When the 2004 tsunami struck Southeast Asia, Wayne Elsey was president of Kodiak-Terra USA Footwear. One night while watching the news on television filter in about the storm, he was struck by the image of a lone shoe washed up on the beach.
That image struck a nerve, which compelled him to create Soles4Souls to deliver donated shoes to help the disaster victims who had lost everything. He knew, based on industry research, that there are over 1.5 billion pairs of shoes in our closets that we never wear. So Elsey got on the phone with his colleagues throughout the footwear industry, and together they shipped 1/4 million pairs of shoes to communities ravaged by the tsunami.
Since then, Nashville-based Soles4Souls has shipped over 15,400,000 pairs of shoes around the globe. Elsey also created Get off the Couch, a popular blog detailing his and others’ thoughts about everything from non-profit leadership to life balance.
When HSMAI MEET National kicks off on September 7 in Washington DC, it will be the first time the annual conference has partnered with Soles4Souls. The charity is delivering a Smart Car (painted like a shoe) to the conference that will be displayed prominently at the event, with the goal to fill up the car with donated shoes.
So we called up Juli Jones, vice president of HSMAI, and Elizabeth Kirk, director of communications for Soles4Souls, to learn a little bit more about the partnership, which you can also explore at HSMAI MEET’s CSR page.
Q: Juli, what was the motivation behind hooking up with Soles4Souls for HSMAI MEET?
JJ: Over 40 HSMAI chapters in the Americas alone have been involved with lots of community organizations and service organizations at the local level for many, many years. But we’ve never done that with our big show, and this year we thought, this is our biggest opportunity to assemble the largest number of people. So if we can really motivate and mobilize those 2,000 people in DC, we can make a pretty big impact.
Q: How have the local chapter events evolved over the years?
JJ: More and more people are interested in participating ever year it seems. These kinds of efforts give people a taste of what’s out there and how easy it is to contribute, and hopefully take some of the mystique out of it…. So that they can say, ‘That was easy, I’m going to go home and help package food or read to a kid or collect shoes.’
Q: We feel that it’s kind of safe to assume that almost anyone reading this has an extra pair of shoes in their closet they haven’t worn in a year. So it shouldn’t be too much effort to fill the Smart Car, don’t you think?
JJ: Oh, holy cow, my office is filling up right now just with contributions from our office. Also, the show management company for MEET is J. Spargo & Associates. They and HSMAI’s management company, Coulter Companies, are helping out with donations too.
(Next we spoke to Elizabeth at Soles4Souls.)
Q: Elizabeth, how often do you partner with the meetings and events industry?
EK: It’s not necessarily common but we have done it several times with other conferences and we’re seeing it more frequently…. More and more people are looking to use a convention coming into a city as an avenue to give back, so we’re really excited about HSMAI in September, and we think it’s going to be a great opportunity to change a lot of people’s lives.
Q: We’ve written about corporate responsibility for the last three years now. This seems like such an easy way for people and their companies to get involved.
EK: The good thing about shoes is it’s something that’s in everyone’s individual closets. It’s so easy when you’re packing to pack an extra pair of shoes that you don’t wear anymore instead of just getting rid of them….
We’re taking care of that for you except we’re repurposing them and giving them to someone who needs them. I think a lot of people can really identify with a mission that’s that simple and powerful, and it doesn’t require a lot from the individual.”
Q: What if a planner wants to continue to work with Soles4Souls after an industry event?
EK: We have retailers and businesses, churches and civic groups all over the country that are constantly collecting shoes for us. So for instance, in DC, we have shoe retailers that are drop-off locations for shoe donations year round.
Surprisingly, it actually works out really well because people will come to us and ask us, ‘Hey, what can we do?’ And then they kind of take on the initiative themselves, and we’ll equip them to be Soles4Souls advocates, per se…. So they kind of take on the mission as their own and it’s worked out great for us.
There are 1,600 shoe brands in the country and we’ve probably partnered with 1,300 of those, so we’ve really tried to get that message out there.”
Q: Founder Wayne Elsey wrote a book recently: Almost Isn’t Good Enough. How has it been received by the general public?
EK: It has been really successful actually. It’s a self published book so it’s published through the charity, and 100% of the profits go back to the charity. The book has kind of exceeded all of our expectations, especially Wayne’s. It’s been very steady and it’s really been a great marketing tool for us, because I think when people read it they’re able to see what we see on a daily basis—you know, working with Wayne—and they really get a chance to catch the vision…. We get calls all the time saying, ‘Hey, I came across Wayne’s book and I’d love to do something with you guys.
Q: To what do you attribute the book’s success?
EK: I think people are looking to be inspired, especially with where the economy is at right now, where America is at this point. People want to know that Joe Blow can go out and really make an impact on the world. And you know, Wayne makes no bones about it. He calls himself a “bubba,” he has a high school diploma, he’s been working in the footwear industry since he was 15. And I think people really identify with that.
People are searching out ways to make a difference and in a short amount of time Soles4Souls has grown into this massive thing and it’s just a simple idea. And it’s really more attainable than most people thought it once was.
Q: What’s it like to work at a company like Soles4Souls?
EK: I consider it to be a really special thing when you can come to work and really sink your teeth into what it is that you’re doing, because I think while money does makes the world go around, at the end of the day that’s not what satisfies you. So just knowing that every email that you send out, every meeting that you have, there’s this underlying purpose that’s driving everyone in the office. I just think it makes a big difference.
Q: Soles4Souls started putting together group travel programs to places like Haiti, Peru and Africa last year. What has been the response to those?
EK: That has probably been the single most successful beta program that we’ve launched from the ground up, and it really wasn’t something that existed until last year. And almost immediately, the trips were selling out faster than we ever thought they would…. The feedback has just been incredible, I mean, you can say that you understand what it is Soles4Souls does, and you understand the need internationally, but until you go and actually interact with these people, these children or these adults in these developing nations and understand what a real pair of shoes means to them, it just completely changes your outlook.
We’re getting feedback all the time from people who say their lives were completely transformed when they come home. We have a lady who’s 65 and she’s based out of Colorado Springs, and she came back from her trip to Haiti last year and she’s since raised 30,000 pairs of shoes by herself.
These people become like ambassadors for us so we are doubling the amount of trips next year…. We’ve just seen a huge response and a very positive response for our travel program, and we couldn’t have hoped or dreamed that it would be as successful or life changing as it is.