Michael Cunningham of 9trees.org On The Benefits Of Running A Purpose-Driven Business

An Interview With Chad Silverstein


We really want to help landowners transition to regenerative farming, more Agroforestry and CSAs* and we have launched ‘Branching Out’ which is our New way of working with landowners. We also want to foster a joined up thinking approach with all other tree charities and Nonprofits.

In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders and I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Cunningham.

Drawing on a decade of experience in environmental conservation, Michael Cunningham brings invaluable insights into wildlife preservation, habitat management, and the development of sustainable livelihoods for local communities.

The collective impact of his work at 9trees.org, including the creation of woodland areas & nature reserves, is a testament to the transformative power of purpose-driven businesses.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

Michael Cunningham grew up on the banks of the river why SSSI in Mid Wales. His mother was a Teacher and outgoing actress and later Olympic Torchbearer, his father was a Teacher turned Woodturner and Mike would play in the wood shavings as a toddler. As he grew he played in the woods and on the riverside making dens, building dams, and climbing trees.

As he grew he would help his father collect the trees and help in all aspects of tree work.

At University he studied ‘Wildlife and Countryside Conservation’ and his passion was enlightened by habitat management and ecological surveying. Later concerned about the environmental impact of his travelling for conservation and humanitarian efforts, and the usual conservation method of maintaining habitats (keeping things as they were), Mike decided he wanted to create and ‘Give Nature A Home’ since the Industrial Revolution and expansion of cities and the ripping out of hedgerows, incurring the 90% loss of biodiversity in the UK, the ‘Eco anxiety’ proved to be too much… removing himself from Society the problems turned into calculations, scientific evidence and tangibility of the forming ideas balancing an individual’s footprint through crowdsourcing funding inextricably linked to each tree! This would need all stratas of society to put past issues aside and come together to create the vision conceived, a Vibrant world of biodiversity, a Woodland for Everyone!

The plan to link up landowners, conservationists, well-being experts, individuals, and businesses… with free trees and the labor to plant them for the altruistic landowner giving a percentage of their land to ensure a sustainable food system but also a safe planet for future generations, 9Trees was born how could anyone resist the origin of nine trees started in 1984

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

There have been so many notable partnerships and hiccups since we began, however, the one which made me feel the most elated and a sense of recognition was when we were asked to apply for an award. We figured we would simply be another person on the table for a Black-Tie event, which we didn’t think we stood a chance of winning, we were told a few weeks later that we were in the final three and invited for a free spot which normally would have cost thousands for a table, so we gladly accepted. On the night we were ecstatic to be awarded the ‘Natural Environment Award for the southwest we were up against people like ‘Frank Water’ and ‘The Wildlife Trust’.

I’ve got to say I’m glad I wore a smart suit and that night we got some fantastic photography and built a really good relationship with the wonderful ‘Future Leap’ Team, and their network, after being a member for three years we had many congratulations from those companies who had already gotten to know us.

This year we will be giving the award (we can’t tell you who the winners are yet)

We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

Trust your heart, Test it with your brain, and Lead with both feet!

As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?

My core values are Adventure, Balance, Compassion, Community, Friendship, Happiness, Helping others, Honesty, Kindness, Love, Optimism, Respect, Responsibility, and Stability. I refuse to compromise on quality over quantity, ‘If a job is worth doing it’s worth doing well’ is a phrase my parents would say and I hold to that.

What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?

The company my father ran was an arts and craft center, it was profit based however at its core it was all about community and he had a lot of time for helping artists and growing his passion for trees and wood turning, so my history was already based on the fact that not everything was about making money. Since then I have volunteered and worked for many different non-profit and charity organisations as well as working for profitable and governmental organisations.

I have seen what each can achieve and also the effect it has on myself and those who work within those organizations I can safely say that doing the ‘Shift’ course, in permaculture in Bristol, solidified my plans to start my own non-profit organization, through my humanitarian efforts in Nepal, I felt I could do a great job. With a team of committed individuals on my return, I gathered the correct people and started 9Trees.

Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?

