Trials and Tribulations of setting up a Men’s Shed in Grand Traverse, Michigan

Lessons I’ve learned over 2 years of creating a meeting space for men in my community

A few years ago, I was introduced to the Men’s Shed concept while watching a television program called “Turning Point”. Men’s Shed is a movement that originated in Australia in the 1990’s. It provides senior men who may have become isolated, an opportunity to connect with each other.

At the time my neighbor’s wife had just died. I saw what he was going through, getting more and more into a state of depression. He wouldn’t go out much and we were very worried about him. I kept thinking about the documentary. Knowing I was gonna retire in a year or so but not knowing what my own life would be like then, I decided to get a Men’s Shed going in the Grand Traverse Area.

Being one of the first Sheds in the US there was not much advice available or other examples to relate to. I went through 2 years of trials and tribulations. But we are constantly moving forward and I’d love to share some learnings that might spare new Shedders some time, money and nerves.

Take the shortcut to your non-profit status

When I got started, I thought my first task was to apply for 501C3 to get the non-profit status. I wanted to be able to make sure we can receive donations, be able to open a bank account and allow anyone who donates money to take advantage of deducting from taxes.

Also, I think that people pay more attention to you when you have a license number. I asked an attorney to set this up for us and I was lucky that he agreed to perform all the tasks required pro-bono. The downside of pro-bono is always that things take longer than you’d like.

Eventually, I discovered that I could save $400.00 in filing costs if I submit a so-called 1023-EZ form. And I could do it by myself. It’s just one page, very simple, and it did the job. We are now a registered non-profit.

In Brief

  • File a 1023-EZ form to get non-profit status
  • Find an attorney
  • Set up a bank account

Please note, this step is not a must to get started with the Shed, but to me personally, it was important to get this done. This is how I tick. 

Create a strong committed team

I talked and keep talking about the Shed to as many people as possible. I introduced the concept to a few friends who saw the same vision as I did and we created a board of directors together. Most members are from my church, another person was sent our way by someone else from the Rotary club where I had applied for a grant.

We are now 8 members on the board who meet regularly. That means we have 8 people who are committed and are talking to more people about the Men’s Shed, spreading the word using their networks, Facebook pages, etc..

It’s also 8 people with different knowledge and background. The attorney, for example, joined the advisory board and helped to create bylaws and corporation articles that we needed to open our bank account.

Two of our board members are females. I recommend this to any Men’s Shed board. You get a whole new perspective on the needs of retired men. Interestingly, I notice on Facebook that most people responding are women, and most donations are coming from women. They see the needs of their husbands and understand the importance.

The women on our board are also more energetic than the men. They want to act on ideas quicker than guys. We want to talk, they say let’s do it.

In Brief:

  • Create a team or board of members and advisors
  • Bring in a range of knowledge
  • Include women
  • Don’t talk too much, start doing

Start quickly and small

Once I had cleared the formalities and built a team I thought the next step would be to find a building immediately for our home shed. With no money obviously. It did not take long to figure out that doesn’t work.

Still, we spent a few months looking for a place, trying to convince people of our idea and to give us money for setting it up, instead of getting started and bringing men together.

It was encouraging to hear people say “WOW, what a great idea!”. But right after you’d hear: “Come back once you are up and running”. We also were told by some other groups we needed to be up and running for at least a year before they will take a serious look at us.

So the board decided we need to somehow open our doors quickly. People didn’t want to hear we have a great idea, they wanted to see results. So we just opened a temporary shed at one of the board members home, about 8km outside of town. Not an optimal place, but a chance for us to start working together. And it worked out well for us.

In brief:

  • Instead of looking for a venue start doing things together
  • Make sure you can meet regularly
  • Start with any kind of meeting place, someone’s home, a community center, a café

Be patient

We held a GRAND OPENING event on June 23rd, 2018. Our local paper published a nice article announcing the event. We held a wood-turning demonstration, guitar making discussion, lawn games and served food.

To market the event we purchased a targeted database list of males 55+ in Grand Traverse County and mailed a postcard invitation to 500 database records. We did a Sunday church bulletin insert, placed an announcement on Craigslist and Facebook. 18 individuals including some family branches attended. I was rather disappointed with the attendance.

But, it was our first step and you have to start somewhere. You have to earn your credibility with people and it takes time for them to decide to come along.

In brief:

  • It’s not your first press release that activates people, it might be the 3rd or the 5th
  • There is merit in starting small and strong
  • Give people time to get to know you from afar

Collaborate with existing organizations

Having a regular space to meet and shifting the focus towards doing something together allowed us to get working on a first project.

Since our grand opening, we have volunteered to help our local National Cherry Festival parade committee controlling traffic at their three parades.

We also have been asked by Munson Hospice to make 24 adult fidget boards for dementia patients. The Hospice works with volunteers who visit patients at their homes.

From them, we learned about the problem that people with dementia have the need to keep their hands busy. That’s why they often pick sores or break cuts open, damaging themselves, which means a huge infection risk.

A solution to that are fidget or busy boards. The help them to actually stay busy for hours. The Hospice didn’t have money to buy fidget boards, they can cost around 150 Dollars each. So with a mix of items donated by local businesses and some things like chain locks and zippers bought by us, we are building those boards.

We hope when we hand those over, this will get us some exposure and maybe even press coverage in the area.

In brief:

  • Offer your services to local charities and organizations
  • Keep talking about what you do to everyone
  • Use your concrete projects as PR opportunities
  • Take photos along the way


Networking is the best marketing

Normally you think as you open your doors, people just come in, but it takes time. Word of mouth and people who are already involved, bringing new people along is probably one of our most important ways to get new members.

The people we are trying to reach are people who might already be living rather isolated lives, who don’t come out. Sit in their chair, watch TV all day. That’s why we have to stay creative and persistent.

I had my own printing business, so I know a thing or two about marketing. As mentioned, we bought a database of addresses of men older than 55+. We dropped postcards with a clear message and an invite. That’s much better than a letter in an envelope, that people don’t open. The message needs to hit you in the face.

We are still working out how to use Facebook. For now, we make sure to post our events and keep people updated with photos and more about what’s happening. That helps to gain some credibility and show people what to expect when they come along to the Shed.

We will now also drive our memberships through regular emails, starting with our current list of 20 people. We hope that will work better than Facebook. And again, even if it’s men who come along to work and talk shoulder to shoulder at the Shed, it’s often women, the wife or the daughter, who push them to come.

I also went to meet with the city commissioner. You go to the city building, fill in a form saying what you want to talk about and get 15 minutes to do your pitch. Turned out to be a worthwhile 15 minutes. The city is now considering to integrate the Shed in their plans, when rebuilding the Traverse City Senior Center, which would solve the question about finding a venue and the money to pay for it. We also got a bit of coverage after my meeting on a local news site.

In brief:

  • You have to talk to a lot of people to have opportunities come back to you
  • Try the channels you are familiar with first
  • Contact organizations that are already working with men who might be affected by isolation
  • Talk to your city council
  • Drop post-cards with a clear message and invitations in post boxes
  • Use Facebook to keep people in the loop of what’s happening
  • Use email to build up your close membership base

Starting a non-profit, Men’s Shed, is not an easy task, but worthwhile. You need to stay the course, have patience and do a lot of marketing and networking.

Stand shoulder to shoulder and give someone a place to go, someone to talk to, something to do. If you help one person it is all worth it.

Start your own Men’s Shed

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