Seven years ago, Dallas disc jockey Ron Harris returned from a tour of Russia with a message for his listeners: Among the many needs of the country's orphans, what they needed most was shoes.
Harris' on-air appeals were soon resulting in more footwear than his radio station could handle on its own. Spotting an opportunity to add to its roster of services, Buckner Orphan Care International offered to assume oversight of the program, and collected about 5,000 pairs a year. In June 1999, the nonprofit sat down with Betty Lovell, president of Lovell Public Relations, to develop a plan that would expand the total number of shoes donated, as well as the number of countries to which they would be distributed.
Working on a tiny budget and an equally tight deadline, Lovell coordinated with another client, Macerich Shopping Malls, to create a back-to-school promotion at one of its properties in Dallas. When the month of August had come and gone, Buckner had collected 20,000 pairs of shoes, plus an additional $100,000 in cash. Emboldened, Buckner took Shoes for Orphan Souls national, staging drives in 310 cities last year.
By staging the campaign during the back-to-school shopping rush, Lovell ensured that the Shoes for Orphan Souls collection centers were exposed to a steady stream of potential donors - many of whom might buy their donations from retailers at one of the 26 Macerich properties that hosted the drives.
"This program encourages people to go to a mall, buy shoes from one of its stores, and drop them off with our representatives,
says Tiffany Taylor, who oversees the program at Buckner. "That's what cause-related marketing is all about."
To overcome potential resistance to its international focus, the program emphasized a "kids helping kids
angle, recruiting young volunteers to sort, lace, and box the shoes. Buckner also stressed that 20% of the footwear collected would be handed out in the local community. Lovell, meanwhile, coordinated with Macerich to tweak the campaign to fit individual markets.
"Each market has its own dynamics,
explains Milly Navaro, a senior account executive at Lovell. "Schools start at different times in different parts of the country."
In the months leading up to the drive, Shoes for Orphan Souls sought out testimonials by posting messages on pro-adoption e-mail lists. The most compelling responses were then fed to media outlets near each individual drive.
"I can't fly everywhere, so we had to use volunteer spokespeople, or it wouldn't work,
says Taylor. She adds that "for community organizations that want to collect shoes, we've got a total turnkey PR campaign, with shell press releases and posters that can be customized."
In addition to its relationship with Macerich, Lovell brought in additional corporate backers; donors in some markets, for example, were treated to coupons redeemable for special offers from local restaurants or car washes.
More than just an incentive, the vouchers offered an additional benefit: a mechanism for tracking the additional business sponsors gained by lending their support to the drive.
Twenty-five newspapers, a 1,300-station radio network, and a handful of trade publications ran stories on the 2001 drive, which was further promoted PSAs provided by its corporate sponsors.
Those media outlets were covering an initiative with a goal that, in retrospect, seems unnecessarily modest. Besting its target by 400,000, Buckner wound up tallying more than half a million footwear sets, as well as $250,000 in cash donations and thousands of socks and shoelaces - a total harvest estimated at $9 million. Thanks to that success, the organization was able to triple its humanitarian outreach, and now ships shoes to 15 countries around the world.
Taylor says that Shoes for Orphan Souls hopes to one day have operations in all 50 states. As new sites are being considered for this year's drive, Buckner has been receiving hand-me-downs from a number of stars, including Christy Turlington, Charlize Theron, Christina Ricci, and Jeff Foxworthy.
Their donations will be featured in a celebrity shoe auction that Buckner plans to hold on Yahoo! in 2003.