OfficeMax Works to Make Teachers' Days Better

Why? Because 'a Brand Is Like a Person and Should Have a Heart'

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After dedicating almost 40 years to teaching, my wife recently retired. In her long career, she touched thousands of lives in amazing ways. She gave unselfishly. She also had to pay her own way.

You see, there's a dirty little secret about education: Schools are unable to give teachers enough resources to do their jobs sufficiently. And because the best teachers are by nature self-sacrificing, they are forced to dip into their own pockets and pay on average $1,200 each year for supplies. That adds up to almost $4 billion each year.

When you consider the fact that the average teacher earns a mere $30,000 starting out, that injustice is even more pronounced. I've often wondered how we would react if we had to do the same. How would we respond if companies demanded that we buy our own computers, desks, paper, telephones, etc? I'm guessing there would be a mass rebellion.

At OfficeMax, we thought that the idea of teachers funding their classrooms was wrong, and we wanted to do something about it. We sought to shine a spotlight on this problem and raise awareness on a national scale.

At OfficeMax, we like goals that set the bar high and encourage our people to stretch beyond their boundaries. We asked ourselves: "What if we involved as many of our people as possible? What if, on one day at one time, we could surprise more than 1,000 teachers across the nation? What if we brought each of them more than $1,000 worth of supplies?" Our responses to these questions led to the biggest outreach program in OfficeMax history.

Three years ago, we held our first cause event for teachers on the first Tuesday in October. We called it: A Day Made Better. It was a massive task. We had a small team to plan and execute it, and needed to move quickly. We surveyed teachers to learn what classroom supplies they needed most. As our nonprofit partner, we engaged Adopt-A-Classroom to help locate impoverished schools, identify outstanding teachers and align them with OfficeMax's more than 1,000 stores and distribution centers. Then we developed an A Day Made Better volunteer manual to guide participating store associates and worked with vendors to source as much product for teachers as possible. The idea proved contagious, and the whole company responded.

During my career, I've been involved with scores of cause programs and charity events; however, A Day Made Better is decidedly different. Much of corporate philanthropy ultimately involves writing checks and making anonymous gifts. But A Day Made Better is face-to-face, person-to-person philanthropy. Our associates, like 5,000 Santa Clauses, go to local schools to personally surprise teachers with a surprise classroom gift worth about $1,000.

Many of the schools are in struggling neighborhoods, and our people can witness some deplorable conditions. Still, they are inspired by countless stories of teachers' self-sacrifice, and they see firsthand how OfficeMax is making a difference in their communities. The story unfolds, one outstanding teacher at a time, and it is a life-changing event for us all.

A Day Made Better has become an annual event at OfficeMax, and each year, it gets better. We've involved more people and gained the support of celebrities, prominent officials, authors, athletes and others who join us on our event to surprise a teacher in their communities. Each year, as the day unfolds, we ask our associates across America to take pictures of the "teacher surprise" and e-mail them back to headquarters. Throughout the day, the walls of our corporate atrium literally fill with these pictures as they stream in. Each photo illustrates the emotions that exist behind this cause, from beaming smiles to tears of joy. To surprise a teacher with much-needed classroom supplies and witness the look on his or her face is to witness -- and experience -- a moment of grace, gratitude and humility.

A Day Made Better is practically a sacred event at OfficeMax. It's one that our associates cherish and for which local schools have been endlessly grateful. Our associates hold A Day Made Better close to their hearts. They experience a unique sense of pride and feel more connected to their communities. They know that they are not just delivering "new stuff"; they are bringing hope to their local teachers and making a difference in their communities.

These past few years have been challenging for cause marketing and philanthropy alike. Yet even in a desperate economy such as now, giving must go on. At OfficeMax, we've been fortunate in that the spirit of giving hasn't diminished here. Although we, too, were hit with budget cuts, it was never suggested we pare back on this special day. In fact, our cause event has continued to grow both in the U.S. and internationally, where our Mexico and Canada subsidiaries have also adopted A Day Made Better.

We believe that a brand is like a person and should have a heart. Our brand at OfficeMax found its heart with A Day Made Better. Our associates support the cause, and they know they are the reason for its success. Because of their actions, A Day Made Better has supported more than 3,500 teachers nationwide with more than $3.5 million worth of supplies and helped secure funding for more than 10,000 classrooms through Adopt-A-Classroom. Through these efforts, OfficeMax has gained national recognition as a leader and creator of positive change in education. We, as a brand, are proud to be leading this movement for teachers.

I've learned a great deal from this cause and from our people as well. I've found that when you take the heart and soul of a company and put it in the hands of its employees, they become your greatest brand advocates. They have and will take A Day Made Better further than I could have ever dreamed, and I dream big.

Bob Thacker is senior VP-marketing and advertising at OfficeMax and has been working in marketing for nearly four decades. Learn more about Bob Thacker at the OfficeMax Media Room, and about the effort at A Day Made Better.