The Kohl’s Cares Coup

by Dax-Devlon Ross

How Did a Small Jewish Sect Nearly Sweep a Nationwide Contest?

And What  Can the Rest of Us Learn from Them?

Nearly two months ago Kohl’s Cares launched a $10,ooo,ooo “What would your school do with a half-million dollars?” contest. The company officially called it a celebration of 10 years of community giving and volunteer programs. Sounded good. But the lawyer in me has a thing for  small print. The smaller the better.

» The contest was open to any public school, grades K thru 12, in the United States,  and any not- for- profit private or charter school grades K thru 12.

» To win, a school had to finish among the top twenty vote getters on the Kohl”s Cares Facebook page.

» You or I or anybody we know 13 or older with an e-mail address and a Facebook account could’ve voted. Pre-teens aren’t allowed on Facebook.

» Eligible voters were alloted 20 votes and the freedom to use them however they pleased. Only one catch: up to five of those votes could be used on any one school. This raised an eyebrow. Seemed odd. I slowed down. There was more.

The top 20 eligible vote getting schools will be declared the potential contest winners.

What does “potential” mean?

Kohl’s Department Stores will provide funding up to $ 500,000 for each winning school.

Schools will receive funding needed to complete only the projects they have outlined in their project summary and budget overview paperwork.

The way I read it, “up to $500,000” can mean something totally different than “$500,000”. Meaning a lot less.

Over the two months of voting an interesting trend emerged: nearly all of the top vote getting schools were private and well-resourced. But they weren’t just private; they were religious. Of the final top twenty list — that is, as of this posting at 3 AM on September 3rd —  eighteen were either Jewish (12) or Christian (6). In coinage terms, that’s  up to $6,o00,000 of the $10,000,000 pot going to one religious group.  Out of the twenty-one to twenty-five group, four were Jewish. Three of those were Chabad schools. That’s thirteen Chabad schools in the top twenty-five finishers in a nationwide contest.

Northridge, California’s Darby Elementary and Millbury, Ohio’s Lake High were the only public schools to finish in the top twenty. Why Northridge? I don’t know. What I do know is that Lake lost its building in a tornado early this summer. I saw pictures of the destruction. How could I not vote for them? What kind of person would I be if didn’t vote for the school that was  destroyed by a tornado?  I gave them the full five. And afterward, I felt beneficent; like I’d just done a good deed. Knowing I wouldn’t get any tangible reward made it even better. It felt an act of pure generosity. It occurred to me  then that this must be how philanthropists feel.  They give out money to whoever they feel like giving it out to. I think that was part of the  contest’s allure was the sense of power it bestowed upon voters. We are a nation, if not a world, obsessed with voting. We love to share our opinions, the more so when we have the power to do some good. The stakes were real. People’s lives were going to be affected. Do you choose the school that wants a new swimming pool? The school that needs a sewer system upgrade? The  school that was destroyed in a fire? Every school in America had a compelling case.  Then they  all started to run together and I became a snob about. I  found myself sifting through gut wrenching vote pleas like the junk mail in my inbox until I found the one that moved me. Something didn’t feel right about that.

But that’s a different story.

The story that caught my attention is that five of the top ten and ten of the top twenty finishers are affiliated with  an Hasidic branch of the Jewish faith called Chabad-Lubavitch. On its headquarters’ website, Chabad is described  as  “a philosophy, a movement, and an organization,” and “the most dynamic force in Jewish life today.” Based in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn,New York today, “Lubavitchers”, or “Chabadniks” originated in Russia 25o years ago.  After the movement swept through Russia, it spread through surrounding countries,  providing “scholars with answers that eluded them and simple farmers with a love that had been denied them.” The movement’s original aim was to break down social barriers between Jews of different classes by revealing the “oneness unique to Jewish people.” Today, the Chabad global network of institutions extends all over the developed world. However, there are only (thought to be) around 200,000 total adherents.

Which makes the nearly 1,500,000 votes the top ten finishers garnered in just two months even more impressive. Exactly how did the Chabad network manage to pull this off?

I have some theories.

Theory #1: They wanted it more. The votes speak for themselves. The top vote getter, Los Angeles’ Cheder Menacham, has all of 22o students but gathered more than a 130,000 votes. Long Island’s Silverstein Hebrew Academy, the seventh overall vote getter, has a whopping 110 students but brought 127,000 votes. How do you explain this if not by desire and hunger?

