Sustainable Charity

Back in 2003 I was working for a company that was considering a relationship with Dr. Laura, the no-nonsense radio show host famous for kicking her listeners in the pants.

Part of relationship was to be with her charitable foundation, which at the time was best known for handing out ‘My Stuff Bags,’ which were bags of essential items for kids being removed from homes and taken into shelters; blankets, stuffed animals and basic toiletries.

While the effort was successful… they donated more than 250,000 bags in 6 years, with less than 10 percent overhead… Dr. Laura shut it down in December 2004. The press release issued at the time didn’t say so, but one of the sticking points was that the business warehouse, package and then transship all the donated stuff to participating shelters. I saw that warehouse in Southern California and it was packed to the rafters.

The problem was that business model didn’t really scale. The more successful they got, the higher their expenses grew. The foundation was funded by donations from Dr. Laura and her listeners, but they didn’t have any other way of generating cash. Without a better business model the My Stuff Bags could have grown so successful that it would have bankrupted the effort!

Now I’ve seen a very similar charitable effort, but with a sustainable business model. Founded in in San Francisco in 2005, Project Night Night gives kids, especially in homeless shelters a canvas bag with a new security blanket, a stuffed animal and an age-appropriate book.

The difference is that Project Night Night is more decentralized and it generates a cash donation. The charity asks donors to buy the canvas bags, priced at $3.50 each, and then hold parties to gather up and pack the totes with the blankets, stuffed animals and books. So long as the items in question aren’t worn-out, you can collect the items from your own stores. Project Night Night also receives in-kind and monetary donations.

After parties, the totes are taken directly to local participating shelters. The list of participating shelters is on the Project Night Night website.

As Yogi Berra might have observed, “if it’s not sustainable it can’t be sustained.”

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