The Grand Rapids Business Jnl
A Grand Rapids-based organization helping cannabis job seekers recently received formal 501(c)(3) status.
After three years of providing free workforce readiness classes while waiting on an approved application from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Our Cannabis now can operate as an official nonprofit organization — something that isn’t common yet in the rapidly growing industry.
“A cannabis nonprofit is a rarity in the field,” said Matt Hoffmann, co-founder and chair of Our Cannabis. “To my knowledge, we are the only nonprofit focused on supporting job seekers and career development in the cannabis field.”
Other cannabis nonprofits, such as the NORML Foundation in Washington, D.C., or the Last Prisoner Project in Colorado, focus on education and advocacy. Locally, the city of Grand Rapids recently approved the creation of a proposed nonprofit to boost citywide social equity outcomes for the industry.
Prior to Our Cannabis, Hoffmann owned a caregiver dispensary and had lobbied for expungements for cannabis convictions before noticing a need for job-seeker support as more states moved toward legalization in recent years.
“We realized that other organizations could handle lobbying, and we decided to focus on workforce development,” Hoffmann said.
According to a 2022 jobs report from Leafly, a cannabis education company, over 428,000 Americans currently hold full-time jobs within the legal cannabis industry. In Michigan, cannabis sales increased by 81% in 2021, reaching $1.79 billion and supporting 31,152 jobs.
The annual growth in jobs places Michigan behind only California and Colorado in terms of total state cannabis employment, according to the report.
Hoffmann said Our Cannabis can help fill in the gaps with workforce development, and he witnessed firsthand the demand for more support in West Michigan a few years back.
Previously, Hoffmann owned a cannabis job site called HandGrown Jobs, which since has been absorbed by the nonprofit. In 2019, he organized a job fair in Grand Rapids at a room in the LINC UP building on Madison Avenue SE.
The turnout was more than Hoffmann ever expected.
“The room could hold 99 people, and 763 people showed up during a two-hour period on that Thursday afternoon,” he said. “We were inundated with people asking for help, saying, ‘How do I make a resume? Should I bring weed to an interview? Am I going to get arrested for being in the industry?’”
After the job fair, Hoffmann and his mother, Beth Hoffmann, conceptualized the idea for Our Cannabis. Beth Hoffman has decades of experience in the job-readiness sector, having worked in recruiting offices and in program-development positions.
With Hoffmann’s background in business and the cannabis industry, they knew their combined experience could benefit others.
“We were kind of the right people at the right place at the right time,” Hoffmann said. “This really sprung from a necessity to provide community resources to people, and we soon realized the mission was bigger than ourselves.”
Today, Our Cannabis offers free online classes to help job seekers in the industry craft resumes, write cover letters, practice interviewing and prepare to negotiate job offers. The organization also assists with job placements and providing reference letters for those who complete the program.
While based out of Grand Rapids, Our Cannabis receives inquiries and serves cannabis job seekers in cohorts from across the U.S. and the globe, including Europe and Australia.
The team consists of Hoffmann, his mother and three board members, and an increased demand for services has stretched the organization’s capacity. Hoffmann is working to develop more self-paced videos and modules for cohort participants to complete on their own time.
“The nature of our programs is so attentive,” Hoffmann said. “It’s so much commitment from us as instructors, but also from the job seekers themselves. It’s not something that you can just sort of … shuffle people through. We take the work seriously because taking a new job can be life transforming, and so we want to make sure that we’re preparing people coming into the field … while supporting them as they go.”
Our Cannabis seeks to provide support for the industry, but Hoffmann pointed out the challenges in finding support for the nonprofit itself.
“Some of the challenges we face are the same as anybody else in the cannabis industry with the stigma,” he said. “For us specifically, there just is not a lot of federal money or state money available for programs like ours because the industry is so new.”
Hoffmann recalled instances of misunderstandings when he reached out to businesses and organizations to seek help for the cause.
“They would say, ‘No, you’re a cannabis nonprofit,’” he said. “And we’d have to go through the whole explanation of us being a workforce development, job-readiness provider. We don’t actually touch cannabis — we help people get jobs. But they would say, ‘Well, where’s your approval letter?’”
Hoffmann said he followed guidance from the IRS, which allowed Our Cannabis to operate with some limitations while awaiting approval.
The organization currently is funded by donors, but now with the official 501(c)(3) designation, Our Cannabis can try to seek out grants and pursue additional support through partnerships.
Getting the approval was a rewarding moment for Hoffmann, who said he felt “jubilation” upon receiving the news.
“It felt like a long and arduous process. … When we got the letter, I think I was probably the most excited that I’ve ever been in my professional career,” he said. “It’s just transformative.”
Going forward, Hoffmann said he hopes to grow the team and be able to boost the organization’s capacity.
“The beauty of it taking so long for us to get our 501(c)(3) approval is we’ve got a very specific hiring path and critical pathway of things that we need to develop to scale up our services,” Hoffmann said. “Bringing on team members specifically for career placement is definitely a priority for us.”
Despite the challenges, Hoffmann finds the work rewarding due to the close relationships he’s able to develop.
“We get to know people — we get to know their lives,” Hoffmann said. “We’ve had some that have burst into tears prepping for interviews. We’ve had people that have turned white and physically started shaking because they’re so scared. And then in a couple weeks, they look like they’re ready to go on a TED stage. It’s awesome to see the transformations that happen. It’s really enriching work.”