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December 21, 2011

Industry with Heart

Generous by Nature: How the Direct Selling Industry Creates a Culture of Giving Back

by Sarah Paulk

Click here to order the Direct Selling News issue in which this article appeared.

One year of business in the direct selling industry means more than revenue, success and networking. Thanks to the generosity of the individual companies within the industry, one year means countless volunteer hours spent helping those in need, and millions of dollars in cash and goods given to the less fortunate around the world.

Virtually every company within the industry has their own unique charitable initiative and donates considerable amounts of time, energy and resources to their unique mission. In fact, according to the 2009 Direct Selling Worldwide Corporate Philanthropy Report, issued by the World Federation of Direct Selling Associations (WFDSA), close to three in four direct selling companies (72 percent) engage in philanthropic activities. And, according to the WFDSA Global Statistical Report, 2010, direct selling companies generated more than $132 billion in the world economy in 2010. The cash, goods, services and volunteer time donated on a global scale by 72 percent of those companies adds up to a staggering amount.

Often these initiatives involve companies that contribute to more than one organization. Such is the case with Arbonne International, a direct seller of personal care and wellness products. The company has recently donated more than $500,000 in product to both the TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive and Look Good … Feel Better, a global program that uses donated products to teach beauty techniques to cancer patients and help them with the appearance-related side effects of treatment.

What’s more, it is commonplace in the industry for companies to go to great lengths to make a difference above and beyond their planned philanthropic activities, often reaching out to the communities where they live and work. And the companies’ independent representatives get behind the causes as well, providing momentum for each effort. “Direct selling companies offer help in pretty much every way you could possibly think of,” says Amy Robinson, Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer of the U.S. Direct Selling Association (DSA). “Some support causes with cash and some have their representatives or corporate employees work in homeless shelters or build houses for Habitat for Humanity. There is such a wide range of causes—you’d be hard pressed to find something companies within the industry have not helped with at this point.”

The industry is generous by nature. Fundamentally, even the business structure of direct selling is such that, for representatives to reach their goals and ultimately become successful, they must reach out to others by sharing the business opportunity or product that has improved their lives. “That is what this business is based on,” Robinson says. “Direct selling is access to a better life for yourself, but also a better life for others as well. Not only does the business model support that idea, but the mindset of direct sellers is that they want to help anyone they possibly can. And that shows through during charitable events.”

Generosity on the Move

As each direct selling company trains and commissions its scores of representatives, the culture of generosity instilled during their training—and through experiencing the business opportunity—goes with them out into the world. For direct sellers, giving becomes a way of life.

Nancy Laichas, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Direct Selling Education Foundation (DSEF), witnessed this experience through the selfless giving of the industry’s executives and the companies they represented at Pack a Present, an annual toy drive held in Las Vegas during the U.S. DSA’s Be Connected Conference. “We asked attendees to pack a present in their suitcases to donate to the Henderson chapter of the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Las Vegas,” Laichas says. “We had participants drive in with bags and bags of toys. It is a wonderful event that gives not only the companies a chance to participate, but also individual executives and DSA Supplier Members.”

“[Pack a Present] is a wonderful event that gives not only the companies a chance to participate, but also individual executives and DSA Supplier Members.”
—Nancy Laichas, Director of Marketing and Communications for the Direct Selling Education Foundation 

Throughout the three-day conference, the pile of presents continued to grow, as did the excitement in the room, until the culmination of the event, when children arrived to receive the donations. “Last year, the Boys and Girls Club bused in a group of kids between the ages of 4 and 9,” Laichas says. “We had an area cordoned off for them with artificial snow and decorations, and they were served a pancake breakfast by waiters in formal attire.”

Soon after, the jolly symbol of all things Christmas made a guest appearance. “After they started breakfast, Santa Claus walked in and all of the children gasped, and their eyes got wide,” Laichas says. After the towering piles of bicycles, puzzles, gift cards, stuffed animals and sporting equipment were officially donated to the local Boys and Girls Club, the industry attendees received a gift in return. “We have found that in every community program we have ever done, those of us who contribute always get much more out of the event than we give,” says Charlie Orr, Executive Director of the DSEF. “Those children give us a gift with their smiling faces.”

