In-kind giving is an underappreciated and underutilized form of corporate philanthropy — a low-hanging fruit that too few companies bother to pluck.
Aside from the obvious benefits to nonprofits, there are so many reasons for businesses to leverage the advantages of gifts in kind, from the impressive tax deductions that accompany these forms of giving – with even greater tax benefits for companies than donating cash – to the very real potential for increased employee engagement, recruitment and retention.
But the payoff can be doubly huge for those business leaders imaginative enough to creatively tailor an in-kind giving program to the exact personality of their corporate brands.
Take, for example, Vans. Yes, that Vans, the shoe company we all grew up with, the hipster skateboard cool accessory that defines a certain kind of aesthetic and has been a fashion rite of passage for generations. The company began organically in 1966, from the simple idea of a checkerboard shoe, and kids ever since have been buying them so they could express themselves by both wearing and drawing on them as a kind of wearable canvas.
“Expression of youth culture and art has always been part of Vans brand,” notes Vans President Kevin Bailey. “Many of our employees have gone through arts education. Creative expression is at the core of the brand.”
So what could be more perfect for a youth culture brand than an in-kind giving program that draws on skills-based volunteering to support the arts in schools? And further, a program that mirrors the unique style of the brand and reverberates back to it in endless ways that grow the program while increasing brand awareness and loyalty?
Just like the company’s own beginnings, Vans’ in-kind giving program started in an organic way. In 2009, an art teacher in Colorado was looking to find new ways to engage his students and reached out to a friend for ideas. The friend happened to be a Vans sales rep who suggested donating a bunch of plain white Vans to use as canvases.
Thus was born Custom Culture. Within just one year, the program had grown into an art competition that included 200 high schools – inspiring kids to get creative and custom design Vans shoes to represent one of four focus areas: art, music, action sports or street culture.
“We launched the program from a standpoint of just embracing students and giving them a platform,” Bailey notes. “We just wanted to help them be creative. But then we saw that maybe we could bring more attention to funding and arts education. If we could do that, we wanted to try.”
It was a natural fit and a hit, embraced by schools, parents and kids. Now in its fifth year, Custom Culture has evolved to include 2,000 schools in 50 states and has contributed $100,000 toward public arts education. In addition to directly funding arts education through the contest, Custom Culture is raising awareness about the state of underfunding that exists in arts education today. With the Vans Brazil division joining for the first time this year, the program has even caught fire globally in ways that its original creator could never have imagined.
“We’re trying to use the platform we have to help elevate the conversation,” says Bailey. “Innovation and innovative leadership conversations are happening every day all over our world at companies in every industry. But if we don’t foster arts education, what happens to the right brain? To the creative side of leadership? That’s just as important as all of this focus on the business side of innovation.”
With the program currently limited at 2,000 entrants, school districts battle to qualify, and parents and kids work hard to lobby for votes and see their entries make it through to the final rounds.
While Custom Culture benefits kids and brings awareness to the widening gap in arts education funding, Vans is also creatively addressing one of the biggest dilemmas facing companies today: how to find, cultivate and retain innovative talent. It doesn’t hurt that, “Art has a way of forging deep personal relationships,” as Bailey notes.
But you don’t need to be a hip brand to engage your employees around corporate giving. Any company would be well served to find vehicles for employee engagement as perfect for its mission as Custom Culture is for Vans.
Vans employees help narrow the initial entrants down to a group of 50 semi-finalists, build out the showcase website, and act as photographers and videographers at contest events. As the five finalists are identified, they also volunteer as mentors, helping the students learn how to turn their ideas into commercially viable designs.
“The reality of Vans shoes is that everyone thinks of them as a way to express yourself,” says Bailey. “When our employees see what the kids create, it inspires them. Just being around these young people is inspiring. We’re a company that’s about youth culture, so to have the ability to engage with these kids, to display the shoes in the “kitchen” [the dining area where employees meet and eat] and have employees gather all day with them – it’s exciting.”
There are some serious “wow” factors built into Vans Custom Culture. But the biggest one is reserved for the final five contestants: Vans flies all of them to New York City for some unique hands-on arts education in one of the biggest art cities in the world. Last year, for example, a docent led finalists on a street art tour around the city, and then the students participated in creating a mural as a team. For the finishing touch, Vans arranged for a gallery display of all the art the team created together.
In keeping with the independent flavor of the Vans brand, winning schools can do whatever they want with the money, and the range of arts activities they choose to invest in is broad. From purchasing kilns for ceramics classes, to stocking visual arts classrooms with brushes and canvases, to funding music programs – wherever there’s a gap, Vans is helping schools meet that need.
Vans may be a well-known brand and a for-profit company. But its in-kind giving program is a powerful engine for the brand that benefits Vans as much as it does its recipients. Custom Culture is an inspiring example that other companies seeking to create an in-kind giving program which includes skills and values-based philanthropy can learn from.
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