Bob’s Discount Furniture combines random acts of kindness with institutional giving in a uniquely structured charitable giving program.
View all articles by Russell Bienenstock
This installment in FURNITURE WORLD Magazine’s “Spotlight on Charitable Giving” series, features Bob’s Discount Furniture, one of the nation’s largest and fastest growing furniture retailers. Bob’s charitable efforts are separated into two distinct programs; Bob’s Charitable Foundation and the Outreach program. This structure balances their instinct for supporting specific charities in a quiet, structured and substantive way, with the flexibility to reach out to communities they serve with “random acts of kindness” and other creative initiatives.
The well known “celebrity” spokespersons for Bob’s Discount Furniture, Bob Kaufman, CEO and Catherine Poulin, Public Relations Director, share their experiences and advice on charitable giving with FURNITURE WORLD Magazine’s readers.
Bob’s Discount Furniture recently held its 25th annual Golf Outing event that raised more than $447,000 to benefit charities including the American Red Cross, Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, American Cancer Society’s Camp Rising Sun, Family & Children’s Aid, The Jimmy Fund and Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Pictured at left is Bob Kaufman, co-founder of Bob’s Discount Furniture, and Gene Rosenberg (in blue shirt), founder of Planned Furniture Promotions, at the Golf Outing.
Photographed (l-r): Golfers at the event included Bob Kaufman, co-founder of Bob’s Discount Furniture; George Clarke, Jr., operations manager at Flotation Innovations; Mike Ricci, president at Flotation Innovations; John Chatis, owner of Custom Craftsman Woodworking.
INTERVIEW WITH BOB
Question: “Tell me how the Bob's Charitable Foundation program came about.”
Answer:“Gene Rosenberg and myself started the Foundation as a way to give back as Bobs Discount Furniture grew and prospered. It seemed only right to give back, especially to those communities that host our stores.”
Question: “Did the Foundation have a champion in your organization?”
Answer: “Gene Rosenberg was certainly the "guiding light" in directing our charitable dollars to areas that have the greatest impact, and I certainly learned at his side. For twenty five years Gene, his partner Paul Cohen and the entire Planned Furniture Promotions organization have had a large charitable footprint. Twenty one years ago, when Gene and I founded Bobs, it was a natural partnership to continue this giving.”
Sharon Valley, Bob's Discount Furniture's Public Relations/ Outreach Coordinator, is shown visiting faculty and students at the Jamestown School in Rhode Island to present a $1,000 donation check. Every month, Bob’s randomly selects seven schools in communities nearby its stores and presents each with a $1,000 donation. These donations are made possible through money collected in donation jars located in each Bob’s store cafe. Photographed (from left to right): Nell Connelly, Jamestown School teacher; Stephen Cirella, Jamestown School student; Giancarlo Varrecchione, Jamestown School student; and Sharon Valley, Bob's Discount Furniture's Public Relations/ Outreach Coordinator. Also pictured is Bob’s colorful Outreach Program van.
Question: “What advice did you seek in setting up the Foundation?”
Answer: “We used a knowledgeable accountant, with experience in non-profits. His advice was critical for getting the organization on solid footing.”
Question: “What is the program’s goal?”
Answer: “Our goal is to make a difference in the lives of those most in need. The majority of our dollars are spent on children and charities that help children. That is the business plan.”
Question: “How are Bob’s charitable efforts organized and funded?”
Answer: “Our most recent golf outing that netted over $400,000 is primarily supported by the trade. Bob’s Discount Furniture also donates over $720,000 in gift cards and over $400,000 every year in cash. That number, that includes outreach and cafe donation jars, provides the bulk of the foundation’s income.”
Question: “Who makes distribution decisions?”
Answer: “Kathryn Pianta is my only direct report person, and the only person who works exclusively on foundation requests. Bob’s Discount Furniture pays 100% of her salary, so the Foundation has zero expenses.”
Bob’s presented the LaDawn Therapeutic Riding Center with a $2,500 donation at Bob’s South Portland, ME store. This donation was made through Bob’s “Random Acts of Kindness” fund. Bob’s Discount Furniture representatives Cathy Poulin, Public Relations Director and TV Personality, and Richard James, Bob’s Discount Furniture’s South Portland store manager, pose with representatives from the LaDawn Therapeutic Riding Center.
Glen Forest Elementary School accepted a $1,000 donation from Bob’s Outreach Program. Pictured (l-r) are Cathy Poulin, Bob’s Discount Furniture’s Public Relations Director; Madison Poulin; Christie McCarty, Glen Forest Elementary School assistant principal; Cynthia Choate, Glen Forest Elementary School principal.
Question: “How are beneficiaries chosen?”
