Crossover Stories: Why Play Matters

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By: Kirsten Kippen | 9.17.14

Today’s post is an interview with Garfield Cody Quentin Jeffrey Goldberg (Cody for short). Cody first caught our attention through his spring 2014 TEDx Portland talk on Changing the World One Playground at a Time. As soon as we heard his story we knew we wanted to meet him - his passionate ideas about play resonate across people of all sectors. Cody is the founder and CEO of Portland nonprofit organization Harper’s Playground, whose vision is a more inclusive world, one playground at a time. The following is an excerpt from a recent interview with Cody, answers edited for clarity.

Tell us a bit about your nonprofit.

Harper’s Playground is so much more than a nonprofit - it is literally who I am.  Our community playground was off-limits to our daughter because she uses wheels to get around. We founded Harper’s Playground to change this by creating innovative playgrounds for people of all abilities. Play is part of everything I do, but my passion for building community through inclusive playground is about more than play - it’s about changing neighborhoods to make them better places to live. In every cell in my body I believe that making play spaces more inclusive will have a ripple effect on the broader world.

You have an unusual path for a nonprofit founder [prior to founding Harper’s Playground Cody worked for Red Bull and Adidas]. Can you tell us about how those experiences affected the way you approach Harper’s Playground?

My three years in brand marketing with Red Bull greatly informed the building of the Harper’s Playground brand. The Red Bull philosophy is there’s no better marketing than word of mouth: so you have to do something really special that makes people want to share that story with a friend. This gives brands a real integrity. It’s like a good film: all the marketing budget in the world can’t save a horrible film, but a great independent film can be a blockbuster if it strikes a chord at the right time.

I take this to heart with Harper’s Playground and firmly believe it’s always worth the time to share our story with someone who is interested. Bring people into your fold and you never know what good could come of it.

It seems like you do a lot of interesting events - what are some best practices you would suggest to other nonprofits?

I’ve learned a lot from some of my mentors on this, who stress a healthy mix of fundraising events and “friendraising” events that are more about celebrating the mission and the good work and not necessarily asking for money directly. I look at every event as a combination of helping people become more acquainted with Harper’s Playground as a brand, plus raising some money. I focus on creating a quality event where people have a good time and make good connections.. I also try to use social media in an organic way to share the goodwill and successes of Harper’s Playground.

Harper's Playground in action (photo courtesy of Cody Goldberg)

How do you incorporate play into the culture of Harper’s Playground and your everyday life?

I never really wanted to work - I prefer to play. Nonprofits get a bad rap sometimes for being dour or stuck in the rut of doing what they’ve been doing year after year, and not really challenging convention. What gets me excited is trying to do things differently by being playful in everything I do. There is a growing body of work suggesting play is pivotal to innovation and how we operate as a society . I’m excited to help nonprofits with this idea.

At Harper’s Playground, we often meet at the playground and combine a meeting with some playtime. This reinforces our mission - we can see our work live and see other children playing there. It also forces us to be relaxed and playful. I also try to infuse a playful atmosphere into board meetings.

You mentioned other orgs are approaching you for "templates" on how to build playgrounds for children who experience disability. What advice would you give to other nonprofits trying to scale their mission to the next level?

Owen’s Playground is the first project Harper’s Playground has decided to adopt as a consulting project. We are helping their team, navigate project management and interfacing with the parks bureau, in addition to the fundraising side of things. After Owen’s Playground is complete (their groundbreaking is September 20) we will work with them to build a consulting contract that we can roll out to the world.

My advice to other nonprofits scaling their mission is the same advice I’ve received from mentors: find that sweet balance between making sure the mission is at the forefront of everything while still checking things off the list. Make sure you have tools that let you take pulse of vast network of volunteers that make your nonprofit run.

Any parting thoughts?

I’m so excited to return to the Bay Area for The Engagement Party - I grew up in Marin County and many of my ideas about play were inspired by my nontraditional education and the beautiful bay area environment. I’m thankful to everyone who came before me and can’t wait to bring my ideas about play to a wider audience.

Hear Cody speak at The Engagement Party October 15 in san francisco - RSVP here.


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