The Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, located in Montpelier, Vermont, is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization created by the Vermont Legislature in 1995.
We partner with state government, private sector businesses, and nonprofits to build a thriving economic, social and ecological future for Vermont. Our staff and Board of Directors are committed to developing creative approaches and innovative models that help to grow Vermont’s economy. We take the long-view, partnering with innovators and early adopters to test and demonstrate new market opportunities that will lead to a greener, more sustainable economy in Vermont.
The Vermont Legislature Enables Our Creation
The early 1990s were characterized by a national debate pitting environmental protection against economic development. Many said it was one or the other, that both could not exist at the same time. But in 1995, a group of successful entrepreneurs within Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) saw the need to transcend this divide. Sustainable development was a new idea at the time and it provided the group with a theme, a vision, and goals to work toward: Vermont could meet the economic needs of its citizens—without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs—by greening its economy, promoting social justice and equity, and practicing stewardship of its natural environment.
With bi-partisan support from the Vermont Legislature, VBSR helped establish the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, in 1995. In the enabling legislation (VSA, Title 10, Chapter 15A, no.326 – 330), the Legislature identified “creating quality jobs and conserving and protecting Vermont’s social and natural environments” as primary means of maintaining “economic vitality and the quality of life of Vermont.” They also stressed positioning the state as a sustainable development educational center as an important goal. The Legislature reasoned that the goal of creating quality jobs depends upon providing support for the start-up and expansion of micro and small businesses, as well as nurturing businesses in growing sectors (environmental technologies, renewable energy, specialty foods, wood products, sustainable agriculture, etc.) of the national and international economy. Several tools were identified to accomplish these goals, including:
- Increase financial resources to fund existing programs for the start-up and expansion of small businesses, including revolving loan programs, peer lending programs, technical assistance programs and marketing programs;
- Provide access to capital for those businesses too large or too small to obtain funds from existing programs; and
- Coordinate the leveraging of federal, state, local and private resources and stimulate the development of public-private partnerships.
Thus, the name Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund reﬂects the dual goals of accelerating the development of new markets for sustainably produced goods and investing in Vermont’s future, in order to create jobs.
Grant Making and Value Chain Facilitation
During those early years, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF) acted as a catalyst, leveraging good ideas, technical know-how, and ﬁnancial resources to support network development and value chain facilitation, especially in the realms of sustainable agriculture, sustainable forestry, outdoor recreation and renewable energy. VSJF made small grants of over $2.7 million to 150 recipients—who utilized these funds to leverage an additional $11.8 million to implement their projects and test their ideas. VSJF grants during that time beneﬁted over 8,800 businesses and created or retained at least 800 jobs. VSJF’s technical assistance programs assisted 15 clients (representing 384 employees) through our peer to peer advising service, 132 business coaching clients and hundreds of other clients and partners who sought some form of assistance during that time period.
Special initiatives and grant making during this time period included…
In 2000, the Office of Senator Patrick Leahy convened economic development, environmental, and business leaders to discuss options for revitalizing the forest products industry in Vermont. This led to the seven-year Cornerstone Project to encourage Vermont’s largest institutions (colleges, state agencies, and municipalities) to source Vermont grown, sustainably managed wood in their upcoming construction projects.
VSJF staff served as a broker/facilitator between small aggregated wood products businesses and large institutions, and identified major gaps in the certified wood products supply chain. VSJF worked with Vermont Family Forests the National Wildlife Federation to increase FSC certified timberlands in Vermont, and supported growth in new markets for businesses.
The Cornerstone Project also produced a number of certified (green) wood specs to help architects, builders, and suppliers involved with large building projects spec into their projects Vermont and certified wood.
VSJF’s efforts to support national standards for commercial buildings such as the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification led a group of Vermont builders to design a system for residential green building. In 2000, VSJF funded Vermont Built Green, an effort by members of Builders for Social Responsibility and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) to develop a residential standard for green certified homes.