Theory #2: They were organized.  Although the contest rules prohibit winners from using the funds or religious purposes, there is no rule against using the religion-based network to vote for winners. Moreover, the voting process lent itself to real-time viewing. People in the network could see which Chabad schools showed promise early on and allocate their votes to the most effective end. In effect, each school had a tryout before either being cut or making the squad.

Theory #3: They were committed. It’s one thing to jump out to an early lead or to rally down the stretch; it’s something else to sustain momentum  for two months. You would think that just given the modest number of Lubavitchers around the globe, other more populous groups would catch up and even surpass them. I watched the voting closely. It didn’t happen. Those in the network used their  votes to support one another.

Theory #4: They were tech savvy.

From eJewish Philanthropy

While Chabad-Lubavitch’s main Facebook page has more than 13,000 fans and an additional 3,000 onTwitter, the combined social media network (or as Facebook refers to it, social graph) of local Chabad emissaries [people who spread the philosophy and grow the movement] carries much more.

This isn’t the first time the Chabad network has leveraged its base to win an online contest with a substantial payoff. Earlier this summer 17 Chabad organizations won $20,000 a piece in a Chase sponsored contest operated through also operated through Facebook.

Theory #5: They were creative. One school raffled off free iPads on a weekly basis starting in early August. Several schools made Youtube videos:

Others loaded banner ads on online Jewish web sites:

Blogger Jacob Berkman wrote about one school’s really creative tactics on his Fundamentalist blog:

In a In Charlotte, N.C., Chabad’s 220-student Charlotte Jewish Day School used an inside-out approach to garner 45,000 votes by Tuesday, earning it 14th place in the Kohl’s challenge, according to spokesman Rabbi Bentzion Groner, director of the Friendship Circle of North Carolina.

The elementary school has a relatively small base, but it tapped into alumni now in their teens to hold a vote-a-thon. The school, which was started in a basement in 1984 with just a couple of students, enlisted 50 teenagers to bring their laptops to the school, where they spent an afternoon reaching out online to as many of their friends as they could, soliciting votes one by one. And of course the school invited three television stations and the local newspaper in to check out the event.

My hat goes off to all of them.

Now, I know a few of you reading this may think I’m being naive here by not mentioning other obvious factors, so I will:

» The better access and resources argument. Certainly, we can make the argument that low income people don’t have access to computers and that often community members aren’t connected to their neighborhood schools or that the smaller, more concentrated Chabad communities had an advantage because of their cohesion. The thing is, access and resources didn’t stop people from hitting up Obama rallies back in 2007 and 2008. People wanted Obama to win and went out to support him. This was even easier. You didn’t even have to go out. All you had to do was press a button a few times. It was that simple

» The school equity and social justice argument. Simply stated, not one single school that primarily serves students of color and low-income students made the top 20. Mark Federman, the principal at East Side Community High School in downtown Manhattan and a dear friend of mine made this argument in an appeal he sent out to school supporters several days ago:

We are the only school in the top 40  that primarily serves students of color. (Our school is 55% Latino, 35% African-American, 5% Asian and 5% White)  and we are the only Title I school (a school where vast majority of students live below the poverty line) in the top 40. We are the only NYC neighborhood public school in the running and one of only a few public schools nationwide.   We are at an extreme disadvantage in this competition because almost all of the top schools are private and/or wealthy parochial schools that are getting votes using tremendous sums of money and resources we do not have.

This is not just a contest. It is an issue of equity and social justice.

To draw interest to East Side Mark slept  in a tent outside of the school for several days, wrote letters to supporters, granted interviews and appeared on radio. His efforts paid off. East Side finished just outside of the top thirty. Mark did everything in his power to raise awareness and generate support. I admire him for this. As a teacher at East Side I witnessed his  commitment to students, families, staff and the community up close.  He’s one of the most committed leaders I’ve ever been around. East Side  could’ve done transformative things with the money. East Side will continue to do transformative things without it. As for the point Mark raised, it’s a valid one. The Jewish School of the Arts, one of the top vote getters and a Chabad institution, is located in affluent Palm Beach, Florida. Rabbi Shlomo Ezagui describes the school as one that offers  “high-tech, high quality education” in a “beautiful, 11,000-square-foot building, newly renovated with a brand new playground and gymnasium.”  One would hope that a school that already boasts such abundance would want to spread the prosperity around a bit.

