Exhibitors find ways to make a tangible difference
By Mandy Roth
Around the globe there are people in need. There are many ways to help, including choosing to do business with vendors who are committed to philanthropic endeavors. By working with these companies, you enhance a connection to your own customers, who are increasingly interested in buying from businesses that make the world a better place. Here’s a look at three different approaches that are helping victims of flooding and hurricanes, assisting wounded veterans and supplying clean water to Africa.
Caracole furnishes disaster relief to flood victims
In August 2016 a three-day storm dumped 20 to 30 inches of water on East Baton Rouge, La., and nearby parishes. Thirteen people died and an estimated 200,000 homes and 10,000 businesses were flooded. Only 15 percent of the homes had flood insurance.
Triche Leander, chief operating officer at high style furniture company Caracole, was dumbfounded. Baton Rouge is her hometown, and it seemed no one was taking action. People were investing all their savings into rebuilding their homes and had no funds to purchase furnishings.
Leander took matters into her own hands. She enlisted the help of her employees, and they began working the phones. She needed furniture, trucks, a website, a warehouse and a distribution system.
She needed volunteers on the ground in Louisiana who could vet applicants, organize inventory and schedule pick-ups. Someone connected her with Volunteers of America who jumped on board to help. “What I was asking them to do was massive,” Leander recalls. But no one knew quite how massive until the industry she had marshaled responded with enormous generosity.
Numerous furniture manufacturers contributed goods. Freight companies donated trucks; drivers volunteered to transport loads. By the time it was over, North Carolina-based Caracole had amassed $1.5 million in donated goods and services. Seven truckloads of merchandise arrived, and furniture was distributed to 1,000 people.
It was a moving experience. One gentleman had asked only for a bed. Once it was loaded into a truck, he turned around, offered hugs and started crying on the dock. “He was so grateful that he simply would have a bed to sleep on,” says Leander. “These people had lost everything, but they didn’t ask for much— a bed, a table so they could sit down to eat—just enough to get back in their homes.”
This amazing success story was just the beginning of this endeavor. Next came Hurricane Harvey. Then Irma. As the news of the Lone Star state devastation hit, Leander says, “Employees showed up at my door and asked, ‘When are we going to Texas?’” Once again they mobilized the industry. Vanguard Furniture had an innovative response, inspiring vendors to donate materials and setting up a special weekend work event. Seventy workers showed up to make furniture for the victims. Working through Volunteers of America chapters in Texas and Florida, by March 2018, Caracole coordinated delivery of an additional $2 million in goods and services for the victims in those states.
“People want to feel like the companies they do business with are part of and care about the community,” says Leander. “I want you to know this was a team effort by the people at Caracole. It may have started with me, but we have 70 employees who have embraced this cause and it wouldn’t have happened without them.”
Ever Ellis gives wounded veterans Happy Tails
After 11 years of service in the U.S. Army, Lesley’s life changed overnight. One day she was serving in Bosnia, the next she was in Walter Reed Hospital undergoing emergency surgery for leg amputation. Her recovery involved 20 separate surgeries and the need to learn to walk again. The soldier felt discouraged by the road ahead. Then Isaac entered the picture—and changed everything.
The handsome shelter pooch had just completed training of his own to become a service dog in Canines for Veterans. “The first time I saw Isaac, I felt like a Christmas tree being turned on,” recalls Lesley. “We bonded instantaneously, and we’ve been inseparable. He gives me the confidence and freedom to get through each day and the will to walk again.”
Inspired by stories like Lesley’s, Ever Ellis, a new giftable goods company that debuted at AmericasMart in January, designed a collection of special caps in gray, navy and pink, featuring a paw print flag logo. Ten percent of the proceeds will be donated to Canines for Veterans, a 401(3)(c) charity with a platinum ranking by GuideStar, the world’s largest non-profit information source. Each cap features a gift tag that tells the story of a veteran with a disability and how their canine companion is helping them recover.
“When vetting charities, this one stood out,” says Ever Ellis Brand Manager Aimee Dodd. The community relations director at Canines for Veterans has a personal bond with every person who receives a dog and was able to convey the struggles recipients face, along with how the animal changed his or her life. The North Carolina-based organization not only revitalizes wounded and injured veterans; they also rescue shelter dogs.
Dodd explains that everyone in her office has an “insane love of animals. Something spoke to us, and we all felt we could stand behind this cause.” Even more, the stories give retail customers a personal connection to the journey of those who will benefit from the organization.
“We had a vision to create a company by retailers for retailers,” said Dodd, who operates Ever Ellis, a new line from Transpac. Dodd previously owned a gift shop and understands the importance of building connections with customers. The stories and the charity give retailers a way to do that by offering a gift item that has even greater meaning. Each year a new charity will be selected based on nominations from retailers who gather suggestions from their customers, further enhancing their bonds. “It adds extra significance,” she says, “to the spirit of gifting.”
Lifting spirits through philanthropic business philosophy
DEMDACO has an intriguing business philosophy to “lift the spirit.”
“Our hope is to pursue business the way it ought to be,” says the company’s Cultural Conversation Leader Jonathan Jones. DEMDACO is committed to the notion that business does not have to be solely a financial endeavor. It is first, and foremost, a human endeavor. “Our hope is to see this reflected in our actions with consumers and customers, with colleagues, and within our communities.” So while some companies donate a portion of sales to specific causes, DEMDACO desires to seek out goodness in everything it does. It’s evidenced in the company’s unique assortment of inspirational and giftable products, as well as its unique approach to just about everything.
Take its showroom at AmericasMart, for example. In a space that could be devoted to sales, DEMDACO reserves a large room to promote the work of non-profit Blood:Water. It is an immersive visual experience that tells the story of the need for clean water in several African countries where the charity operates. By the July 2018 Market, DEMDACO will change the room to feature other non-profit organizations, as well as its view of business as a human endeavor. The space also will offer guests a quiet respite from the chaos of a busy market— a way to “lift the spirit” of attendees.
While DEMDACO has contributed financially to this cause and others, it doesn’t release figures because the company wants to keep the focus on the donation partner. Dan Haseltine, one of Blood:Water’s founders and lead singer for Christian rock band Jars of Clay, explains how DEMDACO’s approach creates the opportunity for significant cultural change. “To me, the presence of Blood:Water in AmericasMart is akin to an art installation. It is both a complimentary piece showing the beauty of gift giving and also a juxtaposition of true scarcity in the middle of true abundance.”
DEMDACO first became involved with the organization in 2005, intrigued by Blood:Water’s own unique approach, which Haseltine says, “flipped the traditional Western hero narrative upside down and gave Africans the gift of doing development on their terms.
“It would be easy to look at donor relationships as predominantly transactional experiences; contributors provide financial resources and in return the organization makes those donors feel good by saving lives and inviting them into an adventurous and exotic story,” Haseltine explains. “But that is not the full picture.”
“Over the years DEMDACO has given generously to the work we do to help solve the water crisis in Africa. That is tangible help. It means that children once forced to walk seven miles to collect dirty water from rivers, lakes and run-off pools for drinking, cooking and cleaning, are now able to go to school instead. It means that thousands of local villagers have been trained and empowered to maintain and fix wells and catchment tanks when they break. Yet the story of Alfred that has been part of the Blood:Water room in AmericasMart is a glimpse into the human story that is impacted when we choose to approach the people we serve with the respect and dignity they deserve.”