Jeffrey Sparr discovered that creating paintings eased his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder symptoms. When his paintings brought in $16,000 at an art show, Sparr decided to use the money to help other sufferers of mental illness. Sparr and Matt Kaplan founded PeaceLove in Pawtucket, RI, with a mission to create a mental wellness movement that would help all people find "peace of mind" through expressive arts and ease the stigma around mental illness.
From the beginning, PeaceLove's business had two sides. PeaceLove Foundation, the nonprofit side, provided expressive arts experiences for individuals, schools, and patients in psychiatric hospitals. PeaceLove Studios, the for-profit side, sold art created by Sparr, as well as t-shirts, jewelry, stationery, and other merchandise carrying PeaceLove's symbol, an image Sparr created that combined a peace symbol and a heart. The profits from the branded merchandise raised money for the nonprofit, and also spread the PeaceLove image as a symbol for the movement to erase the stigma around mental illness and to promote mental wellness.
According to PeaceLove Co-Founder and CEO Matt Kaplan, "The vision for the for-profit studios was that these studios would pop up all over the country and be hubs for communities to connect, and be part store, part gallery, part studio. But we found that operating this one studio was very capital-intensive. We would need a big investment to have these studios in communities around the country, a franchise model, or somebody who had very deep pockets to help start it."
A turning point came when Sparr told his story at a BIF Collaborative Innovation Summit. Says Kaplan, "From there we met a lot of amazing people, one of whom was Zappo's founder Tony Hsieh. We started having conversations with these individuals who were interested in what we were doing. What we found was that people got more excited about our expressive arts programs and the impact they had had on people's lives. And that we could tell that story and we could replicate that outcome. We realized that would get us to our end goal quicker than if we tried to put all our time and energy into building a brand and physical spaces."
Working with BIF, Kaplan and Sparr began to question assumptions about how to carry out PeaceLove's mission. Looking at the challenge from the view of PeaceLove's customers and community sparked ideas. Kaplan says, "We get the request a hundred times a week, 'hey we love what you do, we'd love for you to come to our community,' But we can only go to so many communities. And we didn't have a model to train people."
However, an idea was born: Instead of building studios in different communities, what if PeaceLove trained front-line professionals (counselors, social workers, etc.) who could take PeaceLove's programs to their communities? The concept was developed and is being tested in phases. Phase One: Could PeaceLove train people to do this? Could they create a curriculum that would embody their brand and their company?
Kaplan: "We partnered with five national organizations, training a total of 10 people in a six-week curriculum meant to equip them and empower them with tools, an expressive arts base, and a mental health base, so they could get into their communities and do what we do. They delivered it to their communities, and we evaluated it the whole way through. What came back was brilliant. It worked really well." Now those Creators are continuing to deliver PeaceLove programs to their communities. PeaceLove is now testing Phase Two, which involves training an additional 60 to 100 Creators over the course of the next six to 10 months.
The opportunity to expand the studios, which had been the least-scalable part of their original business model, also came out of the new focus on programs and mission instead of brand. Tony Hsieh's interest in PeaceLove's work and mission, led to an investment by Hsieh and his Downtown Project that would fund a PeaceLove studio in downtown Las Vegas. "We still believe that these physical spaces belong all over the country," Kaplan says. "Our space in Las Vegas will be our first experiment on a large scale, in a large city where there's a huge need. We've had requests for spaces, but on that side of the business you need the right partners. If what we're planning to do in Vegas works and works well, then we'll open up the opportunity in other places with partners that have the resources to do it."
"We've definitely become more nonprofit-minded," Kaplan says, "more focused on our mission of helping people create peace of mind, and bringing in partners who can help us do that." For example. the arts and crafts store Michael's has recently become PeaceLove's official "supply partner" for Creators.
"As we get major, billion-dollar companies and brands on board to support our programs, people are able to share the work we're doing, and the stories that we curate from the work that we're doing. That's how we get a lot of people to know who we are. They then associate us as a mental health organization that helps people create peace of mind through programs and products that maybe make you think differently about your own mental health."