While the good troops at the Salvation Army are the greatest beneficiaries of America’s holiday cheer, another military branch does quite well this time of year: Toys for Tots, the official charity of the United States Marine Corps. In addition to looking for a few good men, the Marines try each year to get a few million good toys — and kids across the country are the happier for it.
Toys for Tots started in the fall of 1947 when Diane Hendricks, a Los Angeles homemaker, sewed a Raggedy Ann doll and asked her husband to donate it to a charity that would put it in the hands of a needy child. When he found that no such organization existed, he started one.
During the week, Bill Hendricks was a director of p.r. for Warner Bros. Studios; on the weekends he served as a major in the U.S. Marine Corps. Reserve. In Christmas 1947, Hendricks and his Marine Reservists managed to distribute more than 5,000 toys to area children. By Christmas 1948, all 74 Marine Corps. Reserve units in the country had adopted a new objective: “Bring the joy of Christmas to America’s needy children.”
Then and now, that simple concept presents stunning logistical challenges. No one really expects Santa Claus to deliver toys to every boy and girl on Christmas Eve, yet the Marines, by far the smallest of the four service branches and the only one to support its own major charity, deliver toys on time to millions of needy children.
With a permanent staff of just nine, the Toys for Tots Foundation is highly streamlined. In the charity business, you’re rated by percentage distributed vs. amount collected. The Marines give out an astonishing 97.6% of what they receive ($16 million in cash and $27 million in toy donations last year). This lean-not-mean approach helps explain how it is able to hand out toys to a record 7.5 million children last year alone.
Admittedly, there has always been a tremendous amount of serendipity around Toys for Tots. Hendricks’ Hollywood connections were a tremendous advantage in the charity’s early years. Walt Disney designed the cause’s logo, still in use today (Disney remains its longest standing corporate sponsor). Nat “King” Cole, Vic Damone and Peggy Lee recorded the Toys for Tots theme song, composed by Sammy Fain and Paul Webster in 1956. Celebrities from Bob Hope and John Wayne to Tim Allen have served as national spokespersons.
Early on, Reservists collected old toys, then restored them to usable condition during their meetings.
“At one point that’s all Reservists seemed to do during their fall weekends,” recalls Major Bill Grein, USMC (Ret.) and VP-marketing, Marine Toys for Tots Foundation. The collection of used toys ended in 1979 when the Department of Defense increased its reliance on the Reserves for national defense. At the same time, health and safety concerns made the distribution of used toys inadvisable. Finally, it was decided that “hand-me-downs” didn’t send the message of hope the Marines wanted to convey.
In 1991, the Secretary of Defense authorized the Marines to establish the non-profit Marine Toys for Tots Foundation, freeing Marine personnel from administration. More importantly, it let the charity “enter into contracts with corporations to conduct promotions, which would produce royalties for Toys for Tots.”
This last function had been off limits to the Marines as a military entity. With its new status, TFT could tap corporate support as never before. Although it has 55 corporate sponsors that donate at least $25,000 a year in cash or merchandise, one Toys for Tots sponsor stands above the rest: Toys “R” Us.
“It makes such perfect sense for a toy store,” says Susan McLaughlin, Toys “R” Us director-corporate communications and philanthropy.
The retailer’s approach is simple: during November and December, TRU associates ask every customer at checkout, “Would you like to donate a dollar to Toys for Tots?” Last year, more than 3 million said “yes.”
“We track the donations by store and then make sure that each local reserve unit gets the money raised in their area for their effort,” McLaughlin says. “We don’t require the [Marine Reserve] units buy toys from us with the cash we donate,” she says. “If someone else has CDs or records, which we don’t stock, then that’s fine.”
This year Toys “R” Us launched its Toys for Tots campaign on Nov. 4. Nevertheless, in late October, Grein says the Marines’ program had already received more than $40,000 from stores. “Apparently some are so excited that they’re jumping the gun,” he says.
“Every child deserves a little Christmas,” Grein says. “We never ask what people are celebrating, or what their religion is, the only requirement is financial need.”
And you thought there was no such thing as Santa Claus, didn’t you?
E-mail Rod Taylor with feedback at email@example.com.
Companies searching for a worthwhile cause would be wise to choose “bulletproof charities.” Procter & Gamble has probably done the best job of tying in with unarguably worthwhile charities. For more than 25 years, P&G has conducted an enormous promotion in early January involving more than 40 brands in a coupon gallery with $12-plus in savings. The company donates 10 cents from every coupon redeemed (up to a fixed budget) to the Special Olympics, a sports program for mentally retarded children and adults. For more than 15 years, it has followed this in July with a similar event that benefits Give Kids the World, a charity that sends children with life-threatening illnesses to Disney World.
And yet there are some causes — many absolutely beloved — that aren’t “bulletproof.” I apologize in advance for whoever’s ox I gore here:
The United Way is the largest charity in the USA, with more than $25 billion in annual donations. It has brewed a few scandals recently over executive salaries and perks. And there are those who dislike its aggressive workplace donation practices.
The Salvation Army is America’s second-biggest charity and one I personally support. But it’s tied to religion and there are people who dislike giving to a cause with such an affiliation.
The Muscular Dystrophy Association is a wonderful charity working toward a cure for a dreaded disease. Comedian Jerry Lewis appears on TV every Labor Day for a 24-hour telethon in which he beseeches consumers to give. Believe it or not, there are a number of people who can’t abide Jerry Lewis. Is this a good reason not to support his efforts? Absolutely not, but it’s an important one to consider before you wrap your brand around him.