During this period, VSJF made 150 grants, ranging from $500 – $99,000, to emerging trade associations, innovative initiatives, and key organizations who were actively developing sustainable agriculture, forestry, and energy sectors. A sampling of the grants made include:
Vermont Cheese Council
To develop an association of Vermont cheese makers to market their products jointly, share technical assistance with each other, and develop quality standards for Vermont cheeses using the Association’s label.
Vermont Fresh Network
To support the development of a network of Vermont restaurants that directly connects Vermont farmers, chefs, and consumers.
Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA)
To implement a statewide Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network to create more CSAs in the state, enable farmers to evaluate the economic viability of their CSA, and connect them to consumers through marketing and technical assistance.
Vermont Alliance of Independent Country Stores
To create an association of independent country stores with a common vision and a self-funded organization to enhance the viability of member businesses.
Vermont Specialty Food Association
To help the association of Vermont specialty food companies develop a strategy to enhance the viability and competitiveness of VSFA members, and lead to the creation and/or improvement of jobs within VSFA’s member businesses.
Vermont Maple Industry Council
To develop an industry-wide strategic and marketing plan and to revise the operations of member organizations to effectively implement this plan.
Northeast Dairy Compact
To provide a portion of Subchapter 2, Mortgage Insurance for a bank loan to enable the Dairy Compact to continue operations until the settlement of litigation regarding its administrative funding.
Vermont Quality Meats
To develop organizational structure and marketing strategy to enable expansion of markets and membership.
Beeken and Parsons Furniture Makers
To help the company develop new milling technologies to turn non-traditional supplies of woods into fine furniture products and pioneer the “character wood” movement.
Character Wood Market Analysis
To complete a market analysis of character wood, wood with markings or imperfections, and to develop methods to manufacture and sell furniture made out of character wood.
Vermont Built Green Program
To develop a “green” certification standard for sustainable building practices; and to identify the market potential for sustainable construction.
Vermont Family Forests
To develop Vermont Family Forests and its practice of sustainable forest stewardship into a viable commercial entity.
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) Livable Wage Toolkit
To provide small business with strategies to pay livable wages and remain competitive in the marketplace, and to publish and distribute a Livable Jobs toolkit to 5,000 small businesses in the state that outlines how businesses can provide better work places, wages, benefits, and employee resources and remain profitable
Vermont Employee Ownership Center
To fund continued development of services that help businesses retain jobs via employee ownership.
Vermont Environmental Consortium
To foster access to new markets among small Vermont environmental technology companies.
Renewable Energy Vermont
To develop an industry association with a strategic plan that leads to increased consumer awareness and demand for renewable energy products, and greater success for member businesses.
Refining our Sustainable Economic Development Approach
Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund staff learned a great deal in the first ten years about how to spark and support sustainable economic development through grant making, value chain facilitation, and business assistance. Our experimentation with different approaches in industry-specific market development while leveraging the Vermont brand, has led to filling gaps or relieving bottlenecks that hold businesses back. Our approach to business assistance includes matching capital needs to the size, scale, and type of business, so that enterprises are able to reach their full potential and create livable jobs.
The lessons learned in developing and implementing the forest products oriented Cornerstone Project was then adapted to develop a homegrown bioenergy industry. VSJF was the recipient of four congressionally directed awards (fiscal years 2005, 2008-2010), administered by the Office of Senator Leahy, totaling more than $3.6million from the U.S. Department of Energy.
The purpose of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative was to foster the development of sustainable, distributed, small-scale biodiesel and grass/mixed fiber industries in Vermont. The intent was to produce bioenergy for local transportation, agricultural, and thermal applications, as a replacement for fossil fuel based energy. The initiative marked the first strategic effort to reduce Vermont’s dependency on petroleum through the development of homegrown alternatives. With billions of gallons of ethanol produced and blended with gasoline each year in the United States—and very little possibility of corn-based ethanol development in Vermont—we focused on a specific subset of bioenergy alternatives.
Over the life of the initiative, VSJF made 29 grants to businesses, trade associations, and research institutions, all designed to demonstrate this homegrown fuel potential and to build out the support system to enable it to advance for years to come.
