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Charitable Giving: Sleep Train’s Focus

Furniture World Magazine


Furniture World Magazine has profiled a number of charitable initiatives undertaken by furniture retailers, manufacturers and organizations in recent issues. This time we look at the Sleep Train Foster Kids Program created by the employee owned company to assist the more than 60,000 children living in foster care in California.

Sleep Train was founded on the principal that success is not only measured by the bottom line, but by an active commitment company-wide to give back to the local community. Since its beginning, Sleep Train has engaged in philanthropic programs that provide at-risk youth with important material items, including beds and educational financial aid. 

In 2008, Sleep Train focused its charitable efforts with the formation of the Sleep Train Foster Kids Program. The program hosts six annual drives to collect basic material items that children outgrow including clothing, school supplies, shoes, and pajamas. It also donates toys/gifts during the holidays, and funds for extracurricular activities. Sleep Train has partnered with nearly 30 non-profit foster organizations throughout California to distribute these donations to foster children.

The company also hosts the Sleep Train Charity Golf Classic, which has raised over $2 million since its inception in 2007. Cash raised at the event provides foster children with the opportunity to participate in a sport, take music lessons or attend summer camp. Golf Classic funds also support emancipated foster youth who wish to further their education through programs such as Guardian Scholars, providing tuition, textbooks and emergency funds. Sleep Train has also supported non-profit organizations that provide independent living skills and transitional housing programs for foster children.

Sleep Country USA, owned by Sleep Train, has an active Foster Kids Program in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho serving the region’s nearly 20,000 foster children through partnerships with 24 area foster care non-profits. Sleep Country holds an annual fundraiser, the Pajama Bowl, that has raised more than $600,000 in cash for foster kids via bowling events in Seattle and Portland. One hundred percent of participant donations in the Pajama Bowl are given to regional foster organizations to support their “Little Wishes” programs, enabling foster children to participate in extracurricular activities.
With more than 180 stores, Sleep Train and Sleep Country makes a difference in the lives of foster children. The programs’ motto, “Not everyone can be a foster parent, everyone can help a child™” serves as an inspirational message for all.

Furniture World asked Gina Davis, director of branding for Sleep Train to provide additional information about the program.

Question: Why foster children?

Answer: The children placed in foster care face challenges that few of us can imagine, sometimes escaping neglect, abuse and abandonment only to face a childhood of loneliness, frequent moves, setbacks in school, and an uncertain future. Recognizing the important needs of these children, we established a program that educates the community about their plight while providing a simple way for them to give back.

Question: How do you get people in the communities you serve to get involved?

Answer: Both companies carve out 10% of their advertising and marketing budgets to raise awareness about the needs of foster children through a combined public and grassroots communication effort, using diverse channels, including traditional television and radio ads; postcard mailings to local companies and organizations to encourage their support; and social media efforts to touch the influential online community of givers. We also require media outlets to give back 20% in foster kids drive awareness advertisements. The companies utilize an extensive public relations program to reach key media and spread the word about donation drives and events. The goal of these efforts is to relay the needs of foster children and create support in the hearts and minds of people in the communities Sleep Country and Sleep Train serves.

Question: How does this program benefit your business?

Answer: Our main goal is to make a big difference in the lives of foster children, but we are also a business. So, we do want to bring people into our stores and get them comfortable with our brand. Good advertising is the key to achieving both of these goals.

Question: Do you encourage your employees to donate their own time to help out?

Answer: Employee involvement is heavily encouraged. Sleep Country and Sleep Train’s employee-owners actively donate to the foster care cause through volunteer hours at annual fundraising events, by providing assistance to foster care partners, assisting at foster care organization events, purchasing donations with funds gathered online, and sorting, counting and distributing donations.
They can donate two paid work days to any charitable cause. It doesn’t have to be foster kids related, though a good portion do give their time to help foster children. Certain employees support the program as part of their job descriptions. Others have decided to give their free time to help foster kids. They may hold a coat drive with friends, sort donations or help out at one of the non-profit locations. There are many different ways for our people to get involved.

There is a competitive aspect as well. Our salespeople compete to see who can raise the most money for the Dollar Drive or collect the most coats It’s great to get sales people involved in not only selling what we sell, but also in making a difference in the lives of the community at large.

