The End of an Era and the Future of Sustainability: The Coffee Kids Legacy

Coffee KidsBy Lily Kubota, SCAA

On Tuesday morning, thousands of coffee professionals around the world woke up to the news that Coffee Kids, a non-profit NGO supporting a wide variety of projects in coffee farming communities would be suspending programming and seeking “an appropriate organization with which to merge.” This announcement spurred a lot of conversation about the overall health of our industry’s non-profit sector. However, although it is still undetermined who will carry on the important work of Coffee Kids, there is hope on the horizon.

Naturally, there has been an outpouring of disappointment and confusion from people who supported the organization and its mission. According to our Sr. Director of Symposium, Peter Giuliano, “Coffee Kids is like an institution for people of my generation in this industry. It has never not existed, as far as we are concerned.” For over 26 years, Coffee Kids has supported projects that have benefited over 25,000 people in nearly 150 communities, according to their website.

Envisioning a world in which coffee farmers thrive, coffee-farming communities are self-sustaining, families have a life of dignity, and everyone has an equal seat at the table, Coffee Kids worked diligently for a quarter of a century to achieve these goals. And yet, it seems as though the work has just begun. After what feels like the end of an era, we can’t help but ponder on what the next phase of sustainability work will look like, and who will lead the charge. Will the industry come together to ensure that Coffee Kids legacy lives on through its mission?

The response to the announcement included coverage from publications such as sprudge.com, in which they noted that “Coffee Kids was almost entirely funded by business donations, drawing broad support from across the global coffee business community for projects in Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru, Guatemala, and Mexico.” It is apparent that this model was, ultimately, not sustainable. And Coffee Kids had to make the very difficult decision to close its doors.

This begs the larger question, why did this funding fall short? Where was the industry support when they needed it the most? In Coffee Kids’ 2013 Annual Report, they recognized a long list of supporters. We just reported on our own efforts to raise funds for Coffee Kids through the annual Roasters Guild Retreat Silent Auction, which raised over $5,400 for their “Grow it Forward” campaign. So, were the donations overall smaller, less frequent? What could be the underlying cause of this shortage?

Clearly the industry recognizes that there is a link in our chain that isn’t getting a fair shake and, more directly related to the bottom line for our industry, that many coffee producers are leaving coffee in pursuit of better livelihoods. So with a growing awareness of these issues, clear evidence that we should be concerned about the future of our industry, and a shared desire to seek solutions to these challenges, the lack of industry-wide support for this particular organization is somewhat perplexing. Unfortunately, Coffee Kids is not unique in this struggle.

The impact of competition in the non-profit sector is something we must consider as a factor. Over the past 26 years, many organizations and initiatives similar to Coffee Kids have surfaced, creating more ways for the industry to support these types of efforts in the realm of sustainability. It could be viewed as a good problem to have, with so many organizations working to achieve a similar goal – improving the lives of famers and making coffee production a sustainable livelihood. However, when each organization has to compete for this funding, it could be preventing us from seeing some of the positive impacts that a combined effort could have.

What’s more, we are seeing a growing trend towards businesses working to strengthen their own supply chains through direct trade programs. We can certainly point to how these efforts and practices have been important at the farm level in terms of providing sustainable livelihoods for coffee farmers, and it is encouraging to see companies take these issues into their own hands and claim responsibility for their partners, but it is undeniable that there is a need for a more holistic approach to these systemic issues. If we fail to support a larger effort to address these challenges, our industry will most certainly suffer for it.

Carolyn Fairman, chief of staff for SCAA and former Executive Director for Coffee Kids, had this to say: “The closing of Coffee Kids may feel disheartening and disappointing, but perhaps there is a silver lining in all of this. A wake up call. As an industry, I believe we have always recognized the efforts of Coffee Kids and the need they filled in the value chain. Perhaps we can find a way to come together with greater force and even greater impact and keep this critical work alive.”

As we struggle to come up with answers to the questions that have been posed here, let us all take a moment to recognize the great work that Coffee Kids has done over the past 26 years and give thanks to an organization that stayed true to its mission, an important mission: to cultivate the power of coffee-producing communities to determine the terms of their future. We can honor their work by coming together as an industry to find a way to confront these issues and keeping this conversation at the forefront of our dialogue.