At the beginning of this project, Vermont had very limited experience with the research, feedstocks, production processes, industry networks, and many other factors necessary to develop biodiesel and grass/mixed fiber pellet industries. Our investments in feasibility analyses, research and development, technology and demonstration projects, and education and outreach resources for various bioenergy feedstocks, have created a solid foundation for future efforts to build from. To learn more visit the Vermont Bioenergy website or read the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative Final Report to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Senator Leahy approached VSJF to serve as the fiscal sponsor for a mixed substrate anaerobic digester to be built at the Vermont Technical College in Randolph. VSJF received and managed three congressionally directed awards (fiscal years 2008-2010) totaling more than $1,451,500 million from the U.S. Department of Energy. These funds, coupled with over $2.7 million in low interest bonds secured by Vermont State College, enabled Vermont Tech to construct a “Big Bertha”—the anaerobic digester which processes 16,000 gallons of manure and organic residuals in order to produce 8,880 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity per day.
Learn more in the Community Anaerobic Digester Report.
After the Cornerstone Project had run its course, VSJF partnered with Redstart Forestry, Allard Lumber Company, Copeland Furniture, and Champlain Hardwoods to pilot the Harvest for Use supply chain pilot project. Harvest for Use describes a set of forestry and industry practices which are aimed at utilizing every tree that is harvested for its highest and best use. It involves actively managing the flow of logs through the entire supply chain from the log landing through manufacturing and ultimately, to its end user.
As consumer interest in the sourcing of forest products increased, many Vermont wood products companies were shifting their practices to take advantage of this emerging demand for sustainably managed products from sustainably harvested forests. At the same time, land ownership patterns in Vermont were creating challenges for aggregating a lumber supply for wood manufacturers that meets their needs for species, volumes, lead times, and consistency. In 2009, Harvest for Use engaged three consulting foresters, nine loggers, a mill operator, a wood broker, and a furniture manufacturer in a market development effort aimed at aggregating and shepherding Vermont-grown, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified logs through the supply chain all the way to finished product.
Unfortunately, the Great Recession hit Vermont’s wood products industry hard, and consumers reduced their purchasing of higher end products. The project ceased operation, but the lessons learned in market demand, aggregating supply, connecting links in the supply chain, crafting stories, and replicating opportunities have been instrumental in VSJF’s work developing the new Vermont Forest Product Program.
In 2009, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund was approached to administer the development and implementation of a food system plan on behalf of the Vermont Legislature. Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) and Rural Vermont approached a number of lawmakers about the prospect of tapping VSJF to conduct a public engagement process, analyze the state’s food system and create the 10-year Farm to Plate Strategic Plan (2011-2020).
VSJF gathered key stakeholders and launched the Farm to Plate Network in 2011 to implement the goals of the Farm to Plate food system plan. VSJF adopted the use of the Collective Impact framework, developed by Kania and Cramer, to help structure the Network.
VSJF coordinates the Farm to Plate Network to create the space for strategic conversations across multiple audiences and perspectives to make systematic food system change that no one organization can do alone to:
- Increase jobs and economic activity in Vermont’s food system;
- Improve access to healthy, local food for all Vermonters (especially low income Vermonters);
- Improve the quality of our environment (e.g., soil, water, energy); and
- Improve the ability of the local food system to support the health of Vermonters.
During the Great Recession, growing food system businesses were having trouble accessing the capital they needed to finance their growth.
The birth of the Vermont Agriculture Development Program (VADP) was a direct result of a 2008 “Moving Vermont Agriculture Forward” planning process (spearheaded by Frank Hatch from the John Merck Fund and Roger Allbee, the Secretary of the Vermont Agency of Agriculture at the time). VSJF partnered with the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board’s Farm Viability Program to launch the Vermont Agriculture Development Program. The purpose of the Vermont Agriculture Development Program was to facilitate the growth, vitality and long-term success of those Vermont agricultural entrepreneurs and enterprises strategically poised to enhance the viability and preservation of the state’s working landscape.
The program supported the growth and long-term success of Vermont‐based, value‐added agricultural enterprises that were building markets and infrastructure for other Vermont agricultural businesses. It provided critical venture coaching to a small number of select businesses each year to help them obtain the right amount of growth capital for their stage of business. The program’s focus since its inception has broadened beyond helping enterprises obtain capital for growth. The primary, overall focus of the program has evolved and is best understood as entrepreneurial capacity‐building. In 2013, the program also evolved to support forest products businesses.