Answer: “The charitable foundation receives between 100 and 150 requests for help each week. We are only able to give to other 501(c)3 non-profits, as the responsibility of sorting through individual requests and team sponsorship requests have been found to duplicate our direct giving. For example, we give $50,000 a year to the Jimmy fund directly, rather than the many sponsorship requests received on their behalf from third parties. All monetary requests are checked with Guidestar, a data base of approved 501(c)3 non-profits to make sure the dollars are being spent wisely.
“Kathryn and I make decisions about all monetary requests, She makes the gift card decisions herself.”
Question: “Did you bring in any partners?”
Answer: “For over 15 years we have hosted blood drives in most of our stores and I am very proud of the nearly 40,000 productive units of blood that we have helped to collect. Although we no longer do in-store collections, we do partner with professional sports teams to run very large and successful drives. We recently had a drive on August 25th with the New York Giants. Another one will take place on December 1st in partnership with the New England Patriots.”
Question: “Please describe the purpose of the Outreach Program.”
Answer: “The Outreach program is run by the very capable Cathy Poulin. She is featured along with myself in the Bob’s Discount Furniture Ads. Cathy controls the outreach dollars, with most of the money going to schools throughout our trading areas. She also runs a Celebrate the Arts contest, where schools in the nine states where we have stores receive up to $5,000 each for their in-school programs. Principals decide how the money is used. The $100,000 High School Hero's is scholarship money given to kids that run successful blood drives in their schools.
“Camp Rising Sun is a cancer camp of the American Cancer Society, which was Gene and Paul Cohen’s first charity at PFP 25 years ago. It’s our largest single recipient. I serve on the board of the Camp Rising Sun Charitable Foundation. We had 115 kids both with cancer and "cured" at camp last year. Former campers make up the majority of councilors. We rent the YMCA'S Camp Jewell in Colebrook Ct. for the week, which also helps them receive income.
“Gene was on the board of Big Brothers/Big Sisters and we have been a long time supporter of their great works. I am also on the board of Family and Children's Aid Charitable foundation that works to protect at risk kids taken out of their homes by Connecticut DCF.”
Bob’s Discount Furniture’s Secaucus, NJ store (left) is pictured at left. It’s one of 43 stores located throughout New England, New Jersey, New York, Maryland and Virginia. The company is committed to supporting communities where its stores are located.
Bob’s presented the New Hampshire Food Bank with a $1,500 donation made through Bob’s “Random Acts of Kindness” funds, which are used to give additional aid to schools and children-related programs. Photographed (from left to right): Cathy Poulin, Bob’s Discount Furniture’s Public Relations Director and TV Personality; Ryan Poulin; Madison Poulin; Melanie Gosselin, New Hampshire Food Bank executive director.
Question: “What’s your philosophy about how to balance the PR and team building benefits of your charitable programs?”
Answer: Cathy Poulin handles almost all PR for our charitable giving as I am uncomfortable taking a visible role in that effort.”
Question: “What are the tangible and intangible benefits to Bob's as the result of your programs?”
Answer: “In our older markets, the word is out that we are there to help when we can, and it amazes me how the public does know. Newer markets are just learning about our ‘good works’. I have always believed that people should do the right thing just because it's the right thing to do, not because of personal or corporate benefits.”
Question: “What general advice do you have for home furnishings retailers that want to do good through charitable giving?”
Answer: From personal experience I can tell other retailers and manufacturers that you will get back many times more than you give. The camp's philosophy sums it up best. 100 years from now it won't matter what kind of car you drove or what your house looked like, but it will make a difference if you changed the life of even one child.
THE OUTREACH PROGRAM
INTERVIEW WITH CATHY
To get more perspective on why Bob’s Discount Furniture created two separate entities, the Foundation and Outreach program, Furniture World spoke to Catherine Poulin, who administers the Outreach Program, and is featured in the company’s advertising along with Bob Kaufman.
Question: “Please explain your unusual mix of responsibilities at Bob’s Discount Furniture.”
Answer: “Bob likes his charitable work to be under the radar so to speak. Outreach was created so that instead of just sending out a check we can really get involved as a team.
“For example, our ‘Giving Back To Our Schools Campaign’ is funded through cafes in each of Bob’s Discount Furniture’s stores. We have free goodies, gourmet coffee, ice cream, fresh baked cookies and candy in the cafes.
“Each cafe features a very handsome statue of Bob with signage that states, ‘every buck will go back to our local schools.’ When customers are in the cafe eating some ice cream, they feel compelled give a buck to Bob. When our employees, walk through the cafe, they often put a buck in as well. It’s community money. We focus on a different state where we have stores each month, and seven schools receive $1,000 each.
