Folding Chair

Five years ago Joel Sisson's blend of art, social work, and lawn furniture was the talk of the town. Now the founder of the Green Chair Project is sitting on a pile of dreams and unpaid bills.

Except that this is not the Green Chair Project. It's the Green Chair Workshop, a branch of Louis King's Summit Academy OIC. Sisson hooked up with King's organization, then called Two or More, in 1994; King was intrigued with the idea of using chairs to train youth in carpentry, teamwork, and basic business practices. Two or More offered its space and summer youth crews as the Project's second chair-building facility. But Sisson and King parted ways the next year, when Sisson began asking the kids to build 14-foot chairs; they've tried to get back together since then, only to realize that the differences in philosophy are too great.

"I don't do public art," King says. "I don't know who to go and sell that idea to." Unlike Sisson, King is a nonprofit veteran who knows how to put together the paperwork funders demand--the spreadsheets showing how many kids worked for how long, the goal statements and outcome reports. Perhaps not surprisingly, his group has often won out when both the Green Chair Project and the Workshop applied for grant money. King says he didn't expect things to work out that way, but is grateful for the support: "No one could have foreseen how this was going to catch on," he says. "Joel planted a seed and we were able to nurture it. It's one of our signature programs."

Competition among groups with similar goals and constituencies is nothing new in the nonprofit world. Jeremy Hanson, public policy coordinator for the Minnesota AIDS Project, says it's a familiar conundrum for AIDS groups, most of which compete for the same set of funding sources funneled through the Minnesota Department of Health. "It does get frustrating sometimes," Hanson says. "The Minnesota AIDS Project does awareness for education and we do public policy and we do it all over the state. So what if a group wants to provide services in, say, Mankato: Do you fund that group or ours?"

In the case of the competing Green Chairs, the confusion was heightened by the fact that the groups were hard to tell apart. Sisson says at least one check destined for the Project was almost sent to the Workshop instead, and a member of his board also advised King's operation. When Sisson applied for a business phone, the phone company turned him down because there was already a "Green Chair Project"; the snafu wasn't fixed until King changed his group's listing to "Green Chair Workshop."

Minor though they were, the snags have grated on Sisson, who says his public-art efforts have created publicity from which the Workshop now benefits. He made that point to Summit's board in a recent letter: "All we are asking is that if Summit is going to continue to enjoy the publicity we have received, then please...do not do us any disservice by not being clear to inquirers as to who is who and why."

Yet Sisson insisted in the same letter, "We are not sore losers about funding going to Summit. After all, you have the stronger, better organization. Congratulations! Really."

 

By the end of 1996, the Green Chair Project had arrived at a fork in the road. The Washington trip had been expensive, but supporters felt the exposure was worth the cost. Now, however, the bills were coming due. "Because we were focused on D.C.," says Sisson, "we didn't focus on chair sales at all." Only about 50 Adirondacks were sold that year. The funders were getting antsy.

"There was a sense that they had a level of funding that they probably couldn't maintain," recalls McKnight's Cuthbert. "Not everybody stays a Viking fan; they move on to whatever the next bandwagon is. The funders couldn't continue to hang on in the big way of the early years." If the Green Chair Project was going to keep dreaming big, Cuthbert says, it was going to have to get organized.

"It's fine if a group is content to be a little chamber group," he explains. "But if this little chamber group says, 'We want to be the Minnesota Orchestra,' then it's about figuring out the capacity of the people involved, the interest of the greater world. We've supported a lot of organizations that have started out small and then taken off and become huge. We're still providing support, but it's a smaller piece of their picture."

Sisson, too, was anxious to see the project expand. He wanted to sell loveseats, children's chairs, and folding chairs. He also had high hopes for "the kits"--chair parts, tools, and a video and training manual, all packaged in big wooden crates that unfolded into work tables with jigs attached. The kits, he figured, could spread the Green Chair gospel and generate revenue at the same time: He and his crew would conduct team-building seminars for corporations and larger nonprofits, teaching executives how people of different backgrounds and personalities could work together.

But to do all this, and continue to expand its public-art projects, the organization would need a year-round, permanent home. Steve Cramer, executive director of the economic-development group Project for Pride in Living (PPL), remembers being approached by Sisson in early '97. "Funders are telling me that they're not just going to be giving me money if I continue to open in the spring, close after the summer," Sisson told him. "I need a sustainable organization." Cramer offered to house the project, rent-free, in a storefront PPL owned near Chicago and 35th Street; PPL also stepped in to fill part of FORECAST's role as the project's fiscal agent, channeling grant money and providing administrative support.

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