Question: How do you feel it has impacted your employee culture?

Answer: The program has become the heart of our organization. It gives us all a common goal.
We’ve found that local community involvement is a great team-building and bonding tool. Our people feel great about helping out in their communities. They also get to interact with each other in a way that isn’t possible on the sales floor or in the warehouse. The result is better working environments and better relationships. They inspire each other to take initiatives on their own and, we’ve seen the positive effects grow year after year, quarter after quarter.

Commitment to its community gives Sleep Train and Sleep Country employees the opportunity to have a successful career while working for a company that makes a tremendous effort to give back. Through the Foster Kids Programs, employees have the opportunity to engage others to support the cause, take paid time off to volunteer, and participate in fun, charitable events. Both companies have been recognized by regional business journals and metropolitan magazines as a ‘Best Place to Work’ and the Foster Kids Programs are a large factor in driving employee satisfaction.

Question: You invite other companies to get involved too. How?

Answer: Sleep Country and Sleep Train provide an easy way for other companies to make a difference in the lives of foster children in their communities through our “Host-A-Drive” programs. Businesses that host their own donation drives are provided with detailed guidance, signage, email and social media correspondence, and coordinated pick-up of sizeable donations by company employees.

Question: How do you handle the logistics of the program?

Answer: To accomplish this, Sleep Country and Sleep Train employ a dedicated community relations specialist to focus on managing and executing the Foster Kids Programs in their regions. From the extensive planning involved with drives and key events, including the Pajama Bowl and Charity Golf Tournament, to tracking and scheduling the delivery of donated items to foster care partners, and even conducting interviews and speaking at community awareness and/or awards ceremonies, these employees are wholly dedicated to the success of the program. They also actively engage with each non-profit foster care partner throughout the year, meeting with them to assess their needs, distribute funds from fundraising events, strategize on how to best leverage the company’s assistance within each organization, and encourage their participation to improve overall program results.
Question: Have the Foster Kids Programs been recognized by the community?

Answer: Both Sleep Train and Sleep Country have been honored by their communities for this work. Sleep Train’s notable awards include the prestigious Daily Point of Light Award by the Points of Light Institute, the Volunteer Spirit Award for Corporate Volunteerism by the Volunteer Center of Sacramento, Outstanding Grantmaker by the Sacramento Chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals, a Partners in Philanthropy Honoree in the large company category by the Sacramento Business Journal, and a Healthy Community Corporate Champion in the Basic Needs category by the Puget Sound Business Journal. Plus we were named on the Puget Sound Business Journal and The Seattle Foundation’s Top 75 Corporate Philanthropists Lists, and received the Treehouse Community Partner of the Year Award.

Also, the president and founder of Sleep Train, Dale Carlsen, has been recognized personally and professionally for his community support throughout the company’s history.

Question: Do you also give directly to foster families?

Answer: We rely on our partner organizations because they already have access to foster parents. They license them, place children in some cases, and are already helping to train them. They are in a better position to decide which children have a greater need for the items we provide. Some also have stores set up to provide foster families with items including those we’ve donated.

We make sure that we have a non-profit partner in every area where we do business so that our donations stay local. Some of our partners are small or medium sized non-profits, some are large, but they’re all licensed 501(c)(3)’s that meet our guidelines, have insurance, and are legitimate charities focused on foster children.

Question: Why did you decide to focus your charitable efforts on just one cause?

Answer: It’s hard to make a big impact when your giving is all over the board. You make a little difference here, a little difference there. We decided to take all of our strengths including our size and significant advertising power to expand the program. So, over time consumers got to know what we are doing and every year more people get involved. We’ve seen double-digit increases across most years.

Question: What advice do you have for Furniture World readers that want to re-imagine their charitable giving program.

My recommendation is to look for a cause that deserves attention and that nobody else is talking about. A major key to success is creating a simple message. Sleep Train’s message about foster children is very easy for our employees and customers to understand. Asking for coats, clothing, and shoes is very easy to understand as well. The more complicated the message, the longer it’s going to take you to get any kind of recognition or for people to remember it.

Russell Bienenstock is Editor-in-Chief of Furniture World Magazine, founded 1870. Comments can be directed to him at editor@furninfo.com.