The origins of PCA and our annual fundraiser

I love PCA’s origin story. And since we are asking for annual help from all of you, I’m hoping you’ll take the time to read this and get to know me, and PCA, a little better. It feels weird to ask for help from strangers, I guess! More and more, as I send out periodic newsletters and scan the reports on Mailchimp to see who opened them, I recognize fewer and fewer of the names on the list as the years go by since I opened the clinic in Mt. Airy with Erin. So hello! I’m Ellen, and I work behind the scenes at PCA but am in pretty close virtual contact with Erin. I visit at least once a year and make her and Billy hang out with me face-to-face even though they are total introverts.

Erin was one of my very first patients at PCA in West Philly. Honestly, I believe that her partner emailed me about treatment for her before we had even opened. She had been trying to get pregnant and even though I am 99.9% sure she was pregnant at her first treatment, she still credits acupuncture with her success. If you know Erin, you know she is nothing if not generous. Erin lived in Mt. Airy so I would only see her occasionally, and one day she started asking me about acupuncture school. I am pretty sure I tried to talk her out of it (see other blog post), but she ended up going to the Won Institute anyway. And around the time I knew she was graduating, I gave her a call. Our conversation went something like this:

“Hi, Erin? It’s Ellen Vincent. I’m calling to see what your plans are after graduation!” Erin was pregnant with her second child Georgia at the time, by the way.

“Well, I was hoping to maybe work for you, to pick up some shifts in West Philly!” she said.

“That’s actually a terrible idea… we don’t need to hire anyone right now or probably ever again since I’m moving to Tucson in 6 months, but I was thinking… what if we open a clinic in Mt. Airy together?”

Sounds insane, right? Pretty much. Except I was 100% sure about Erin. Somehow, probably from the first time ever met her, I knew I could trust her implicitly and completely. I knew she was perfect for this. And I think her response was pretty much 100% yes, right away. I think she trusted me too. So even though she was having a baby soon and I was scheduled to move across the country, we figured it out and made it work. I worked at the original PCA Mt. Airy location until her acupuncture license arrived, we hired the wonderful Meghan Rogers, and it all worked out. That was in 2012. Six and a half years later, it’s still working out and we still trust each other, and there’s no end to that in sight. The future’s always uncertain but I’m pretty sure Erin will always live and work in Mt. Airy Village, and I’m pretty sure I can always do my part from wherever I live. I keep trying to prepare her for the possibility that I might die before she retires by giving her some passwords and the answers to security questions, etc., but she doesn’t really want to hear about that. Maybe next year…

I love this origin story so much because partnerships are not very often this easy or this fun. I’ve had a few other business partnerships in my life and none of them compare to this one in terms of ease. I think we both consider ourselves very lucky to have found each other. And I know we both consider ourselves lucky to have Billy working at PCA too. He was another person that I trusted immediately when I met him, 100%, and both Erin and I were beyond thrilled when he said he wanted to move back to Philly from Austin and work at PCA in Mt. Airy. We are lifetime fans of Billy.

Erin and Billy and Rob and all of our incredible volunteers make our little second-floor community acupuncture clinic in the village work, even if we are too often too close to not making payroll. I help some too. But we don’t forget that really, it’s you — the patients are who really make the clinic work.

Arizona, where I live, has this special thing called the tax credit donation. It’s miraculous, really. Taxpayers here can donate up to $400 (filing single) or up to $800 (filing jointly) of the money they owe in state taxes to any qualifying charitable organization. The acupuncture clinic I help run in Tucson is one of those qualifying organizations, so each year we receive around $7500 in donations. As a result, we can operate with enough of a cushion that we don’t have to get nervous every two weeks when it’s time to cut the checks. The tax credit donation makes a lot of things easier in Arizona.

Obviously, that situation doesn’t exist in PA, and let’s all complain for a minute about the city taxes while we’re at it. It’s part of why we became a non-profit back in 2014 -- in the hopes of being able to operate, through grants and fundraising, with some kind of a cushion without having to raise our rates (which yes, we eventually had to do anyway. We’re not very good at getting grants). We may be the most affordable acupuncture around, but there are still a lot of people who have trouble affording the treatments they need.

The whole community acupuncture model was originally designed for people of ordinary incomes. Which, at the time, was radical. The idea that you could get an acupuncture treatment for as little as $15 was unheard of fifteen years ago. When I first became acquainted with Lisa Rohleder by reading her little red book of marketing, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Fifteen bucks? It sounded crazy. But the math made sense. Charge $15 per person, treat six people an hour in a room of recliners, and it’s the same income as charging $90 for one person an hour. And since the needles do most of the work anyway, why not? It’s not like we’re massage therapists or something. It was so simple, and it changed the acupuncture profession in this country. That simple math and the resulting community acupuncture movement has probably added a countless number of years to countless people’s lives.

And yet, we are running into more and more people in this time of economic disparity for whom even $15, let alone the $20 that is the low end of our sliding scale, is too much, especially when we want them to come in 2-3 times a week. They can’t afford it. If our little clinic was bigger and had more chairs, it would probably have the cushion we’d need in order to be able to breathe easier every time we tell people to just pay what they can afford but to still come in three times a week. As it is, though, we need to ask for help once a year, and that’s now.

Your donations help keep PCA’s doors open. Your donations help people of less-than-ordinary incomes access the care they need in order to see life-changing results. Your donations might just be saving lives.

Years ago, I entered an entrepreneurship contest called “The Power of One.” People were competing for $15,000 and had to go down to Washington D.C. and present our cases in front of 400 people and a panel of judges. It was an American Idol-type voting system and I didn’t know that I didn’t stand a chance of winning. I was nervous as hell. Obama’s assistant Tina had just spoken to the crowd filling us in on all of his amazing activities that day. I held the microphone and pitched for my allotted three minutes before being questioned by the judges. My pitch was basically about how we needed a cushion and didn’t have one. Winning would have given us one. The CEO of Eileen Fisher was one of the judges, and her question to me was basically this: “how is your business even sustainable?” My heart sank as I realized I didn’t stand a chance at that cushion. There I was, a social entrepreneur with lots of social capital, and there was no room for me or my business within capitalism. And even now, with a non-profit corporation, we should be operating with a few months’ of operating expenses in the bank. We’re not.

Winter is coming. We always slow down in the winter, around the holidays first of all and then again when the storms hit and we have to close the doors but still write the payroll checks, still pay the bills. Or nobody can make it to the clinic in the snow and ice even if we don’t close that day. Your donations help our doors stay open anyway. You give us our cushion. And every little bit helps.

There’s no way we’d even be here without you.

Thank you for donating to PCA.