Chris Curtis had a good feeling when she corralled a group of volunteers and launched a farmers market in Seattle’s University District in 1993. The community seemed ready for a channel to access fresh, locally grown produce. Regional farmers needed an outlet to reach consumers, and Washington’s agricultural economy stood to benefit. It seemed like a can’t-fail idea.  

The Alliance started with one market. Five years later, Karen Kinney joined Chris’s growing team, and jump-started a second market in the funky Columbia City neighborhood. In 2000, Chris and Karen appealed to the City of Seattle for support, and the Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance was born as a formal organization.

This time of year we all think of farmers markets as natural, expected parts of our communities.

But, as anyone who has started or led an organization, there are a hundred ways a “can’t-fail” idea can crash. The checklist of ingredients for success is long: there are countless logistical details, staffing needs, administrative requirements, facilities concerns and marketing strategies, not to mention relationships with farmers, other vendors and local government agencies. And of course there has to be a way to fund the operation. Success can never be taken for granted, and sustaining it over time—the ultimate test—is a huge accomplishment.

By that measure, Chris and Karen have passed the test resoundingly. The Alliance now operates seven markets throughout the Emerald City, each with a distinctive character. These markets hum with excitement, and serve has hubs of social and economic activity in their neighborhoods. The organization has a sustainable business model, an experienced, dedicated staff, and has become a community institution.

Chris continues to lead the Alliance, as executive director. Karen has since moved on to lead the Washington State Farmers Market Association (WSFMA), which serves and represents 118 member markets throughout the state. These organizations serve as bridges between Washington’s agricultural riches and a remarkable diversity of local communities.

Chris Curtis (left), Executive Director of Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance and Karen Kinney (right) of Washington State Farmers Market Association.

Chris Curtis (left), Executive Director of Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance and Karen Kinney (right) of Washington State Farmers Market Association.

Public Interest Management Group has worked with both nonprofits in the past year to tackle growth and management challenges. PIMG helped WSFMA develop a five-year business plan for growth, and assisted the Alliance in analyzing and refining management policies and procedures, helping the organization re-calibrate its operations after years of growth.

These projects have been successful in helping both organizations prepare for exciting years ahead.  

Chris Curtis observed that, “PIMG provided the NFM great insight, first-hand perspective and thorough research as we analyzed our staffs’ scope of work and HR structure.”  

Karen Kinney commented that “The PIMG team’s fresh perspective helped us re-frame the way we set priorities, refine our staff structure, and prepare for long-term sustainability.”

Looking back on the last two-plus decades, both founders appreciate what they’ve started. Chris reflected that “I don’t think any of us could have imagined that little neighborhood market would grow into an organization connecting 120 farmers with 500,000 shoppers a year. Our markets are truly providing economic support for our region’s small family farms and a wonderful social catalyst… It’s been a success beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.”  

But none of it has been easy. “Sometimes managing growth and success is harder than failure,” Chris noted. What are the keys to success? “Strong nonprofit principles and values, a firm hand on our bottom line, and committed, passionate people.” Karen agrees, and takes particular pride in the growth of the Association’s food access program, which enables low-income people to share in the bounty of local farmers markets in every region of the state.

More accomplishments lie ahead for these two venerable nonprofits. Next time you attend your local farmers market, take a minute to think about the folks who make it all happen, and the ways your world benefits from their efforts.