When it comes to cause marketing, there may not be a more mutually beneficial partnership than the 16-year relationship between Whirlpool and the nonprofit Habitat for Humanity. What began with appliance donations has become one of Whirlpool’s most successful corporate social responsibility programs. It is hard to argue with the numbers: over US$85 million in donations since 1999, 8,000-plus company employees who have volunteered with Habitat for Humanity, and a renewed lease on life for over 100,000 families.
Along with its commitment to manufacturing in the United States, the reputation of its products and services and, of course, its financial strength, Whirlpool’s corporate citizenship is one reason it is consistently mentioned as one of the country’s most admired companies.
To learn more about this partnership, I spoke with Deborah O’Connor, the director of global corporate reputation and community relations at Whirlpool Corp.
The relationship started when Whirlpool agreed in 1999 to donate a range and refrigerator to every house Habitat for Humanity builds in the United States and Canada. The program expanded from North America across the globe, with programs launched in regions including Europe, Central Asia and South Africa. Over the years the partnership grew deeper on many levels. Whirlpool began to donate unsellable appliances to ReStores, the home improvement stores and donation stores that are a significant revenue generator for Habitat for Humanity. The company also works with Indiana University on annual home-builds near its Bloomington campus.
Whirlpool’s bonds with Habitat for Humanity became even stronger as the company began to help fund the construction of homes in regions where it has major offices, customer service centers and factories. Those locations include Benton Harbor, Michigan; Clyde, Ohio; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. “It makes more sense to us to stay local,” explains O’Connor, “and spend money on actual construction materials to build homes rather than on marketing or flying people across the country to build a house.”
The company shares some of its success stories on its social media channels, but rarely discusses the campaign in its marketing and advertising. “We ran some promotions in the past, but we asked ourselves, ‘Where do we want to spend the money—isn’t it better to spend it on what we do?’” explains O’Connor. “Maybe when you go buy an appliance, we hope you select one of our appliances, but there are many important reasons why we work with Habitat for Humanity.”
For O’Connor and the thousands of Whirlpool employees who have volunteered on a Habitat for Humanity project, the experience is one that is deeply meaningful and personal. “With our unique partnership, we can provide products and services that others cannot provide,” says O’Connor, “and we also know that in providing a family a home, we offer a more structured life for their children. We in turn have the opportunity to stand next to them, to meet them and learn about their situation.
“It’s pretty moving to see someone understand that all these people are helping them build this house and that they are so grateful. I still get notes from people on homes I have helped with, especially around the holidays. They are so excited to not only have a home for the holidays, but now they can even host on a Thanksgiving. This program creates and strengthens families, it creates structure in so many ways — a place for kids to do their homework; and families don’t have to go to a laundromat to get their laundry done. The list of benefits can just go on.”
One of O’Connor’s favorite stories was from about five years ago when Whirlpool and Habitat for Humanity worked together to build 10 houses on a block in Dallas, Texas. A woman who was going to move into one of these new homes was at first shy about wielding tools. “By the end of the week, I saw her grab a hammer out of another person’s hand, and it struck me how really it was a metaphor for what we do. She became empowered and did something she thought she couldn’t do. I’m always reminded of her as I work on other projects.”
The dedication O’Connor and other Whirlpool employees put into the company’s work with Habitat for Humanity pays dividends in ways far beyond the company’s reputation and employee engagement. In her view, it ties into how Whirlpool as a company and brand has been part of the American landscape for over a century. “Cause marketing” almost sounded like a cliché to me as I listened to the enthusiasm O’Conner showed during the course of our conversation. The involvement with Habitat for Humanity is deep, as she explained. In addition to all of her other duties, she is often on the phone with her contact at the nonprofit at least once a week. Many corporate social responsibility programs I come across sound like little more than a checkbox for a company’s “do good” list, but what is going on between these two organizations is a genuine commitment.
“The reason why this partnership has lasted so long,” says O’Conner, “is because it’s a truly good fit for both organizations because we both get something out of it, and that is what’s most important.”
The success — which has continued far away from Whirlpool’s headquarters in Benton Harbor, Michigan, and Habitat for Humanity’s head offices in Atlanta — is a lesson for companies that are considering the launch of a cause marketing campaign. For it to work and have meaning, both partners should really be in it for the long haul. “It’s really just a matter of making sure that the fit is there for both organizations,” says O’Conner as we wrapped up our conversation. This has been more than a fit: This partnership has brought empowerment and joy to thousands that will last for years.
Image credits: Ann Schertz