KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit that organizes individuals, community associations and corporations to build safe, accessible playgrounds in under-served neighborhoods. Although KaBOOM! is supported largely by corporate monetary contributions, it has demonstrated a unique ability to partner with companies that also dedicate volunteer labor and in-kind services.
KaBOOM! was founded in 1995 by Darell Hammond and Dawn Huchinson, Washington, DC-based community organizers. Their goal was to create opportunities for low-income communities to design, build, and raise funds for playgrounds. Besides creating safe places for children to play, Hammond and Huchinson believe that community-built playgrounds can jump-start local organizing efforts; involve local businesses in community improvement projects; bring parents and grandparents together with their children; and allow people from different backgrounds to come together.
Hammond estimates that a playground takes about 6 months and $50,000 – $75,000 to organize and build. The bulk of the organizing is done within the community, or by the local sponsor of the site, who must convene a playground committee, hold design sessions with community members and children, select a play equipment company, deal with the media, oversee the “build,” and plan for the long-term maintenance of the playground. Because of the considerable efforts needed from volunteers, KaBOOM! looks for corporate sponsors that will bring not only dollars, but enthusiastic volunteers who are either connected, or willing to make connections, to low-income neighborhoods across the country.
Several large corporations have committed thousands of volunteer hours and millions of dollars to KaBOOM!’s “Let Us Play” program, which has a national goal of building 1000 playgrounds by the year 2000. For example, The Home Depot has built 20 playgrounds over three years, and will likely double or triple their commitment over the next three years. In addition to funding, and in-kind donations, Home Depot employees are active participants in building the playground, and further organize communities around other company-sponsored construction projects.
Typically, Hammond interviews potential funders in a meeting “to see if there is a match.” He notes that most executives are impressed that they are not just looking for a fat wallet, but a commitment of time and energy as well. “We analyze a company to see if partnering with us is really in their best interests – in terms of their customers, their employees, or their brand.”
Hammond refuses to give an exclusive contract to anyone. “Play is not an exclusive activity,” he insists. Instead, he emphasizes the KaBOOM! philosophy, and projects it onto the corporation, showing them how they can involve their officers, employees, vendors and clients in a team-building effort. Corporate sponsors emphasize that Hammond is responsive to their needs, mostly by creating a direct, efficient mechanism for them to invest in. A playground is a material thing, with a limited timeline. When corporate volunteers get involved, they can actually see the project through to completion, get the satisfaction of a job well done, and then comfortably reach out to another neighborhood to repeat the process.
In 1997, KaBOOM! established a partnership with CNA, one of the nation’s largest insurers. Not only has CNA committed to build 50 playgrounds, they have also provided KaBOOM! with everything from advertising support to office supplies. The partnership appears to be effective because both sides have responded directly to each others’ needs. CNA can deliver not only money, but a network of offices in major cities around the country that will contribute volunteer labor. KaBOOM! gives CNA an efficient way of giving to the many communities in which they operate. It also allows them to build relationships with their local vendors, clients and agents, by involving them in the build.
According to Sarada-Amani, executive director of the CNA Foundation, the company contacted KaBOOM! because they were looking for a community-based team building project for celebration they were holding in honor of the company’s centennial. Although the company executives, who represented offices nationwide, were initially not enthusiastic about going anywhere at 6am, 700 CNA employees arrived at the selected site: the Bryn Mawr School in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood. With so many volunteers, the employees built two playgrounds, painted fences, painted a map of the United States on the ground, and even ripped-up moldy carpeting inside the school. At the end of the day, the feeling was “so positive and energizing” said Amani, “that the officers all wanted a project for their cities.” Having tapped into the resources of a nationwide executive workforce, KaBOOM! had created a huge network of CNA resources, volunteers and organizers, who pledged to build 25 playgrounds nationwide, and 25 more in Chicago. CNA, according to Amani, will receive substantial benefits as well. These include:
- a solid, reliable mechanism for employees who have been asking for ways to volunteer;
- decentralization of their philanthropic efforts;
- excellent team-building opportunities;
- extension of client, business partners and vendor relationships;
- enormous media opportunities.
Making a link to a company having a conference or anniversary is a good way to bring a large group into the process, according to Hammond, who has convinced a number of large companies to build a playground as a part of a celebration, and then watched the ripple effect through the regional management. “Strategy number one is to bring a potential partner to a build,” said Hammond. “It is important that they see it, experience it, and understand the PR and marketing behind it.” He also notes that sponsors begin to see playgrounds as a necessity, not as a luxury.
Hammond attributes KaBOOM!’s successful corporate partnerships to other factors as well, including:
- providing direct, hands-on projects in which to invest;
- providing a replicable product;
- achievable goals within a defined timeline;
- strong community component;
- providing a mechanism that allows corporations to link with vendors and clients;
- since maintenance funding is built into the contract, funders know that the project will continue after their commitment is over.