Charitable Giving | May 2014 | By Daniel P. Smith

Lessons in Giving

Sonic’s Limeades for Learning program helps create more vibrant classrooms.

A marketing campaign from quick serve Sonic donated funds to class projects.
Students in Melissa Hunt’s first-grade classroom in Blackfoot, Idaho, had Sonic Drive-In’s Limeades for Learning program to thank for new supplies. sonic / I.T. Stoddard Elementary School
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Changes are afoot in Melissa Hunt’s first-grade classroom at I.T. Stoddard Elementary School in Blackfoot, Idaho. This year, Hunt’s classroom welcomed the addition of two iPad minis and a storage cart holding books and headphones. Hunt also launched the Lunch Bunch Book Club, a monthly reading discussion group in which 22 students receive a book to read and keep for their personal library.

Hunt has Sonic Drive-In to thank for her invigorated classroom. Through the Oklahoma-based chain’s Limeades for Learning program, Hunt received a total of $1,800 for the three classroom projects.

“These additions have helped transform my room into something I never thought possible, and it’s made a world of difference for my kids,” says Hunt, now completing her 25th year as a schoolteacher.

Teachers surveyed in 2013 by the National School Supply and Equipment Association reported spending $945 on classroom materials during the 2012–2013 school year. For many teachers across the country, the out-of-pocket expenses continue to rise as school budgets shrink and districts place increasingly tighter controls on teacher reimbursement. Sonic’s Limeades for Learning program aims to ease that burden.

Established in 2009 with the help of DonorsChoose.org, an online-based nonprofit that allows teachers to seek funding for classroom projects, Limeades for Learning has funneled $3.5 million into more than 5,700 projects over the last five years.

During last fall’s five-week campaign, Sonic, which has more than 3,500 units across 44 states, distributed $587,802 to 1,167 projects. Teachers posted projects citing a variety of needs: art supplies, math games, furniture, even an incubator to host baby chicks.

“Teachers out there have needs, and we want to step in and help by increasing access to the tools that will help teachers inspire students and create a better learning environment,” says Jason Acock, Sonic’s assistant manager of corporate communications.

While Sonic’s corporate office had long directed philanthropic efforts at various educational initiatives around its Oklahoma headquarters, Acock says, the company explored how it might expand its charitable outreach on a system-wide level in 2009. Sonic staff began researching potential philanthropic efforts and soon became intrigued by the work of DonorsChoose.org.

Sonic’s interest couldn’t have come at a better time for DonorsChoose.org, as the New York–based organization was actively seeking ways to create unique, branded experiences for its corporate partners. Further, Sonic’s growing national presence appealed to DonorsChoose.org.

“The fact Sonic was so forward thinking and wanted to engage their customers as well as our teacher partners was an opportunity that thrilled us,” says Kirk Smiley, the nonprofit’s senior director of partnerships and business development. In quick time, Sonic and DonorsChoose.org agreed to proceed and began crafting Limeades for Learning.

On the Limeades for Learning website, teachers submit a project describing their classroom and specific needs. A defined public voting period decides which projects will receive funding. In addition, Sonic corporate staff and local operators pick random projects to make surprise school visits to distribute funds.

Over its five years, the program has consistently evolved, Acock says. For example, in the first year, Sonic pushed national TV ads. In recent years, however, the company turned to grassroots marketing and social media, two elements that fit well with the initiative’s mission to support local teachers. Early on, the program limited voting to codes on Sonic purchases. In subsequent years, however, Sonic added public voting and doubled votes logged from codes with in-store purchases.

Joe Waters, founder of Selfish Giving, a leading cause marketing blog, credits Sonic for enabling consumers to be the philanthropists and for seeking a way to engage with a cause beyond passively signing a check.

“Consumers are asking companies to do more and more, and [Limeades for Learning] is something that brings active connections to an important cause,” Waters says, noting that Millennials and moms are two groups attracted to cause marketing and who are, not coincidentally, a key target of quick serves.

Teachers like Hunt play an integral role in the program’s success and impact. Hunt first learned about Limeades for Learning through Facebook. She sent a note home to parents encouraging them to vote and visited local Sonic units to distribute fliers to customers. One Sonic staff member even took extra fliers and distributed them herself.

“We’ve actually named our classroom iPads after two donors, and one is called ‘Kristy’ in honor of the contributions of that Sonic waitress,” Hunt says.

As the 2014–2015 school year approaches, Sonic has begun lining up the voting period and working with its partners to ready stickers, cups, and bags that carry the Limeades for Learning information. The company is also solidifying the voting process with its digital partner and coordinating timelines and initiatives with its internal marketing team and its public relations agency.

“Every year, there are a lot of little things that add up to launching the program,” Acock says.

Ultimately, teachers and kids in towns and cities across the country benefit from those efforts. “Without Limeades for Learning, I would not have been able to offer my students such a vibrant classroom that inspires them to learn in new ways,” Hunt says.