By Fiona Soltes
Strategic business partners once meant the right vendors and suppliers, and they remain vitally important. But retailers are discovering the value of aligning with the right nonprofit partners as well.
?Giving back is increasingly important,? says Jessica Graham, vice president of communications and community relations for Belk, which announced earlier this year that the company and its associates, customers and vendors had given more than $18.3 million in charitable contributions in the fiscal year ended in January.
?People want to know what companies are doing,? she says. ?They want to feel good about the companies they?re doing business with. And associates ... expect to have the opportunity to be involved and give back. It?s becoming an increasingly normal part of business.?
Turnkey donation solutions
This year, research from Indiana University and nonprofit Good360 showed that product donation ? as an alternative to liquidation or destruction ? not only reduces landfill waste and provides relief for those in need, it?s also better for the corporate bottom line.
Good360, ranked as one of the top 10 most efficient charities by Forbes magazine, provides items to more than 30,000 qualified nonprofits, schools and libraries. Over the past 29 years, Good360 has delivered more than $7 billion in donated products.
Numerous NRF member companies are on Good360?s roster, but chief strategy officer and executive vice president for business development Ellie Hollander is always happy to include more. Her vision of an ideal future is one in which product donation is as routine as recycling.
The Home Depot first aligned with Good360 in 2008 for a program called Framing Hope. Kelly Caffarelli, president of The Home Depot Foundation, says the idea stemmed from store associate comment cards.
?Time and again, they saw us throwing away good merchandise, and they thought that people could use those products,? Caffarelli says. ?The products are often big, bulky and difficult to ship, so we put together a program that addressed those shipping issues by pairing a local nonprofit with each store.?
Framing Hope began with 25 stores and 25 nonprofits; since then, it has surpassed $100 million in donated merchandise, and about half of The Home Depot?s U.S. stores have been matched ? with Good360?s help, Caffarelli says.
Changing the giving paradigm
Steve Croth and his social innovation/technology peers had all experienced fundraising sales of chocolates and gift wrap that took ?tons of effort,? and thought there had to be a easier way to raise cash. Their solution, FlipGive, is set to officially launch this fall.
FlipGive allows consumers to use social media to sell non-discounted offers from popular retailers. A mother trying to raise cash for her son?s soccer team, for example, could sell e-gift cards to a participating retailer, with a portion of each sale going to her cause.
It?s a ?no-risk? venture for the retailer, he explains, as taking part means increased customer traffic, cash, online promotion and credit for charitable involvement.
?It flips marketing on its head,? Croth says. ?It uses the power of the people, and lets them be brand ambassadors. It?s a new way to approach an old problem.? Better the World, the company behind FlipGive (and of which Croth is a founding partner), works with each retailer to create a unique branded experience online, so customers see the fundraisers as an effort of the store.
Better the World teamed up with Toronto-based Indigo Books & Music in 2011 during the retailer?s annual Adopt a School campaign. As a result of that collaboration, online donations grew 140 percent and registrations for Adopt a School sites grew 1,200 percent.
?This is about how you create deeper relationships with your customers,? Croth says. ?What we believe is a fundamental truth ? that if you help people within their lives, then they in turn will be more loyal to you.?
Learning to tell the story
Belk?s February charitable giving announcement was outside the norm ? not just because of the amount, but because an announcement was made at all.
Traditionally, charitable giving came largely through the Belk Foundation, a separate entity with its own leadership and areas of focus. The company?s 2010 rebranding came with new mission and value statements, though; being involved in the community was not new, but now receives higher priority.
?You can?t fix every need,? Graham says. ?The more you can focus your giving in areas that are particularly important to your community, your customers and your associates, the greater impact you?ll be able to have.?
As part of Belk?s efforts, more than $800,000 went to disaster relief for Tuscaloosa, Ala., and other communities affected by the April 2011 tornados. A Tuscaloosa store associate was killed as a result of the storms (though not in the store at the time) and the store also suffered extensive damage.
To witness associates from across the company ?give their money and reach out to help was amazing,? Graham says. ?We filled an 18-wheeler with supplies and drove it down so they would have basic supplies and clothes.?
Graham says Belk is ?getting better? about sharing its charitable efforts, but there?s still work to be done.
?What?s been so special is to see the associates so excited,? she says. ?This is the right thing to do, it?s important to do and we have the resources to do it. We want to share the resources we have and make a difference. But a key part of that is sharing it in a way that helps galvanize folks who want to make a difference as well.?