Or is that just me being an idealist again?

Nevertheless, I don’t want to see social justice being used as a crutch or an excuse. Making this as a social justice issue begs more difficult to answer questions. Which children are more deserving? Who decides? What are the standards? Ultimately, this was a contest and to win people had to vote. Not enough people voted for schools serving students of color and low-income students. That may or may not be a social justice and equity issue. It may just be a geographical issue–it’s easier to rally around the only school in town; East Side isn’t even the only school in its building.  It is definitely  an issue of organization; an issue of commitment, an issue of creativity, an issue of savvy, and sheer desire.  Five-hundred grand was on the line. The Lubavitchers found a way to get more than half of it.

So what lessons have we learned from this contest?

1. Strategize and mobilize early. Get your story out there. Build your brand. Be creative. Be proactive. Be vigilant.

2. When it comes to getting things done, the number of Facebook friends you have doesn’t matter … unless they are active and aware.

3. Glenn Beck might have a point, after all. Two days before his controversial “Restoring Honor” event, Beck told his radio audience:

People will gather and see this. And hopefully, we will mutually pledge to each other, our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor. At least we will begin to look at those things, start to maybe challenge that we haven’t valued those things high enough — honesty, integrity, merit, personal responsibility, family and God.

If nothing else, the Lubavitchers’ commitment to ensuring the success of their young people should show the rest of us how  sacred our young people are.

4. Al Sharpton dropped the ball. As the final week of the voting began, Al Sharpton was gearing up for a “Restoring the Dream” rally to combat Beck’ by launching an online petition denouncing Beck’s appropriation of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech that garnered 30,000 votes in two days. Sharpton later led a rally and march that allegedly drew 30,000 supporters. At the rally, one speaker after another got on stage and made crowd-stirring but ultimately redundant tirades against Beck. NAACP President Ben Jealous said “we have to revitalize jobs and schools”; Jaime Contreras, president of SEIU-32BJ, said those gathered at the Mall with Beck “represent angry white people and hate-mongering” ; Avis Jones DeWeever, executive director of the National Council of Negro Women, told onlookers not to “let anyone tell you that they have the right to take their country back.” She said, “It’s our country, too. We will reclaim the dream. It was ours from the beginning.” A steady stream of speakers also bemoaned the persistent societal inequities facing black people. It took Education Secretary, Arnie Duncan, to address the salient issue: “We have to stop making excuses … We’ve been too satisfied with second-class schools.” When the speaking was all done, the attendees did what they always do–marched.

When I checked  Sharpton’s National Action Network web site the day after the rally, all I saw was one picture of Sharpton after another.  I wasn’t surprised. But I was disappointed. If he could get 30,000 people to sign a petition, he could’ve chosen a handful of schools across the nation and encouraged the same supporters to vote for them. It would have been that simple.

5. Too many of us missed the boat this go round. The other day I was speaking with a public school administrator here in New York about the contest. She didn’t know anything about it. She’d never even heard of it. But she suggested something that gave me pause. Money isn’t always the problem or the solution at public schools. Often, it’s money management. Schools, she said to me, are incredible perpetrators of waste.

6. Kohl’s got way more than $10,000,000 worth of publicity and good will.  As someone who can say with confidence he’s never stepped foot in one of their 1000+ stores nationwide (and didn’t even know what they sold), I now know.  This year the company added nine stores in six states – Colorado, Maryland, Mississippi, New York, Oregon and Pennsylvania – and plans to open a total of approximately 30 new stores before the year ends. It also announced remodeling plan for 85 stores this year, a 66 percent increase from 2009. For a company that is aggressively expanding its business and upgrading its image, this kind of positive publicity is priceless. The Kohl’s millions will now know will be associated with positive values.

That being said, I will suggest this to Kohl’s brass: If you plan on giving this much money away in the future, come up with a better strategy for doing so. At a certain point, basing the distribution of this much money on what is ostensibly a glorified popularity contest is plain irresponsible.

That is, unless, by awarding participants 20 votes you were aiming for a particularly lopsided outcome in the first place. I won’t go there, though

7. Facebook users beware. Our information is officially for sale.

8. A lot of us care.

9. More of us need to.