Marketing Outside The Box

Photography by Gene Pollux By Nancy Wollin Cook August 31, 2010

When she joined ShelterBox USA in mid-2009, executive director Veronica Brandon Miller’s goal was to raise $10 million in three years. To many that goal seemed more than elusive, it seemed downright unlikely. After all, these are hard economic times, and even though ShelterBox’s disaster-gear-in-a-box, like tents, stoves and tools, were tangible and provide immediate relief, raising that much money from recession-hit Americans seemed unrealistic.

But defying all odds, the Lakewood Ranch-headquartered relief organization hit the $10 million number within a year, increasing donations by a phenomenal 1,000 percent and becoming the top fund-raising affiliate in the international organization. While other nonprofits are scaling back, ShelterBox is expanding its service to disaster victims across the globe.

Their success is a result of a sophisticated and targeted marketing approach.

“It’s the combination of good old-fashioned media relations, leveraging of new media and social networking, plus our emphasis on cause marketing, that is responsible for our phenomenal growth over the last year,” Brandon Miller says.

Founded in 2000 by a Rotary Club member in the U.K., ShelterBox now has affiliates in 11 countries and has provided aid to survivors of more than 100 disasters in 70 countries.

The organization puts volunteers on the ground as soon as possible after an earthquake, volcano, flood, hurricane, cyclone, tsunami or conflict to distribute boxes of aid to survivors. Each signature green ShelterBox contains a 10-person tent and lifesaving items such as water purification equipment, a stove and fuel, a tool kit, floor mats and region-specific gear such as mosquito nets. Each box also contains play items for children, such as crayons and coloring books. Often the victims of disaster remain homeless or displaced for long periods of time. The ShelterBox is designed to give a family the means to survive until a community’s infrastructure can be re-established or they can be relocated.

According to ShelterBox USA’s chairman, Philadelphia businessman Bill Decker, the Haitian earthquake in January was the catalyst for much of ShelterBox USA’s growth. “We had made the decision to put more resources into development and create a more sophisticated program,” he explains. “We were expanding our reach to Fortune 500 companies when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti. The earthquake was an opportunity for ShelterBox USA to provide immediate aid to those in need in our hemisphere.”

Within 10 minutes of the earthquake, a Port-au-Prince Rotary Club member had contacted ShelterBox. The turnaround time was phenomenal, Decker says. “Our response was almost immediate. We were on the ground in Haiti the next day. Almost a thousand ShelterBoxes were on their way within a day, and thousands arrived within the first week.” To date, more than 20,000 ShelterBoxes have been distributed in Haiti, housing more than 200,000 people.

The tragedy in Haiti catapulted ShelterBox into the limelight, and Brandon Miller’s media savvy kicked in. She worked both old and new media to get the word out that ShelterBox was providing a unique service to the survivors and that donations were needed.

“CNN tracked a ShelterBox as it headed from the U.K. to its recipient in Haiti,” Brandon Miller explains. “All the major news outlets covered our response. We reached out to our Facebook friends. We Twittered and we blogged. We leveraged what we had to help as many people as we could.”

The outreach paid off, especially in the virtual world. A family made an anonymous donation of $15,000 after reading about the earthquake relief on the organization’s Facebook page. One supporter e-mailed her friends and raised $23,000. Another posted a comment on Twitter that garnered more than $10,000. A blogger raised more than $130,000 in just a few days.

The earthquake also revved up the organization’s plans to form alliances with Fortune 500 and other for-profit companies, a strategy Brandon Miller calls cause marketing.

“We seek out corporations and form strategic partnerships with them. Our donors are our clients. We help them see that including ShelterBox as a line-item in their marketing budget can increase business for them and help with our fund raising. It’s a win-win,” she says. “We look at a partnership with ShelterBox from the business’s perspective. We give a great return on investment—85 percent of donated amounts go directly to aiding disaster survivors—and we offer accountability. You can actually go onto our website and track the ShelterBox you are sponsoring to see where it goes and who it helps.”

