Random Acts of Flowers wilts under costly rent | February 7, 2018 | Almanac | Almanac Online |

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News - February 7, 2018

Random Acts of Flowers wilts under costly rent

by Kate Bradshaw

After about two years of operations in Menlo Park, Random Acts of Flowers, a nonprofit that uses volunteers to recycle, rearrange and distribute flower bouquets to the sick and elderly, has announced plans to shutter at the end of March.

The main reason for the operation's decline can be summed up in one word: rent. That's according to the organization's former executive director, Camille Kennedy.

"Without substantial investment by the community, it became clear that Random Acts of Flowers Silicon Valley would run out of money," she said.

Last summer, Ms. Kennedy left Random Acts of Flowers to begin work as a gifts officer at Avenidas in Palo Alto. The board did not hire a new executive director.

When another rent increase was announced, and the books were closed for the calendar year, it became evident that the local operation was not sustainable in the long term, the organization's founder and CEO Larsen Jay said in an email.

The loss of Random Acts of Flowers will be felt by people at the local health and senior care facilities, where recycled flowers and vases were routinely delivered to patients and residents, according to Ms. Kennedy.

Program Coordinator Annelynn Fairclough said she was "heartbroken" by the branch's impending closure, and emphasized the impact that the organization's flower deliveries have on the mental and emotional well-being of their recipients. Many of those receiving the bouquets have families who are far away and, without the deliveries of fresh flowers borne by volunteers, the only people they see regularly are nurses and doctors.

"There's no other place in the Bay Area where you can go and volunteer with flowers to make a difference in this meaningful way," said Ms. Kennedy.

"I'm really heartbroken for the volunteers. They are the ones who made all of this possible."

Janice Sutphin, who has volunteered at the organization for about six months, said that regardless of skill level and experience with flower-arranging, lavish thought and attention go into each arrangement. Each can take 10 minutes to an hour to compose — and sometimes volunteers have to prepare more than 100 such bouquets at a time. Volunteers make their bouquets with the recipients in mind, making bouquets best viewed from a lower angle for people who are bedridden, or choosing flowers in more masculine primary colors for VA deliveries, she said.

The flowers themselves are rescued from premature relegation to the compost heap, culled from local businesses such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods, the aftermath of parties or weddings, and a weekly run to San Francisco's flower market. Then, volunteers trim, rearrange and distribute bouquets using contributed vases, often gathered through vase drives on Nextdoor or efforts by Boy and Girl Scout troops. The completed bouquets are then are delivered to health care and memory care facilities in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

During its run, the organization distributed nearly 30,000 bouquets and recycled approximately 38,000 vases, according to Mr. Jay.

Mr. Jay said he is encouraging the volunteers, staff and donors who participated in Random Acts of Flowers "to hold their heads high and be proud of how we nudged this community with compassion and kindness."

Warning for nonprofits

From the start, the Menlo Park/North Fair Oaks location on Edison Way was the most expensive of the organization's other national branches, according to Ms. Kennedy. (The others are in Knoxville, Tampa Bay, Chicago and Indianapolis.)

Despite fundraising efforts she characterized as "Sisyphean," rent wasn't going down and the organization couldn't find anything less expensive that fit its needs.

Mr. Jay said that the organization explored a number of ways to lower costs: finding a reduced or free space, a different personnel model, or partnering with other organizations to continue the mission at a lower cost, but that none of those strategies worked out.

Other nonprofits have coped with pricey local rents by either merging to lower administrative costs, or moving into shared workspaces, such as the Sobrato Organization offers to some area nonprofits, Ms. Kennedy said. But that's harder for organizations like Random Acts of Flowers that require dedicated facility spaces, not just administrative areas, for their operations, she noted.

The closure of Random Acts of Flowers doesn't bode well for the viability of small nonprofits in Silicon Valley, she said.

"I think we're going to come to a tragic impasse where it's going to be impossible for small nonprofits to operate in Silicon Valley," she said, noting that the growing wealth divide means many remain in need.

Currently, she said, she's working with Avenidas to try to implement a variation of the flower arranging and delivery concept.

"At the end of the day, it's mostly seniors volunteering, making a difference in other seniors' lives," she said. "We feel up to the task of making sure this very simple way of giving back to each other continues to thrive on the Peninsula."

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