flips the perspective of the ask by thinking of it more like an offer. They’re not asking for money: They’re offering their community the opportunity to fund these unique programs.

“Our e-commerce happens through events like our annual gathering called Plywood Presents and through training environments like Path by Plywood, a 6-week digital course for social entrepreneurs,” he says. In addition to paid programs, Plywood People shares free programming through their social media accounts. They host a conversation each month on Instagram called #Plywords where they engage with followers and offer advice at no cost. These conversations serve to promote their brand and provide a taste of how the paid programming works.

Plywood used to run a program called Billboard Bags that wasn’t exactly related to their mission directly, but it was Jeff’s favorite. Billboard Bags hired and trained refugee women to up-cycle billboard material into totes. The project perfectly represented the type of businesses that Jeff wanted to help bolster through Plywood People, but it was constantly losing money. Eventually, the board voted to shut it down. Billboard Bags was a great project, but it didn’t make sense to sacrifice Plywood’s core mission to try and keep it working.

“Just because you end something doesn’t mean it’s a failure,” Jeff says. “It means you are opening the door to what is next and focusing your attention on what is best for your future sustainability.” These days, Jeff recognizes the value in saying no. “The 2 most powerful words in the dictionary are yes and no,” he says. “What you say yes and no to defines what you’re known for. If you say yes to everything, you will be known for nothing.”

The Plywood team can’t do everything, so instead they choose to do a few things very well. And that’s why they’ve grown from 6 major donors to 50 since they began their journey.

But Jeff also recognizes the importance of personal growth and the impact it can have on his business. Every year, the Plywood People headquarters shuts down for 2 weeks so that Jeff and his employees can completely recharge.

A firm believer in the power of work-life balance, Jeff says, “This consistent resting time has become the greatest element of my year. It gives me rest, connection with my family, fresh ideas for our organization, and renewed perspective on what we do and why we do it.”

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