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September 29, 2009

Imagine being a teacher in an elementary school. It could be in any town, in any state – pick your favorite.  You’re going through your normal day, perhaps giving a lecture about natural science or reading a book to your class.Teacher Jennifer Jacobs in Chicago gets an A Day Made Better surprise in 2008.

If you’re like most teachers, you put in a lot of hours, sweat, and in some cases, tears to make sure your kids have everything they need to be a success in your class and ultimately in life.  But you also give more. You dig in to your own pocket to buy the school supplies your school district couldn’t budget for this year – again.  Or, perhaps you buy a backpack for an underprivileged student whose parents can’t afford the hundreds of dollars in supply expenses this year. So, in order not to embarrass the child, you give it to him after class, as an attendance reward.

These are just two examples of the many selfless acts teacher commit each year across the nation.  With real estate values dropping, so do the revenues that funds our school system.  The economic crunch hits the schools hard and teachers tend to sacrifice their own income to make up the gaps; often with little acknowledgement or thanks.

But for you, that will change this October 6th. Because on that day, you were selected to receive the honor of OfficeMax’s A Day Made Better (ADMB). It’s an initiative to bring a year’s worth of school supplies to over 1,000 deserving teachers across the country – on the same day, near-simultaneously.
This is the third year OfficeMax has done ADMB. We sat down with Bill Bonner, the company’s Senior Director of External Relations to find out more about it.

Q: Give me a run-down for this year’s ADMB: How many teachers are you surprising? How much are you giving away? How many schools? How many OMX people are involved?

Isn’t that like asking KFC for the secret blend of herbs?  No, I guess it really isn’t.  I’m going to give approximations just because I don’t have finite numbers at hand, but here it is:  We’ll reach about 1,200 schools in the U.S. (our Mexico and Canadian operations are also participating in the program, with about 100 school visits combined) and surprise at least one teacher per school.  It feels like there are about a million OfficeMax associates involved, but in actuality we’ll have several thousand volunteers engaged in the program.

Q: Why are you doing this?

A company’s reputation is influenced by many factors.  One factor is how the company engages with the communities in which it does business.  We do this campaign because it really is helping thousands of unsung community heroes.

Q: How does it work? How are the schools selected and the teachers selected?

Our partner, Adopt-A-Classroom, is a key part of this process.  We give them a list of all of our store and facility locations and they match Title I schools that are within about 25 miles of each OfficeMax location.  Adopt-A-Classroom contacts the school principals and invites them to participate.  The principal also selects the teacher to be recognized.  We knew the principal would know who is most deserving.

Another successful surprise in the 2008 OfficeMax A Day Made Better.

Another successful surprise in the 2008 OfficeMax A Day Made Better.

Q: Why have you focused your efforts on teachers?

When we decided to concentrate our efforts on one cause, we asked our customers what they thought we should be doing.  The majority told us to focus on education.  That’s a broad area, so some more research into areas that were lacking in support pointed us to teachers.  When we found out teachers were spending almost $4 billion of their own money every year, that confirmed that we’d made a good choice.

Q: How have your efforts changed over the years? For example, how are you using “social media” to help deliver your message?

We’ve always focused on community efforts, mostly through local press, to spread the word and encourage individual action.  Social media is so perfect for cause messages because people look for genuine efforts and will endorse programs that they can believe in.   We’ve turned a lot of our efforts toward social media because it is a very effective medium to reach the people who are interested in helping teachers and are willing to speak up on behalf of teachers.

Q:  How are you getting customers involved?

We’re urging customers – and anyone, really – to get involved by donating to a favorite teacher on Adopt-A-Classroom’s site or by just giving a local teacher some supplies or an OfficeMax gift card.    The spirit of community activism is amazing and we believe people just need to be inspired.  Our “A Day Made Better” events across the country are intended to provide that inspiration.

Q: How do you know the program is a success?

When you walk into a classroom and see the look on the teacher’s face, you know the program’s a success.  We measure publicity and associate reactions, but those are really both measures of our success in creating strong positive emotions in those classrooms when we visit.  Teachers are so unbelievably humble and kids are wonderfully genuine – when you combine those two elements there is a fantastic energy that is created.

Q: What are some of the key lessons that you’ve learned that would help other companies and causes as they try to do something of this magnitude?

That’s a great question.  We are seeing more companies starting to support teachers.  I’d like to believe our program is bringing the plight of teachers to light and that more are jumping on board to support.   I’d tell any other company to take time and find a cause that fits with their core business.  We get a lot of requests for partnership with charities that just don’t fit our business.  Companies will be better able to support causes that match their own organic systems and processes.  The other key learning is that the program has to be genuine.  If your program is commercially driven, it won’t have the heart to make it a true success.


The writer is the editor of —  You can contact him at JamesERatcitizenpolitydotcom or follow him on Twitter:

Copyright 2009 – CitizenPolity & James Epstein-Reeves – Not to be used without the written permission of CitizenPolity or the author.

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