My wife and I took our three girls out for a holiday outing this week — a couple of hours at Cradles to Crayons, a Boston-based nonprofit that collects and distributes quality clothes to Massachusetts families in need.
I drive by the warehouse each day on the way to Hairpin but I had never set foot in the place. My oldest daughter, however, knew it well, having held her 13th birthday party there in the fall. She says it was “pretty cool,” which is high praise from a middle schooler. My expectations, however, are modest.
I checked out its pitch, from the organization’s website: “Cradles to Crayons collects new and nearly new children’s items through grassroots community drives and corporate donations. Donations are then processed and packaged by volunteers, and are distributed to disadvantaged children across the state through a collaborative network of social service agencies and school partners.”
The building is big and nondescript. The block is light industrial. Through the door, however, the space signals a warmth and sense of purpose that is both reassuring and fun. A sign-in table has preprinted name tags for every family member and the dozens of other volunteers for our same time slot. A volunteer coordinator guides us into the main work area, past photo walls of happy kids, local sports figures and Bill Clinton.
We join others on metal bleachers, painted Cradles to Crayons purple. A youthful staff member with a clipboard gives everyone a crisp briefing — relaxed but well-rehearsed — sending groups to various stations.
As a brand-obsessed communicator, I marvel at the thought that went into the space, the presentation, the signage, and even the piped music (Julie Andrews). The warehouse is clean and well-lit. “Street signs” pointing to the various sorting stations would fit in well at a Disney theme park. Staff members share a friendly, professional style and purple-apron look.
Cradles to Crayons understands that its brand is not the logo, or the color scheme, or its mission. Rather, it’s the experience. Every touch point is a brand signal, shaping our gut feeling about the organization. Cradles to Crayons is upbeat, can-do, fun and organized.
Our family is off to Shoes. I stand at a table taking an old toothbrush to the treads on a Size 13 kids snow boot. My twin daughters are doing similar work, chatting, smiling with their buddy who joined us. They’re thrilled — scrubbing used boots. That’s a neat trick.
One of the values driving Cradles to Crayons is the belief in dignity. The idea is that low-income children need self-respect as much as they need the warm coat. So, trashed used clothes and toys don’t make it past inspection.
Dignity is a value that informs how the organization treats the volunteers, too. We’re thanked often. We’re given guidance when needed but allowed to use our judgment.
Our two-hour session at Shoes speeds by, and we reconvene with other families and business co-workers for a debrief. A guide consults her clipboard to thank each station group, and reports out the number of children helped by its work that morning. The simple detail gives each of us an understandable metric that quantifies our impact, while reinforcing the feeling that Cradles to Crayons cared about efficiency and effectiveness, not just charity.
We all leave with a warm, fuzzy feeling. Exactly what good brands do.