Over a 6 year period, the Vermont Agriculture Development Program provided high quality services to 30 working lands businesses, helping them to increase gross and net revenue, add jobs, and strengthen their core business operations.
In 2017, the program was revamped in order to provide similar deep dive business coaching services to a wider range of businesses in Vermont.
The Peer to Peer Collaborative was created in 2003 by Ellen Kahler, with administrative support from the Vermont Business Roundtable. When Ellen became the Executive Director of the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund in 2005, she brought the program with her to VSJF.
The Peer to Peer Collaborative was created to provide high quality, strategic advising from experienced peer advisors (CEOs, COOs, CFOs) to growth stage founders/CEOs in the economic sectors served by VSJF. These peer advisors have offered an outside, confidential perspective on the complex business and leadership challenges facing growing companies. Participating founders/CEOs have developed and implemented strategies for building a stronger operational structure, improved profitability, and have supported livable wages for their employees.
Over a 10 year period, the Peer to Peer Collaborative has provided high quality services to 19 Vermont businesses, helping them to increase gross and net revenue, add jobs, and strengthen their core business operations. In 2017, the Peer to Peer Collaborative was rebranded as VSJF peer to peer advising services, but still provides the same approach to working with growth stage companies in Vermont’s agriculture and food system, forest product, waste management, renewable energy, and environmental technology sectors.
When the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund was formed by an act of the Legislature in 1995, it authorized VSJF to make loans, but did not provide the funding to do so. Over the years, it was always our aspiration to have a separate fund that could make high impact investments to companies in the green economy. From 2008-2010, VSJF’s Deputy Director, Janice St. Onge, investigated the capital needs of growing companies in the market sectors we serve as well as what types of investment instruments would be best suited to meet the identified needs.
After raising sufficient capital from a variety of accredited investors from Vermont and around the country, the Flexible Capital Fund, L3C was spun out of the VSJF and launched in 2011. The Flexible Capital Fund (Flex Fund) is a low profit, limited liability company that is a separate and distinct legal entity from VSJF with its own governance structure. The Flex Fund invests in growing Vermont companies that fill a gap, or strengthen the supply chain in sustainable agriculture and food systems, forest products, renewable energy, clean technology, and other natural resource sectors. By helping its portfolio companies grow their businesses, the Flex Fund accelerates the rate at which Vermont, and the region, moves towards healthy food systems, renewable energy, and climate change solutions, while preserving Vermont’s working landscapes and building resilient communities.
The Flex Fund became the first licensed lender in Vermont to offer royalty financing (a form of revenue sharing) and became a Community Development Financial Institution (CDFI) in 2015. After having raised $4.9 million in equity and grants, funds are invested in Vermont based companies with good growth plans, a strong management team, and good market potential in the sustainable food, forest and clean tech sectors. As part of their value-add, the Flex Fund has a pool of grant funds that can be leveraged to provide business advisory services to their portfolio companies.
Learn more at the Flexible Capital Fund website.
Strategic Planning Process Drives Our Direction Forward
In 2016, the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund Board of Directors and staff embarked on a strategic planning process, with assistance from Ben Anderson-Ray of Trinitas Advisors, LLC based in Middlebury. The board and staff wanted to explore the many tools, approaches, and initiatives undertaken over the years and to position the organization for even greater impact in the future and benefit to the State of Vermont, its businesses, and people.
With the close out of the Vermont Bioenergy Initiative, VSJF has added two new programs, continues to administer the Farm to Plate Investment Program, and has revised and expanded its business assistance services. Building on its earlier work to support the forest products industry and, after having participated in a year-long forest industry systems analysis, VSJF launched the Vermont Forest Products Program. At the request of the Vermont Climate Economy Initiative, managed by the Vermont Council on Rural Development, VSJF has launched the Vermont Climate Economy Business Network and related service, Accel-VT (a climate economy business accelerator).