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'Tabling': On the front line of nonprofit information sharing

For Rich Stickle of Ashland, “tabling” is the quickest and most personal way to get out the message of the Ashland Food Project — and to sign up new members to donate to hungry families.

Tabling is simply sitting at a table in front of a heavily traveled market or other spot, handing out literature and — most importantly — making that personal connection that brings a curious person into the work, whether it’s as a donor or volunteer.

Stickle, the Food Project’s district manager, sits behind his tiny TV-tray table in front of the Ashland Food Co-op for a couple hours every Friday afternoon and at Ashland’s Tuesday farmers market by the new Armory. On the third Saturday, he’s at Market of Choice. He gets two to four signups each time — and that adds up.

“It makes us feel good to sign up new donors,” says Stickle, a retired circulation manager of the San Jose Mercury-News. “When you’re a nonprofit, if you don’t sign up new donors, you don’t grow. Old members move and so on, so you have to sign up new ones all the time.” 

The main job of tablers is to answer questions of the 30 to 50 people who stop by the table, he notes, though not all of them sign up.

Lynn Stillwater, a tabler with the Food Project, volunteers at the Ashland Library and got the idea to put up a table there.

“I’m motivated because this community has given me so much and this is an invitation to give back. I got help from a volunteer dentist once and his receptionist triggered it in me that I must pay it forward and give back to the community. There’s such bounty here and there’s a great need that’s always growing.” 

A self-appointed tabler for the “climate geo-engineering” movement, Laura Hurst says, “You have to be able to share what’s most important to you now, to learn about issues and pass it on, instead of think about them and not do anything.” 

Pointing to jet streaks in Ashland’s eastern sky, Hurst said, “Tabling is an opportunity to get people engaged in getting a potential advocate moving on the issue. This issue is so important to me because it’s a dire, dire issue.” 

Hurst mans her table for about five hours in mid-day, talking to 30-plus people. She finds the Co-op to be the most receptive spot in town, as long as it doesn’t violate their basic philosophy. 

The Co-op’s front end manager, Zack Burrows said they like tablers to be nonprofit, to reserve a time, bring a table and to check in with him. They must be politically non-partisan and must not be threatening or “chase people around” to get signatures. They also must not offer anything for sale.

Among the main issues the Co-op supports is any campaign against genetically modified crops, he says. They were a main rallying point in gathering signatures and spreading information in the May ballot measure to ban such seeds in Jackson County. It succeeded by a wide margin. 

Signing up for the Food Project, Elizabeth Wallace noted tablers were “very pleasant and easy-going. I felt no pressure. I’ve been meaning to donate food in the community and this was a good way to get going on it.” 

Accepting her application, Stickle said he was gratified because it’s rare to get someone under 50.

Tablers provide a huge boost in the movement against hunger in Ashland-Talent, says Pam Marsh, executive director of the Ashland Emergency Food Bank. It’s a separate organization from the Food Project but gets all the food collected by the Food Project.

“Forty percent of our food comes through those magic green bags they give out to people,” says Marsh, “so recruiting donors is integral for us. We absolutely depend on them.”

Tablers also inhabit special events, such as Ashland’s Fourth of July and recent Electric Vehicle Show, finding plenty of like-minded and generous people, she said, at such community events.

Tabling at the Southern Oregon Pride parade in Ashland for “Yes on 92,” the GMO labeling ballot measure, Patrick McDonald, says he’s doing it instead of working because he’s unemployed right now.

“This is more important than eating to me at this time because, when I eat I don’t want to eat food that has genetically modified organisms in it -- and I don’t know it,” he says. “Plus I get to meet a lot of good people. I enjoy talking to people and also educating them about this.”

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.