How REI’s Super-Local Corporate Giving Works

It’s not unusual for branch offices to serve as conduits for large corporate giving programs. But to even have a chance to apply for an REI grant, you have to really cozy up to your local store's employees first. 

On one end of corporate philanthropy, there’s the heavily branded, walled garden of funding, each shrub trimmed to perfection by national marketing and PR staff, and trumpeted to no end. On the other, there’s the more decentralized community grants approach, focusing on branch locations. REI takes the latter philosophy to its extreme.

Related: REI: Grants for Conservation

It makes sense, considering that while the outdoor recreation giant hauled in an impressive $2 billion last year, up a bit from the year before, it still clings to its identity as a membership-based, community-centered co-op. 

Now as you roll your eyes at this chain of about 140 stores specializing in fueling upper-middle-class outdoor excursions, consider the following.

REI this year gave $4.6 million in grants (they set aside 3 percent of operating profit from the previous year) to a list of around 300 grantees, the overwhelming majority of which were local nonprofits working on conservation and outdoor recreation projects. Only a handful went to what you’d consider the big green groups. 

Then there's the process. Grants are by invitation only, and the individual store staff decide who the corporate giving program invites to apply. And the only way to get a nomination is to develop a working relationship with the store. So a nonprofit might collaborate on publicizing an outing or volunteer cleanup event, for example, or participate in some of the programs the stores regularly put on. Once the store has determined you’re a respected partner, staff can recommend you to receive an invite to apply for a grant, usually $5,000-$10,000 each. 

Related: Stop by REI for Some Expensive Socks and Maybe a Trails Grant

Granted, the execution likely varies greatly from store to store (again, 140 or so stores, 11,000 employees), but on paper, this is a pretty cool setup. And while it might seem odd to entrust philanthropic decisions to store employees, REI has very involved staff, regularly rated as one of the best places in the country to work by Fortune. And they’re likely very plugged in to local recreation and conservation. 

The prerequisite of having the stores actually working with the nonprofit strikes me as a far cry from most corporate giving, even community-based. And in a way, while it’s a lot to go through, and for not a ton of funding, it’s actually incredibly accessible. After all, how often can you stroll in and walk right up to people making grantmaking decisions? And how often can you buy a tent and try out a climbing wall at the same time?