Getting Businesses to Sign On


Thirty-one years ago, Larry Woolridge figured that one way to funnel troubled Louisville youth to local shelters is to bring the shelters to the kids.

Little did Woolridge know that his citywide project would become a nationally recognized program that provides safe places for thousands of youth in crisis each year. Today, the Safe Place logo carries so much credibility that it literally sells itself.

Known by its golden insignia displayed at businesses around the country, Safe Place has used aggressive and resourceful solicitation to become a favorite of corporate funders.

Can smaller nonprofits learn from its success?

Woolridge was the head of a local shelter when he started Safe Place on his own in 1974. When the program was folded into the Louisville YMCA in 1983, no one intended to replicate it, says Safe Place Executive Director Sandy Bowen. But after Bowen and her staff made a presentation on Safe Place at a national conference sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1986, HHS granted the group $15,000 to start taking Safe Place national.

Today, YMCA Louisville oversees a network of 14,452 Safe Places in 714 communities, run by 141 local agencies that are affiliated with the national office. Most of those agencies are youth shelters, and all were providing community outreach when they teamed up with Safe Place.

The idea is essentially to extend the front doors of the shelters. In each community, the designated Safe Place affiliate develops partnerships with other local groups, mostly businesses and community organizations, such as fire departments. Those partner sites display the signature emblem – a gold diamond with an adult figure embracing a child – on the outside of their buildings. The emblem signals that a youth who feels unsafe for any reason – such as threats from other youths, parental abuse or having nowhere to sleep – can come in for help.

Safe Place affiliates train their partners on what to do when youths seek help, which primarily entails keeping them in a safe area until transportation to a shelter arrives. Agency and site representatives also visit schools to alert youth to the safety options available to them in the community.

The national office says that since 1997 (the first year it kept track), 81,201 youth have gone to Safe Place sites for help. An additional 80,683 have sought counsel by phone or at shelters after someone from Safe Place visited their schools.

The national office runs on about $500,000 a year, with $220,000 of grants from HHS and the Justice Department, about $60,000 in membership dues, and the rest from corporate donors. The office supports its affiliates by providing materials, training agency leaders on how to market the program and holding an annual national conference.

Model of Expansion

Safe Place modeled its national expansion effort on the strategy that enabled Woolridge’s original program to spread throughout Louisville. “Start in a small segment of a community, get volunteers to respond, and set up businesses in that part,” Bowen says. “When it’s saturated, move on. It’s a slow, methodical expansion.”

Another cornerstone was aggressive solicitation. The national staff initially took “a very timid approach” to getting companies on board, Bowen says. “But as time progressed, we were turning away more businesses than we were accepting” as Safe Places.
The local affiliates are trained and encouraged to forge financial support arrangements with their partner companies. Bowen says not-for-profit partners usually are not asked to pay.

The affiliate agencies charge from $25 to $300 per year for a business to post the Safe Place sign in its window. That income usually covers the annual cost of Safe Place materials from the national office, which provides the materials at prices subsidized by HHS’ Family and Youth Services Bureau (FYSB).

Safe Place says one of its agencies in Idaho – the Bannock Youth Foundation – earned more than $9,000 from such fees last year.

In addition, the national office finds corporate partners to meet the needs of the affiliates. UPS and American Eagle Outfitters bankroll a clothing drive for Safe Place agencies. Midland Communications Packaging manufactures and distributes Safe Place signs and decals at a discount, and warehouses and ships the materials at no cost. Toyota is the primary sponsor of the National Safe Place Conference each year.

Nextel and QuikTrip, the Midwest convenience store chain, guarantee that any of their stores in a Safe Place community will be a Safe Place site. QuikTrip says it also provides about $100,000 annually to shelters to start or sustain Safe Place programs.
Safe Place also pursues smaller supporters, including some that would seem unlikely for a youth-serving organization. “In Kentucky, our main industry is tobacco, alcohol and race tracks,” notes Safe Place Development Director Catherine Chapman. “We’d never approach a liquor company for sponsorship – but Jack Daniels has underwritten liquor for our fund-raiser.”
In approaching companies for support, Safe Place hones in on their marketing departments (rather than their philanthropic arms) and sells companies on the value of the Safe Place emblem for their businesses.

At some point, Bowen says, “we started to realize there was value in posting the Safe Place sign on a building, and we probably could ask for some financial investment” in return.

“It’s a nice piece for us, in terms of our public relations,” says Debi Friggel, head of QuikTrip community relations. For instance, QuikTrip focus groups have shown that the company’s female customers place a premium on safety. “It’s important that people feel safe” when they go to QuikTrip, Friggel says.

The corporate partnering is so successful that $175,000 of Safe Place’s federal funding comes through an annual grant from FYSB to produce Safe Place materials, on the condition that those materials also promote FYSB’s National Runaway Switchboard. “They have connected to these businesses, and it’s helped build capacity for the [agency’s] 800 number,” says FYSB Director Harry Wilson. “Our [runaway and homeless youth] grantees have benefited from it.”

Bowen recognizes that her program is conducive to securing business support, because businesses can contribute products and services, or they can actually participate. But regardless of what any particular youth-serving agency does, Bowen says, “more nonprofits need to put businesses right there in the forefront.”

Many nonprofits “don’t have a built-in programmatic way to solicit corporate support, so they don’t go after it,” she says. “It’s easier to ask them to just display a sign than it is to ask for money, but right off the bat you aren’t getting the most out of your situation. Absolutely more nonprofits should do what we do.”

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