- Karen Lawson presenting a check to Downstreet Housing in 2019
Prior to opening their Waitsfield taproom two and a half years ago, Lawson's Finest Liquids co-owners Sean and Karen Lawson embarked on a tour of breweries across the country. At Maine Beer, customers made donations to local nonprofits in lieu of tipping.
The Lawsons loved the idea and adopted it. They were already committed to providing their staff with a living wage and competitive benefits package — including a $700 wellness allowance for items such as kayaks or ski passes, according to Karen. They didn't want taproom workers to rely on tips to supplement their income, especially since tourism in the Mad River Valley fluctuates seasonally.
The Lawsons decided they would give 100 percent of customer donations to one local nonprofit each month. Visitors ended up being so generous that they soon could support two nonprofits monthly. The company called the initiative the Sunshine Fund, a nod to its signature IPA, Sip of Sunshine.
But when COVID-19 hit and the taproom closed, the couple had to adjust their business — and philanthropic — model. They instituted an online ordering system, a drive-through and contactless pickup. Because "donations dropped off exponentially," Karen said, the company decided to supplement customers' contributions so that one nonprofit still got at least $10,000 per month during the pandemic.
To date, the beer company has donated more than $575,000 to Vermont organizations. The money has helped Mad River Valley Ambulance Service purchase a new ambulance and upgrade its radio system, and Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports to build an accessible sports facility at Sugarbush Resort's Mount Ellen. And it's created an endowment that allows the Green Mountain Club to maintain trails in honor of former Lawson's staffer Andrew Black, an avid hiker who died by suicide in 2018.
As the pandemic recedes, Lawson's will select another round of nonprofits to fund in 2022. Through August 31, the company is accepting applications on its website. Though the grants focus on three areas — healthy communities, food and economic security, and the environment — the criteria are broad enough that a wide range of organizations are eligible, Karen said.
On June 22, Lawson's received a gift of its own. Vermont Business Magazine and the Vermont Chamber of Commerce honored the company with the 2020 Deane C. Davis Outstanding Business Award.