“We publish a monthly press release to encourage more participation in the program. The result is that people call all the time to ask, ‘Do you have our name on the list?’ and to ask how they can get involved. The PR aspect just lets the community know that Bob’s Discount Furniture has money for them. And it lets them know that there is so much more to Bob’s Discount Furniture than just selling furniture.
“I’m running a contest right now called, ‘Celebrate the Arts’. People go online and register their schools to win $5,000. Sadly, arts programs are one of the first areas to feel cuts. We hope this contest can help bring back the arts to the winning schools.
“Our Outreach Program gives us the ability to get more personally involved. So, when a school is looking for money, I can make a personal visit and read for ‘Read Across America’. Instead of just dropping a check off at a soup kitchen, I can show up and help wash the dishes. It’s actually a collage of givings ranging from random acts of kindness such as handing out turkeys at Thanksgiving, to aiding local schools with gifts cards for fundraisers, to running our annual Celebrate The Arts contest. We might drive over a check or donate a mattress to help a fire victim, help out at a fund raiser to benefit a mother that just lost her son, or deliver pajamas to a pajama program. The list is long and amazing. Money generally targets children and related causes, such as supporting our local schools but does spread wider than just that.
‘Sometimes our random acts of kindness are not monetary. We target a need and then let the magic happen. On average one to three per month are done without the recipient knowing about it in advance. For example, we just presented the New Hampshire Food Bank a surprise check for $1,500 in our very colorful, ‘Outreach Van’ that looks like a cartoon character. They thought we were just coming for a tour. A simple ‘Random Act Of Kindness’ card is handed out at each delivery that states, ‘You have been touched by a random act of kindness. Pass it forward.’
“We also create contests, support the March of Dimes, and we just signed up nationally with ‘Make a Wish’. So far this year we’ve allocated $45,000 to ‘Make A Wish’ to help grant wishes in our footprint. Since April we’ve completed three wishes for bedroom makeovers.”
Question: “Do other people inside the Bob’s Discount Furniture operation get involved in these efforts?”
Answer: “Absolutely. In fact, we let our employees know about events such as ‘March of Dimes’ walks and blood drives. We work with our stores, see if they want to put together a team to participate. There are just two people in the Outreach department, Sharon Valley and myself. With nine states to cover, we have people who work as ambassadors in every state. These are store managers, employees, it varies. At a recent store opening in Maryland, Bob and I spoke to new employees about the Foundation and Outreach efforts. It wasn’t a sales meeting to get them excited about going back in the store to sell furniture. Instead, we asked them to help us find local people and organizations in need. We handed out $20,000 to schools, organizations and people we invited to attend. Everyone was surprised, and it created a great deal of enthusiasm.”
Question: “Do these efforts have a positive effect on employee morale and your customers?”
Answer: “When new employees find out about these programs, they often say to me, ‘Wow, we never knew when we signed up that this company did so much.’ And, it does translate through word of mouth into customers coming into our stores. It happens all the time. But we don’t need to send out a bunch of press releases saying, ‘Hey did you hear what we did?’ People will say something like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I was at a benefit, for my neighbor who lost her son, and there was a gift card from you folks. I needed a table, and I thought of you first.’”
Question: “Are there issues that other retailers need to watch out for if they decide to set up a
program such as this?”
Answer: “Sometimes it’s tough to administrate a program like ours. We get all kinds of letters. Some are very, very tearful, and it’s too bad we can’t help everyone.
“Fortunately we have two separate programs that give us flexibility. The Foundation’s rules are more stringent. Outreach is more flexible and is able to give to a wider variety of individuals and organizations. Our ‘Random Acts of Kindness’ program is simple. We literally put our hand in a bucket and pull out one to three requests for help each month.
“A program like this has to have clear and easy to understand boundaries. And, sometimes no matter how well they’re spelled out, you’re going to have people that question them or fail to understand. I urge people to go to our website when they’re trying to reach out to the Foundation especially, so they can read about the requirements.”
Question: “Do you respond to every request?”
Answer: “We do, either with a, ‘Yes, thumbs up, and here it is,’ or ‘so sorry, we’re unable to assist you.’”
Question: “Do you have other advice for retailers?”
Answer: “I urge Furniture World readers to realize how much need there is out there, and let them know how important it is to give, but it doesn’t have to be all money. It can be giving of themselves as well. I’ll use the Red Cross as an example. They’re in need of volunteers to help people who have given blood, to give doners a drink or run out to get doughnuts. And so, it would be lovely if everybody just gave a little bit of their time, of themselves. Furniture retailers are well positioned to encourage their employees to give in this way.
“And, retailers need to believe with their heart too. They have to care about people in need. It isn’t possible to fake it. I know that everybody has this instinct in them, but they have to find it, and then they have to be able to work with it.
Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
View all articles by Russell Bienenstock