What do Shaquille O’Neal, a blind skateboarder and llamas have in common? One thing: Zappos for Good.
The charitable arm of Zappos.com has become an increasingly large and wide-ranging operation benefiting local and national organizations.
“It’s definitely part of our values,” said Christa Foley, senior director of brand vision. “Specifically, it’s about building a positive team and family spirit that broadens out to the larger community that we have. In the early days, when we were doing surveys to sense how happiness was or what we could do better, the community and the charity piece was something that came up.”
The group is led by Steve Bautista (who also oversees the employee engagement initiatives), and he recalled the program’s organic origins. “When I started nine years ago, our only charity work was with Livestrong,” he said. “Since then, we’ve redone the way we do charity so it’s more focused on our community and making sure that employees are engaged in the process.”
All the ideas for philanthropic initiatives originate with employees, who are responsible for ensuring their success. Bautista’s role, meanwhile, is to cultivate the ideas and inject them with that signature Zappos verve.
For instance, since its early days, Zappos for Good has organized holiday meal services in partnership with the Salvation Army, though it has gone beyond offering a basic handout to providing a festive family outing with jump houses and petting zoos complete with llamas and camels.
Similarly, Zappos launched its Prom Closet program in 2013, where it plays fairy godmother to local teens in need, turning the plaza at its HQ into a one-stop prom emporium that offers free used and new dresses and tuxes, shoes and accessories, as well as hair and makeup services provided by local professionals. Nearly 1,100 kids participate each year, according to Bautista.
Other projects include its Pawlidayz pet adoption promotion, started in 2015, kids’ on-campus farmers markets and a new program called Closets for Good that builds nooks full of clothing and food in schools.
Of the Closets for Good program, Bautista said, “Typically, teachers end up buying or sourcing these things for kids who are in need. In the last few months, we’ve built five of these closets in different schools. Now we want to find more people who can help, whether it’s clothing or shoe brands who send extra inventory. The goal is to build at least 10 of these over the next year.”
The company is also tapping into star power to elevate its philanthropic efforts. Through its Shoes for Good program, Zappos has recruited singer Michael Ray and pop band Imagine Dragons to create limited-edition sneakers with Puma and Superga, respectively, with all proceeds going toward the celebrities’ preferred charities.
And last winter, Zappos teamed up with NBA legend O’Neal and the Boys & Girls Club on a Shaq-a-Claus event benefiting 2,200 underprivileged kids. Next up, they are plotting a multicity tour for the back-to-school season (dubbed Shaq-to-School, naturally) that will dole out supplies to potentially 5,000 children.
However, not all of its outreach is on such a grand scale. The Zappos Adaptive team this year worked with legally blind skateboarder Justin Bishop to equip a skate park in Las Vegas with technology that allows him to move safely and easily.
And the company has been lending its footwear resources to aid Kyler’s Kicks, a shoe-giving charity founded by a Las Vegas boy who was the victim of a school stabbing and who is now working to combat bullying with fresh kicks.
Whether big or small, Bautista said all the Zappos for Good projects are seen as an integral part of the firm’s overall mission. “The vision for the company is that it’s not about just making the dollar; it’s about: How do you support employees, who then support the customer, and how do you do what’s right?” he said. “The way we look at it is, how do we do the right thing by every single person we interact with, no matter what the cost?”
And indeed, Bautista said he is rarely hassled about budgetary issues. “Sometimes in a company, charity can be seen as a drain because it’s one department that spends money, and there’s not an ROI on it — and I actually don’t give any ROI. I don’t even give many calculations to finance, and they don’t ask for it.”
He credits that approach to company CEO Tony Hsieh, who for years has emphasized Zappos’ greater role within its community. “In other companies, CEOs aren’t as supportive of [engagement], so it tends to take a back seat, but Tony is very passionate about this.”
With that backing, the Zappos for Good program is pursuing even more altruistic endeavors. For one, Bautista wants to add more nonprofit partners to the site’s Give donation program, which provides customers with shipping labels to send goods to organizations such as Soles4Souls and Kids in Need.
He also is developing a program called Goods for Good, which could be a revenue driver for the firm. “The idea is to bring together all the ‘good’ products that are sold online, like a shoe made out of recycled plastic,” said Bautista. “We could find ways where for every item purchased, there would be a different way of giving back to the community or a charity. Through this, we can merge the e-commerce world with charity.”
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