The Making of Masks for Freedom

COVID-19, Impact, Insight, Partner Spotlight

Written by Rachel Rose Nelson

September 10, 2020

MASKS FOR FREEDOM is a Relief Initiative FBA launched in response to economic impacts created by COVID-19. By March 2020, over half our Member businesses saw sales decline by more than 75%. Many had to make quick pivots in order to stay in business.

Below is a message I sent to a Board member on March 26, 2020, as the pandemic was taking its first big sweep around the world:

Several of our Members are barely hanging on at this time. But I think there may be an opportunity if we can coordinate. There is a shortage of N95 masks and gowns. I’m wondering if a handful of our members may be positioned to supply these items…Is this a totally hare-brained idea?”

Sometimes the best ideas come disguised as crazy notions. And one reason this one could have potentially been classified as crazy is that FBA, a registered 501(c)3 nonprofit, had never undertaken a business initiative before, let alone one coordinating complex global logistics. And we had a staff of three…four if you count our intern. But we did have a global network of Members, Partners, and Allies.

Soon after this initial message to a Board Member, Nathan Chan, our Director of Member Development, proposed a similar idea while waylaid in Singapore. What if FBA coordinated the production, purchase, and sale of cloth masks from our Member businesses? By then we heard a few of our members had pivoted from apparel production to making cloth masks. They were responding to demand, and also to threats from governments to shut down businesses not classified as essential. Masks were essential.

So by the time I spoke with Cara Strauss Contreras from Member business SutiSana in Bolivia, and she shared about a similar initiative launched by a different, and albeit larger, more resourced nonprofit, the idea was starting to sound less hare-brained, and more, well, essential.

We began by sending out a survey asking our Members about their mask-making capabilities and interest. This uncovered several who had already made this pivot, showing the resilience and resourcefulness of Freedom Businesses all over the world.

Nathan began collecting data on designs, costs, and logistics so we could quickly frame up a model for engagement. Should we standardize design specifications or simply purchase masks already being produced in a variety of designs? Cheryl Lee, the leader of another Member business and reseller of Freedom Business goods, ACTSmarket in Singapore, proposed creating a catalog of designs to share with prospective buyers. So we went to work, gathering photos and info on the designs from businesses in Bolivia, Israel, Thailand, and India, in order to create a catalog. We quickly stood up an eCommerce site to serve as an online wholesale catalog. This turned out to be a critical move.

To purchase the masks, we tapped into funds contributed by our Partner, Lifeshape Foundation.

We then turned our attention to the critical question of logistics. Creating a catalog of masks is one thing, but coordinating global logistics amid constraints imposed by COVID-19 was another. We reached out to Member business Better Way Designs. Conversations about a joint logistics service for Freedom Business goods had been underway for a couple years and Better Way, a reseller of many Freedom Business brands, had risen to the top as a potential partner. “Are you ready to actually do this thing?” I asked Co-Owner B.J. George.

“Absolutely! Tell us what you need.” Better Way graciously volunteered to receive, process, and ship out masks for the initiative.

Then along came Valerie Kosiadi. We had met at the Business as Mission Conference in the Bay Area the prior Fall. But her link in at this point came from a connection with Nathan and Priscilla Chan, who had met her years earlier. She works as a Customer Success Manager for a Bay Area tech company and was willing to volunteer to lead bulk sales. Hired!

But as Valerie began to engage prospective customers, it became clear it would be a long sales cycle as universities, businesses and churches (our target market) were delaying reopening, and thus delaying the purchase of masks. So we pivoted to retail sales, a move facilitated by the eCommerce site we had launched weeks earlier. We quickly began making tandem wholesale and retail sales.

What’s Next

The initiative has not been without hiccups. But it has been without much hesitation, yet full of great learning and teamwork. Our ability to move quickly has been a testament to the power of a great alliance, and the power of God in weaving relationships that span the globe into a just-in-time working team.

FBA is now set to explore what joint sales and logistics could look like beyond COVID-19. In a way, the felt urgency gave permission to try something that may just have been dismissed as hare-brained under any other circumstances. Thank God.


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