Backpack Brigade: With Corporate Support, Free School Supplies for Needy Kids

Summer is almost over and that can only mean one thing—back to school! As a kid, the weeks leading up to September were some of my favorites. Not because I was desperate to learn anything, but because it meant going school-supply shopping: a swanky new backpack, every variety of glittery gel pen, colorful binders and notebooks laden with images of any and every popular character you could possibly imagine—mine even had Elvis on it (I was kind of a weird kid).

According to the National Retail Federation, families with school-age children spend upwards of $600 on back-to-school purchases annually. But for over 16 million children in the United States, access to basic school supplies isn't even an option; their parents just don't have the money. That’s a staggering one in five children who lack the equipment they need to be able to learn.

Enter the Kids in Need Foundation. Established in 1995 as the School, Home & Office Products Association (SHOPA), Kids in Need has had the same mission since day one: to provide free school supplies to students whose families can't afford them and to provide classroom supplies to teachers in under-funded schools.

The foundation receives major backing from top companies, and its success illustrates yet another path through which corporate money finds its way into K-12.  

Kids in Need has provided school supplies for millions of children in its 10-year existence through programs that include Second Responder—which provides backpacks prepared with basic supplies to students in communities hit by natural disasters—and School Ready Supplies, a program that provides backpacks filled with 20 brand-new school supply items for each student in a school where over 70 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch programs.

While initiatives to provide kids with the supplies they need to be successful students aren't exactly novel, getting teachers the tools they need to teach successfully is an area that's often overlooked. The Department of Education estimates that teachers wind up spending nearly $500 out of their own pockets on classroom supplies every year. Considering how underpaid teachers in this country are, this is a significant expense, if not shameful reality. And this is where Kids in Need takes things a step further.

It started as the Teacher Shopper program. Operating out of a single warehouse in Chicago, teachers from underserved schools were invited to pick out community-donated school supplies from boxes stacked on pallets. The small effort had a huge impact, and in that first year alone, $5.5 million worth of supplies was distributed to 25,000 children.

In the world of philanthropy, where tangible success can be hard to come by, the foundation's efforts did not go unnoticed, and soon enough, the sponsorships started rolling in.

What started as a small community operation has since ballooned in to a national network of affiliate programs and free supply shops—known as resource centers—with programs backed by a strikingly impressive group of mega-corporations including Office Depot, the Coca-Cola Company, Kaiser Permanente, GE, Jo-Anne Fabric, 3M, Elmer’s Products, and Target Corporation.

The Target Corporation is well known for its education funding. At IP, we've written about Target's ambitious plan to donate $1 billion to education by the end of its 2015 fiscal year, and so far, it's made good on that promise. In 2013 alone, Target donated $98 million to education programs, and by 2014, it had reached $974 million—putting the company well on their way to meeting, if not exceeding its goal.

Related - Target Corporation: Grants for K-12 Education

What sets the Kids in Need Foundations apart is that it doesn’t just dole out money and hope for the best. Instead, it runs these resource centers that function like stores, fully stocked with supplies that teachers can pick out themselves at no cost—demonstrating a real commitment to getting the goods where they need to go, and also an understanding of the significance that the physical experience of shopping can provide, something a retail giant like Target surely understands.

Taking on the role of national sponsor, Target has proved itself a committed partner for Kids in Need, supporting the organization year after year. Last year, Target launched a buy-one-give-one campaign on behalf of Kids in Need, promising that for every target-brand school supply item purchased during back-to-school shopping season, one school supply item would be donated back to the foundation. The campaign ultimately provided $25 million worth of school supplies to Kids in Need—enough to provide supplies for two million kids. 

Today, the Kids in Need Foundation supplies 34 resource centers around the country, managed on a day-to-day basis by a nonprofit partner in each community, serving more than 4.2 million children and over 120,000 teachers every year.