The Business of Good: How a Local Donation Campaign Became a $200 Million CSR Success Story

"Corporate Social Responsibility" -- or CSR -- has become a trendy term over the past few years, with companies large and small putting aside resources to invest in their communities and in the environment, while also addressing other overarching social issues. As the leader of a nonprofit who is very interested in this space, I've looked closely at hundreds of CSR campaigns throughout the years, and they've ranged across a wide spectrum -- from truly successful long-term community-building initiatives to far less in-depth programs that are mostly intended to generate good PR buzz for brands. While designing an effective CSR strategy is a challenge for any company, I've noticed that one of the toughest industries in which to do so is retail.

Retail, by its very nature, is an ever-changing business. Trends change by the season, staffers come and go, management shifts often, and even the stores themselves can pop up and just as quickly disappear. So I'm particularly impressed when business leaders in the retail industry are able to put together successful nonprofit collaborations. Twenty years ago, long before most of us had ever heard of CSR, let alone made it part of our standard practices, the local Boston Store in Milwaukee, WI, now owned by The Bon-Ton Stores, Inc. began a partnership with Goodwill Industries of Southeastern Wisconsin. Through this partnership, Boston Store gave coupons to customers who donated clothing and textiles to benefit the Milwaukee Goodwill. The coupons could be used for significant discounts at Boston Store. The idea was solid:

• It engaged consumers in a campaign that helps others in their own community by supporting Goodwill's local job training programs.
• It was easy to participate-- just round up a few items from your closet that you no longer use and bring them to the store.
• It offered a significant reward for the person taking part -- discount shopping!

Naturally, the idea caught on. It gradually grew to include other Goodwill agencies and Bon-Ton stores across the United States, and, in 2006, the promotion was expanded to all seven nameplates operated by Bon-Ton. Since 1994, the collaboration has generated an estimated value of more than $233 million in clothing and textile donations to support Goodwill's job training services and programs in local communities.

It's particularly impressive that Bon-Ton has been able to grow this sale consistently over the course of two decades, especially in an industry where things change year by year, season by season, and moment by moment. This has been accomplished largely because the Goodwill Sale offers consumers the right mix of consistency and innovation.

The sale has now become a tradition for Bon-Ton shoppers, many of whom put aside their donations in preparation for Goodwill Sale events and eagerly anticipate using their coupons. It hasn't remained entirely the same, either. In 2013, the sale introduced a new donating opportunity, allowing shoppers to give $5 at any Bon-Ton register in exchange for sale coupons. It takes a bit of chutzpah to change up a 19-year-old program that has consistently been successful, but this was an "a-ha moment" for the event's planners when they realized that they could both attract new shoppers and offer those already engaged with another opportunity give.

This spring, shoppers donated a total of $482,000 in cash, along with more than 2.5 million pounds of clothing and textiles. The combined impact of these donations equals approximately 344,000 hours of job training services to help people gain skills and go to work in the communities where they were collected.

CSR can mean a lot of things, and as a label it's often slapped on campaigns that don't actually make much of a difference. But for the millions of Americans who have received job training services from Goodwill, the partnership with Bon-Ton has been invaluable. I'm fortunate to hear from the people Goodwill has helped, and they are grateful for the Goodwill services they received as a result of the partnership. These Goodwill services have helped them find jobs, earn paychecks, pay their bills or take their families on their first vacations in years. I know those success stories would not have been possible without partnerships like the Bon-Ton Goodwill Sale. For corporate leaders interested in designing a CSR program that not only makes a difference but is built to last, the Goodwill Sale is, in my opinion, one of the best models out there.