“We have found that in every community program we have ever done, those of us who contribute always get much more out of the event than we give.”
—Charlie Orr, Executive Director of Direct Selling Education Foundation

Pack a Present is just one example of how the DSEF seeks to make a difference through giving back to others. Two years ago the foundation decided to take their generosity to another level by committing to give back to the cities where they attend major functions, such as DSA’s annual meetings. “As the industry’s foundation, we want to give back to these communities we are visiting and leave them a little better than we found them,” Orr says. “We want to show the communities—and the charities we partner with—what a giving industry direct selling is.”

In the past, these outreach events have manifested through unique local efforts. One event included a clothing drive, Outfitting for Opportunity, which helped women in need prepare professional outfits for business interviews and opportunities. “We were astonished at the response,” Laichas says. “More than 8,000 pounds of clothing, accessories and cosmetics were donated by direct selling companies. It took a semi-truck to deliver it all.”

By focusing on community outreach programs, the DSEF takes the industry’s culture of giving out into the world and leaves a lasting impression on those they come into contact with, naturally sharing the benefits direct selling offers. The 2012 DSA annual meeting will be held in Dallas in June, and the foundation is already reaching out to local organizations with which to partner, and encouraging member company executives to participate.

DSA Chief Marketing Officer Amy Robinson (in white coat) discusses the industry’s contributions to the TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive during her appearance on the show.
DSA Chief Marketing Officer Amy Robinson (in white coat) discusses the industry’s contributions to the TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive during her appearance on the show.
DSEF Executive Director Charlie Orr is interviewed as part of a journalism project during the foundation’s Y We Care event in June.
DSEF Executive Director Charlie Orr is interviewed as part of a journalism project during the foundation’s Y We Care event in June.

Leading by Example

By lending the industry’s culture of kindness to their own corporate identities and ranks of representatives, direct selling companies have the opportunity to impact the lives of countless individuals throughout the global community—starting with their own neighborhoods.

Scentsy owners Orville and Heidi Thompson did just that when they discovered that one out of every six residents in Idaho, where their international headquarters are located, is food insecure. Their one-month campaign in August 2011, Halt the Hunger, raised more than $600,000 for the Idaho Foodbank—the largest donation in the nonprofit’s 27-year history.

Often companies respond with aid when disaster strikes unexpectedly. After tornadoes ripped through seven southern states and left a wake of destruction in 2011, Shaklee—through its foundation, Shaklee Cares—promptly sent Shaklee Product Packs to assist with relief activities.

The generosity of many company executives has generated impressive examples of benevolence, and their willingness to embrace their communities—both globally and locally—embodies the direct selling industry’s altruistic culture. And this giving spirit is growing exponentially and is often channeled in ways not seen anywhere else in the business world.

“What I think is so different about this industry is that you can have a high-level executive from Avon, next to a high-level executive from Mary Kay, working together on a common cause and both participating,” Laichas says. “In the real world, these two companies are competitors. But they come together in a way that you wouldn’t see in another industry.”

Nearly $16.5 Million Goes to TODAY Show Toy and Gift Drive

The Direct Selling Association kicked off the 18th Annual TODAY Show Holiday Toy and Gift Drive in November 2011 by presenting the direct selling industry’s donation live in Rockefeller Plaza in New York City.

Twenty-four direct selling companies donated a total of nearly $16.5 million in products and cash to the Toy Drive. In its eight years of participation, DSA member companies have donated more than $85 million in products, services and cash to the Toy Drive.

Participating companies donated items from books, stuffed animals and fashion accessories to clothing and toiletries for children and families across the country.