According to Brandon Miller, surveys suggest that most Americans—almost 90 percent—will switch brands to help a cause. And seven out of 10 American consumers say a company’s commitment to a cause is important when they decide which products and services to recommend to others. Her pitch to corporate America is that jumping on the ShelterBox bandwagon benefits both the company and the survivors the charity serves. By promoting the nonprofit in its advertising, having special days set aside where a portion of proceeds benefits the charity, and encouraging employees and customers to donate, the image of a company rises as the benefits flow to those in need. ShelterBox now counts McDonald’s and Chili’s restaurants, Neiman Marcus stores and fashion designer Donna Karan’s foundation, Urban Zen, among its strategic partners in fund raising. Plans are in the works for ShelterBox representatives to join another corporate strategic partner, Lumber Liquidators, to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange in November.

“Cause-related marketing programs are the opposite of the traditional anonymous or low-key donations to a nonprofit. Instead, cause marketing lets the public know that this corporation is socially responsible and interested in the same causes that its customers are,” Brandon Miller says. “The nonprofit benefits both financially and through a higher public profile as a result of its corporate partner’s marketing efforts.”

ShelterBox USA has increased staff—there are six full-time and two part-time employees now occupying the donated space on Merchant Court in Lakewood Ranch—and added 20,000 new donors over the last few months.

“But we’re not resting on our laurels,” Brandon Miller says. “We just sent 1,000 ShelterBoxes to flood victims in Pakistan, and we are still on the ground all over the world. People are still living in the tents we provided after the Asian tsunami in 2004. Our goal is to increase our cause marketing partnerships by 300 percent in the next year.”


Shelter Box Numbers

Founded: 2000 in Cornwall, U.K.

Number of ShelterBox International Affiliates: 11

Year ShelterBox USA affiliate, based in Sarasota, was founded: 2002

Number of employees in ShelterBox USA’s Sarasota headquarters:

6 full time, 2 part time

Amount ShelterBox

USA has raised since

June 2009: $10 million

Rank ShelterBox USA

holds in fund raising

among all affiliates: 1

Number of ShelterBox

USA volunteers: More than 200 volunteers around the country have donated more than 50,000 hours in the last year.

Number of people ShelterBox and all its affiliates help annually: Currently 250,000; goal

is 500,000 per year

Cost of one ShelterBox:



Cause Marketing Tips For Business Owners

Cause marketing is not just for large corporations with deep pockets or a huge customer base, says ShelterBox USA executive director Veronica Brandon Miller. Small and mid-sized companies can benefit as well. Here’s how to get started.

Find a cause you and your employees really believe in. In any successful enterprise, you have to be passionate about the product. It’s no different for the charity you are working with. Everyone will work harder for your organization and for the charity when they care. 

Consider choosing a cause that is related to your business. While this is not mandatory, there is symmetry in reaching out to charities that have something in common with your business. If you’re a restaurant, think about sponsoring a food bank. Pet supply stores and veterinarians often work with animal rescue groups.

Promote your cause in connection with your business. Consider putting a link to your nonprofit partner on your website, including a legend under your signature line on e-mails or even as a line on your letterhead. A simple statement that you are “a proud sponsor” of an organization can go a long way to get the word out. Nonprofits often have limited or nonexistent advertising budgets. Including a mention in your own advertising can help promote the charity and your business.

Find ways to contribute your time as well as your money. Invite employees and customers to participate in an event such as a walk-a-thon, a work day, a fund-raising drive or just to spend some time at the charity helping out. Newsworthy events and activities can garner some media coverage, so send out press releases and let the media know what you and your staff are up to.

Encourage customers to get involved. Offer incentives to customers, such as a day where a percentage of proceeds benefits the nonprofit. This is an opportunity to expose your business to the charity’s donor list and for the charity to increase its profile among your existing customers.

Bill Decker, ShelterBox USA’s chairman, says ShelterBox people and 1,000 boxes were on the ground a day after the earthquake in Haiti.

Filed under
Show Comments