Project 7: A New Model for Non-Profits

If you’ve shopped at a Wal-Mart or Target recently, you might have noticed the purple packs of gum made by a company called Project 7 as you were checking out. Had you bought one of these packs, you would have helped feed Americans experiencing poverty-related hunger.

Founded in 2008 by Tyler Merrick, Project 7 makes everyday products such as coffee, gum, and water, and gives the proceeds to various charities. Project 7’s partners include Oprah’s O You Conference, Camfed, Children’s Hunger Fund, Feeding America, Partners in Health, and many more.

A rising star in the world of non-profits, Project 7’s presence is becoming increasingly ubiquitous in the United States, with partners ranging from Barnes and Noble to Wal-Mart.

Project 7’s goal is, as the name implies, seven-fold:

1.     Heal the Sick – provide malaria medication to someone in need;

2.     Save the Earth – plant trees to compensate for deforestation and destruction of plant and animal habitats;

3.     House the Homeless – provide shelter, food, education, and healthcare for orphans;

4.     Feed the Hungry – give meals to Americans that are going hungry;

5.     Quench the Thirsty – supply clean water to people in need;

6.     Teach them Well – provide schooling for children in Africa;

7.     Hope for Peace – counseling for former child soldiers.

To learn how the team at Project 7 manages such an ambitious agenda, the DBJ asked Project 7’s founder and CEO Tyler Merrick a couple of questions.

Dartmouth Business Journal (DBJ): What gave you the idea for Project 7?

Tyler Merrick (TM): I wanted to create a brand that gave people the power to help people while they were buying something for themselves.  I thought, why don’t we build a brand around 7 issues in the world that, when people buy them, they help out one of these 7 areas of need.  They were going to buy “everyday products” anyway so why not give them a buying vehicle where they could choose who and how they wanted to help.  So I started to map out what would become Project 7.  I wanted to apply the things I had learned in the pet food world to a new world of consumption, I wanted to create a system where people could feel good about helping someone in need at the same time they were getting something that you could argue is not needed, i.e. gum, mints, etc.

DBJ: How does running Project 7 differ from running a more conventional business?

TM: In a lot of ways it doesn’t; we just have a different goal in mind.  We have to run Project 7 like a national competitor runs theirs.  If we don’t deliver a high quality product, on time to the retailer at a value proposition to the end user, then we won’t be in business very long.  If we’re in business, we can make an ongoing sustainable impact in these 7 areas of need.

DBJ: What have been the biggest challenges for Project 7? What are the biggest challenges moving forward?

b: A big challenge we’ve had is that we have 7 issues (Heal The Sick, Save the Earth, House the Homeless, Feed the Hungry, Quench the Thirsty, Teach Them Well, Hope For Peace) and the retail world is challenging in grocery because they typically cherry pick an item or two.  Many times the retailers always go to the more popular issues such as “SAVE the Earth, FEED the Hungry” and  a large gap is left for ones such as HOPE for Peace & TEACH them Well.

DBJ: What do you think has been the secret to Project 7’s success up till now?

TM: It sounds cliché but there is no secret.  It truly is hard work and rolling up your sleeves and going after it every single day.  It’s facing the rejection and the potholes and choosing to figure out a way to learn from them and get through them.  It’s taking care of the customers we have one at a time, which we’re always trying to get better at so that we can take care of the next one we add.  Keep knocking doors and lose graciously so that you keep the door open for down the road. Hustle like it’s your job.

DBJ: With so many great charitable causes, how do you decide on which ones to support?

b: We find partners that we feel could be a match for our needs and then put them through an application process that has lots of vetting in it. How long have they been in business, how they give, program successes, etc. Most of the partners we’ve worked with have been with us a couple years as we build long-term relationships and only make our programs stronger together.  We’re about making long-term impacts and not just one-offs here and there.  There are only so many groups that distribute meals in America, only so many groups that plant trees and so on, so we have pretty specific needs and requirements.

DBJ: What are Project 7’s plans for the future?

TM: Take care of the business and products we have and to grow the amount of sales in existing channels and products so we can continue to give to our 7 areas of need.  All the while it is our goal to gain more retailers to give people more opportunities to give back easily over the course of their day.  If we do those things, then a lot of things will take care of themselves.

Perhaps unbeknownst to them, Project 7 also makes a difference in the world in an eighth way: they have reduced the burden of the fund-raising component of non-profit work. Project 7 allows the organizations it partners with to focus on their cause, be it preventing hunger, or saving the environment. These organizations do not have to concern themselves with fundraising efforts, or at least they can do so to a lesser extent. Furthermore, Project 7 is continually operating, which means that it can give to its partner organizations on an ongoing basis.

Project 7’s products have already made a significant impact, and its trailblazing business model will continue to affect how the non-profit sector does business.

Check out their online store.