Why Denver’s pot church pays $10,000 a month to PR firm run by some of its members

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The International Church of Cannabis' colorful painted ceiling. S. Logan Street, April 4, 2017. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)  420; marijuana; international church of cannabis; washington park west; kevinjbeaty; denver; denverite; colorado;

The interior of Elevation Ministries, also know as International Church of Cannabis, on S. Logan Street. (Kevin J. Beaty/Denverite)

Elevation Ministries, Denver’s first pot church, has already given the city a lot to talk about — whether it’s the argument that its existence paves the way for pot clubs or the more timeless question of how to balance neighborhood concerns with a disruption of the status quo.

But the most interesting discussion is around Elevation Ministries’ finances — namely the connection between the nonprofit church and a for-profit company. 

To understand what all the fuss is about, let’s go back to March 20. That’s when Elevation Ministries entered an agreement to pay Bang Holdings at least $10,000 per month for two years in exchange for social media management and content creation, according to a filing with U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Bang Holdings is a publicly traded company with two subsidiaries: Bang Vapor and Bang Digital Media. The CEO of Bang Holdings is Steve Berke, the same Steve Berke who’s a founding member of Elevation Ministries. Bang Digital Media’s chief marketing officer Lee Molloy is also an Elevationist. Adam Mutchler is the chief financial officer of Bang Digital Media and the registered agent of nonprofit Elevation Ministries.

So there’s overlap between Elevation Ministries and Bang Digital Media among the church’s most public early members.

That bothers resident Cat Vielma.

“That to me, as a taxpayer and as a person who works in tax finance, and sees how difficult it is to get tax-financed low-income housing properties done, just kind of grinds my gears,” she said.

Another resident, Gavin Carney, had a similar reservation:

“There’s not enough transparency,” he said. “As an outsider, it appears to me that the interlocking personnel leave donors to the church with little ability to understand how much of their money is going where.”

Berke says one reason for Elevation Ministries’ contract is that the church would have needed these services anyway.

If you’re wondering if social media is a necessity for a church, yes, that’s really a thing. Karna Swanson, executive director of communications for the Archdiocese of Denver, said that communications are a growing area of focus for churches.

The other reason that Berke hired his own company is that he doesn’t trust another company to deliver.

“We had a feature in the New York Times, we had two features in USA Today, we had three mentions in TMZ, we got over 2 billion media impressions in our first week — any PR firm would charge a fortune for that,” he said.

“A top PR firm out of New York charges $15 to $25,000 a month and couldn’t got one tenth of the amount of press that we got for the church,” he said. “So do I believe that $10K a month is egregious? Not in the least bit.”

Bang Digital Media has been so successful in marketing the church that Berke says the company is getting calls “left and right.” Which is good news since the Cannabist has reported the company was previously not making much money:

“Since its inception, Bang Holdings has generated minimal revenue — the company recorded $255 and $576 in sales for 2016 and 2015, respectively — and accumulated a deficit of $3.6 million, according to the filing. For 2016, the company reported an operating loss of under $1.1 million, down from $1.4 million in 2015.”

As for the church, the $10,000 PR fee has already yielded more than $35,000 in donations to their Indiegogo campaign.

“It takes money to make money, and that’s just the way life works. It’s an investment in the church’s fundraising capabilities to have a PR and social media management wing that can help raise awareness,” Berke said.