Easter Seals UCP mulls strategy to offset Food Lion loss

By Todd Cohen

RALEIGH, N.C. — Since 1991, Easter Seals UCP has raised over $36 million through Shop & Care, a cause marketing program it created and operated in partnership with Food Lion.

This year, the effort generated $3.8 million for Easter Seals affiliates in 10 states, including over $2 million for Easter Seals UCP.

That total represents 40 percent of the $5 million the nonprofit generates each year through private contributions to support its $86 million annual budget.

But after this year’s campaign, which was held in February in Food Lion stores in 10 Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states, Easter Seals UCP learned Food Lion was dropping out of the partnership as part of a new corporate giving strategy.

“Easter Seals is a wonderful organization with many contributions to the community,” says Christy Phillips-Brown, director of external communications and community relations for Salisbury-based Food Lion.

Food Lion in recent months has begun to focus on a new community strategy “that is consistent with our business,” she says, and that also will “enable us to build a solution for our primary area of focus, which is food insecurity and hunger relief.”

While Food Lion will permit individual stores to participate in the Shop & Care campaign in 2014, Easter Seals UCP is working to relaunch its cause marketing strategy to try to offset the loss of its single biggest source of philanthropic support.

Easter Seals UCP, which has headquarters in Raleigh, employs 3,000 people and delivers over 3.3 million hours of support to over 20,000 individuals and their families managing disabilities and mental health challenges throughout North Carolina and most of Virginia.

The nonprofit generates most of its funds through contracts and services, largely through Medicaid and Medicare reimbursements.

Before Food Lion moved to end the partnership, Easter Seals UCP already had been working for over a year to reengineer its business model to develop strategic partnerships that focus on better connecting the clients and communities it serves to the most helpful solutions to their needs, says Jeff Smith, chief communications officer at Easter Seals UCP.

People living with disabilities and mental health challenges represent a big part the population and face a broad range of needs such as access to affordable housing, health care and jobs.

One in every four people has a mental illness that can be diagnosed, for example, and nearly 70 percent of youth in trouble suffer from a mental health disorder.

And nearly 80 percent of adults with disabilities are unemployed, with one in every four individuals with disabilities living in poverty.

To help address those needs, Easter Seals UCP is looking for possible partnerships with nonprofits and corporations that focus on those issues, says Smith, who has overseen the Shop & Care program.

“Collaboration and innovative thinking are the only way we can move the ball forward, particularly for people with disabilities,” he says.

Easter Seals, which created the Shop & Care program, is considering partnerships that would franchise or lease it to other businesses or community partners, tying the Shop & Care brand to causes such as poverty or affordable housing, rather than to individual organizations, Smith says.

Food Lion has “made a tremendous impact on what we’ve done over the years,” he says.

And he says he hopes shoppers at individual Food Lion stories that opt to run Shop & Care campaigns in 2014 will continue to support the effort.

Meanwhile, he says, Easter Seals UCP is looking for new strategies to build on its Shop & Care cause marketing program that will allow retailers, their customers and vendors, and possibly other nonprofits, to work together to address critical community issues.

“We want to continue to connect with other retailers and community partners,” he says, “in creative ways that would provide solutions to people with disabilities.”

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