“Participation in the Toy Drive is a natural fit for direct selling companies,” says Amy Robinson, U.S. DSA Senior Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer. “Every day, direct sellers help others achieve their goals through the products and opportunities they offer, but their involvement in charitable and philanthropic activities reinforces the positive impact direct selling has on millions of lives each year.”

The TODAY Show Toy Drive is a project of the Today Show Charitable Foundation Inc., a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization.

The following direct selling companies donated products to this year’s Toy Drive:

Barefoot Books
Blessings Unlimited
Essential Bodywear
lia sophia
Mary Kay
Pink Papaya
Stampin’ Up!
Team National
Thirty-One Gifts
Vantel Pearls in the Oyster
Willow House

Putting Aside Competition

Linking arm in arm to make a difference is one of the industry’s distinguishing characteristics, and one Robinson has witnessed firsthand. Through an initiative she brought to the attention of industry leaders eight years ago, Robinson has the honor of collecting annual donations for the TODAY Show Holiday Gift Drive. Even she has been surprised by the generosity of the industry. “Our first year, I set a goal of collecting $1 million,” Robinson says. “It took no time at all to reach $2 million. Ever since then, we have increased the amount of donations. A lot of companies call me before I can put out the solicitation.”

Although often viewed as a toy drive, the more than 200 organizations benefiting from the TODAY Show Holiday Gift Drive also serve teenagers and parents, in addition to children. Recognizing this, participating direct selling companies have answered the drive’s request with a variety of product donations, ranging from housewares to jewelry, allowing disadvantaged children the opportunity to “shop” for Christmas presents for their parents.

Past involvement with the drive has illustrated that the joy of giving does not end once the check is written or the products are shipped. For many of the donors, it is just the beginning. “We have had a number of companies that have ultimately created longer-standing relationships with some of the organizations they have donated to,” Robinson says. Essential Bodywear experienced this when their donation to the TODAY Show Holiday Gift Drive evolved into a rewarding secondary event providing bra fittings for homeless and disadvantaged women through Women In Need Inc., a nonprofit that serves homeless families. “Their donation became another event in itself,” Robinson says.

The collaborative contributions of companies across the industry have made a surprising impact. “Over our eight years of participation, we have donated to every single organization [associated with the drive] and given a total of $85 million in products, services and cash,” Robinson says. “It has become an annual event for a lot of companies, and the drive has obviously been very thankful that the industry has taken such an interest in the project.”

While Robinson has the privilege of presenting the donations on air in New York, she is quick to pass along the credit. “The focus is not the Direct Selling Association, it is the companies that come together to give these donations,” Robinson says. “We might be the conduit for giving donations on air and coordinating the event, but it is the companies that are doing the good work.”

Achieving True Success

Despite a tumultuous economy, direct selling companies continue to make selfless contributions to a greater purpose. In a consumer landscape seeking authenticity and generosity, the industry’s philanthropic nature has organically attracted an ever-increasing customer base, resulting in steady growth for the industry. “Consumers are interested in supporting companies that have a strong stance on social responsibility,” Robinson says. “Companies that take seriously giving back to the community are what consumers are looking for and wanting. For direct selling companies, it is much more a part of their mission, more at the core of what they are doing, than it might be for other corporate entities.”

“Consumers are interested in supporting companies that have a strong stance on social responsibility.”
—Amy Robinson, Senior VP and Chief Marketing Officer of the U.S. DSA

Success in the direct selling industry takes on many forms for consultants and independent representatives. For some, it is handsome residual incomes. For others, the flexibility of a less-demanding work schedule. But enmeshed in all of those success stories is an ongoing history of giving back—to a hardworking downline, to a friend or acquaintance who could benefit from the business opportunity, to local neighborhoods and communities, and ultimately, to the entire world, launching a universal culture of generosity that touches everyone.

While there is no way to tally the countless volunteer hours that have been clocked, or accurately gauge the socioeconomic impact of the selfless donations made by companies and individuals, the industry’s leaders have exemplified how a lifestyle of generosity not only leads to success, but offers unsurpassed joy for both givers and receivers alike.