Businesses today face massive upheaval the company that Ash Kent and I started, balancing the footprint for the future, as well as being part of organizations like ‘Future Leap’ in Bristol and being at the beginning of the upsurge in habitat creation means we will be in good company for the future… although slow currently we hope to build the organization and the team to spread across the UK and Europe and International; ‘From small acorns grow mighty oaks’

How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?

The company’s purpose of creating biodiversity in the UK and also positively affecting the well-being of our sponsor's volunteers and landowners as well as creating well-paid jobs not relying on volunteers in the conservation sector has certainly affected our success if we had decided to concentrate purely on big money from corporate or if we decided that the well-being of our community would not matter, or if we used volunteers for years and years instead of giving them paid roles, although we could be making money we would not have the reputation we do now across the environment and business sector.

The metrics of videos, trees planted, individuals and businesses engaged, interesting articles and social media posts which have comments or likes or questions, followed finally by funds. We review these annually and decide what to spend the money on with new projects and ideas around every corner. We stay true to our main aim of planting nine trees per person per year using funds from companies to bolster our effect on the climate crisis

Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?

Four years ago we planted a small woodland in Staffordshire near Burton upon Trent since then we have expanded our marketing to also include attending events, one of which was a festival in Derbyshire aptly called ‘Timber Festival’ my mum came with the 9Trees team to help on the stand and enjoy the music and the Workshops. One day we woke up early and I drove to the site my mum’s remarks made it an extraordinary experience. As I was checking the trees, telling her all the names showing her all of the bugs and the wildlife that inhabited it, her simple remarks of ‘Why do we have to leave this woodland it’s beautiful!’ Erika Cunningham June 2023

That is one small story that resonates with me and brings a tear to my eye.

My Mum is, and my late father would be, proud of what I have accomplished and it’s all down to a great team and having understanding.

Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability of your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or had to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on your finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?

Every day we face challenges between profit and our purpose. We investigate these with not just our Core team but anyone who cares to comment. We also think about our stakeholders, be it the landowners, other businesses, and our perception of the individuals we serve.

We ultimately make the decision to continue putting purpose, the environment, and well-being, before accepting funds that may be from irreputable companies, which risk shattering our three main pillars and our values.

We use many methods and techniques to communicate, we are also a ‘Grow Slow, Grow Beautiful’ organisation (satish Kumar Schumacher College) we also work within the ‘Permaculture Principles’ and are part of the ‘LandWorkersAlliance’ Woody Branch, working towards a more sustainable future for all.

Although occasionally tough decisions or conflicts may arise we all know that working together and the decisions that we make collaboratively will be the right foot forward for nine trees, even if it takes longer today, in the future it will make things easier and more efficient, without guilt.

I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?

Every member of the 9Trees Team has joined because they have a deep passion for or a great understanding of the Climate, Biodiversity, or Well-being Emergency that we are currently all facing. We have meetings every week with each other and try to ensure our well-being is a priority. The task in hand (creating rich biodiverse habitats) is one of our main aims but the objective is to feel better about our place in this world. From volunteers, and paid members of staff, to Pro-bono specialist support, we are all working towards the goal of creating a habitat corridor throughout the UK that links altruistic landowners, caring individuals, and environmentally and sustainably minded businesses, we are merely the conduit.

We have the skill and the ability to transfer money and land into a wildlife reserve.

Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?

At least nine, hopefully, ninety trees, in every county. There are 92 counties in The UK,

We would hope for 100,000 trees in every country, We already have 5 in Wales, 3 in England one in Scotland, and one in Northern Ireland.

We will also have a foot in the door in Europe and internationally.

Comms are currently open with landowners in Portugal, Croatia Uganda, and Kenya.

We really want to help landowners transition to regenerative farming, more Agroforestry, and CSAs* and we have launched ‘Branching Out’ which is our New way of working with landowners. We also want to foster a joined-up thinking approach with all other tree charities and Nonprofits.

*Community-supported agriculture

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

Foster a community around you of caring individuals who are passionate about the future, help each other reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and create community-supported agriculture and locally owned Microgrids for energy.

How can our readers further follow your work or your company online?

Please sign up for our Newsletter and follow us @9TreesUK on all the Socials.

Connect on LinkedIn LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/company/9-trees-carbon-offsetting-cic/

or search 9TreesCarbonOffsettingCIC

This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!