The following is a " what if" written by the recent (and retired) Coffee Kids board president, Mike Ferguson. This is not reality, but it could be if the specialty coffee industry and coffee enthusiast consumers like you don't continue to support this fantastic organization.
June 19, 2038
When I entered to coffee industry in 1998, forty years ago now, I never imagined that coffee was my last stop. But here I am, on the day of my retirement, surrounded by many things I never imagined in 1998. Here I am, in my garden, speaking to myself, or so it would seem to anyone observing from 1998, and yet I know many of my friends and family all over the world are not only listening to me, but watching me, live, at this very moment. We have become so accustomed to so instant and immediate communication that is difficult to remember what life was like when we carried cumbersome mobile phones, let alone a time before mobile phones.
But I am already speaking like a cliche of an old man, recalling ancient times. I don't long for the past and I have few regrets. I wish to speak about one of those regrets now, on my last official day in the coffee business. Don't worry, it's nothing personal, at least not in the way that might cause you concern. It has everything to do with the industry I love.
Some of you old folks will remember an organization called Coffee Kids and, perhaps, a very few of you will remember that I served for a time as president of their board. If I have one nagging regret in coffee, it's that I did not do enough to ensure Coffee Kids would remain viable and grow to be older than me.
In the same way that I take for granted the ability to speak with so many friends with the push of one button, I'm afraid I took for granted that the industry would always support Coffee Kids. In truth, the coffee industry emerged from the recession of 2008 with a kind of amnesia when it came to Coffee Kids. Understandably, contributions dropped during the recession but even as late as 2013 they gave no sign of making a meaningful comeback.
I've had many years to think about why this was the case. It was what I call the era of "princes poisoning kings", at least in the specialty coffee industry. The industry's founding generation was either stepping aside or being forced aside. Coffee Kids, unfortunately, was a part of that founding generation of specialty coffee and while constant renewal was inherent in the Coffee Kids model, we could have done a better job of talking about this. Combine this with the fact that the Coffee Kids model was complex because the issues it sought to address were complex, difficult to explain quickly, and it fed our image as "old school".
The essentials were simple. Coffee Kids was not a "gringo forward" organization. Coffee Kids funded grassroots efforts at coffee origin. Both the needs and the response were defined, not by visiting coffee roasters, but by the farming community. They told us what they needed and how they would meet the need and those that were ready to act were funded by Coffee Kids. From health and education to food security and micro-financing, Coffee Kids funded long term solutions from the ground up, and when goals had been reached, programs graduated from outside support.
There use to be this phrase, "elevator speech." You don't hear it anymore because elevators move so damn fast these days. It meant being able to describe your company or your organization or your idea, whatever, during a ride in an elevator. At Coffee Kids we struggled with our elevator speech, we found it difficult to summarize a meaningful and comprehensive approach to making real impact over time.
We were hard to pigeonhole at a time when other organizations had grown by focusing on a very specific need. Should we have changed our methodology? Perhaps. But it was difficult to move away from something that had changed thousands of lives because we could not think of a sexy way to describe it.
The growth of the specialty coffee industry, ironically, worked against us in a way. Everyone wanted to differentiate themselves from everyone else in every way possible and one of those ways was by supporting something other than the same old coffee charity that had been around forever. Everyone wanted to support something new and unusual in a new and unusual way. And everyone, I mean everyone, was asking "What's in it for me?"
Simply helping to sustain a healthy supply chain, or improve the lives of people who grew coffee, was no longer enough enlightened self interest. Companies began asking us for exclusivity with regard to the specifics of how they chose to support Coffee Kids. All well and good I thought, but how many exclusive arrangements can one charity create before the differentiation between them becomes nominal and it's not enough and people go elsewhere in order to look more different than the company down the street?
Roasters all wanted to do it themselves, go to origin and fund a project where they could get their hands dirty. Problem was, despite all their good intentions, they almost always left more problems in their wake or wasted time, energy and money on something that the community did not deem as a priority.
And while we struggled with such things, the list of "former donors" grew. The recession had taken a toll on staffing, causing shake ups at even some large companies. In some cases, the Coffee Kids advocate at a company would move on and their replacement would slash or eliminate the Coffee Kids donation. There were companies, brands still with us today, though not known now for coffee, where corporate responsibility had become nothing more than a hood ornament, another phrase I should probably explain, but I'll skip it.
Even worse, some had grown so large that giving had become bureaucratic and we would watch our overhead costs grow as we navigated the red tape. Meaningful conversations about making real impact rather than photo opportunities for someone's marketing department were becoming few and far between.
At some point it occurred to me that this was what was missing, the conversations. Coffee Kids had been founded on conversations, long conversations, really long conversations. Today, a long sales cycle is considered 24 hours. Information can be moved, crunched, analyzed and applied so quickly that the heart has been removed from the equation and instinct is considered a liability apart from the instinct to act. This reality was already being foretold back in 2010, with ROI templates and marketing metrics being applied to doing the right thing. Every company had a green thumb, even if the hand was up to no good.
But these are the time travels of an old man, hindsight is 20/20 and I did the best I could with what I had at the time. If only... if only I could have done more... something... more. Nevertheless, other organizations, many of them very good groups and quite well known today, emerged to fill the void that was left by Coffee Kids' departure. I and those around me have supported them enthusiastically.
And yet, somehow, none of them have quite captured my imagination the way Coffee Kids did. It could be some deeply ingrained bias, but to this day I have yet to come across another group that has the same courage, I guess you would call it, that Coffee Kids had. No other organization I know of, after all this time, has been willing to allow solutions to percolate up from the very ground in which the coffee is grown, without attempting, like some misguided missionaries from centuries past, to mold the solution into something more appropriate or more comfortable to their first world eyes.
Yes, I miss the bravery of Coffee Kids.
I know that the market balance has shifted to a great degree. Some of the greatest coffee roasters in our industry are located not 100 feet from a mill. But the rich are still here and the poor are still there and I miss the bravery of Coffee Kids.
It's odd, after all this time that I still think about it so often, but I do, and I wish I had done more.
Mike's words are mostly fiction from the future, but the seeds of reality inspired this article. The fact is, Coffee Kids does fantastic work in coffee growing communities, and you, the consumer enthusiast, would be richer just knowing more about this organization and what it does. If you value coffee - the seed to cup story, the quality, the hard work that goes into making coffee great - you can have a direct impact on the lives of those who struggle so hard to eek out a living producing this bean you love and cherish. Don't wait for, or think that someone else will step up and support this fantastic cause. It's your turn to step up. Today.
All illustrations created by, and provided by Jad Sylia, an architect and artist. Be sure to check out his work!