Charitable Giving | July 2015 | By Jill Watral

Reading for a Cause

Literacy programs bolster business and foster positive outcomes for future generations of quick-service customers.
QSR brands launch literacy programs to help young customers learn reading skills.
Reading programs like Kona Ice’s Chill Out & Read Day invest in the next generation while also boosting consumer loyalty. Kona Ice

For quick-serve brands, giving back to the community can extend beyond donating food and fighting hunger. Two brands have found that supporting childhood literacy is not only a worthy investment in the next generation, but it’s also good for business.

In 2007, the National Endowment for the Arts reported that reading proficiency is associated with higher-paying jobs, greater career growth, and higher rates of civic engagement. The study also revealed that proficient readers are 2.5 times as likely than those with basic reading skills to earn $850 or more per week.

Kentucky-based Kona Ice wanted to be a part of that potential change. Since its launch in 2007, the company has donated more than $17 million to community programs and schools.

“We leave a lot of flexibility to our franchisees to raise money for organizations that they hold near and dear,” says Kona Ice founder and CEO Tony Lamb. One of these efforts is childhood reading. Since teachers, principals, and school administrators own a significant portion of Kona Ice franchises, Lamb says, the company’s participation in the National Education Association’s Read Across America Day seemed fitting.

Every year on March 2, schools and libraries celebrate Dr. Seuss’s birthday by gathering children together for the nationwide read-in party. When Lamb learned of the event through a franchisee and high school media specialist Patrick Sularin, he knew his flavored ice brand could be on to something sweet.

With just three weeks to prepare, Lamb and 40 of his 647 franchisees organized Chill Out & Read Day—an opportunity for schools to host Kona Ice as a snack option for students on Read Across America Day. Aside from selling its shaved ices, Kona Ice gave away more than 10,000 bookmarks, along with other small gifts, to participating students and faculty. Kona Ice franchisees also donated between 20–35 percent of the day’s proceeds back to the schools.

“We decided that we’re going to roll this out nationally to our whole corporation next year,” Lamb says. While Chill Out & Read Day provided monetary success for the company, its franchisees, and participating schools, it also spotlighted Lamb’s dedication to reading. “I really want to take this on as a personal cause because it’s near and dear to me,” Lamb says of connecting Kona Ice to school literacy efforts. A self-proclaimed bookworm, Lamb recognizes reading’s impact on future generations.

“You show me a kid that loves to read, and I’ll guarantee you that GPA and school interaction is 10 times what it is for a similar kid that hates to read,” Lamb says.

It is the responsibility of brands like Kona Ice to lift up the next generation of service industry employees and leaders by emphasizing literacy’s impact on future success, Lamb adds.

The relationship between businesses and the community is a symbiotic one: If operators fail to engage the community beyond the bottom line, it’s a one-way relationship that will not last long, Lamb says.

Like Kona Ice, Yum! Brands’ Pizza Hut sees the value in investing in children’s literacy. In the 1980s, when Ronald Reagan urged corporate America to engage in education efforts, Pizza Hut leadership embraced social responsibility by developing the Book It! program. Book It, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year, rewards children’s reading accomplishments through recognition from Pizza Hut staff, praise from teachers, and free personal pan pizzas for students as they reach various reading benchmarks. The program reaches more than 14 million students in 38,000 elementary schools every year.

Doug Terfehr, director of public relations at Pizza Hut and a former Book It kid, says that while the company participates in multiple philanthropic efforts, nothing continues to connect as much with Pizza Hut franchisees and consumers as the Book It program.

“We have about a 99 percent redemption rate, so once a classroom and a school becomes involved in Book It, they renew year after year,” he says.

He attributes part of Book It’s success to corporate social responsibility. Terfehr says other companies did not perceive corporate social responsibility as an important pillar of their brand 30 years ago when Pizza Hut introduced the program. “It was unusual at the time, and it’s something that we’re all very obviously proud that we’ve continued,” Terfehr says.

Entrepreneurial coach Erin Giles lauds Kona Ice and Pizza Hut’s reading efforts.

“These programs are mutually beneficial for both the customers and the business,” she says. Giles says the programs are designed as win-win, cyclical situations; young people have a fun reason to go back to the restaurant, which increases the opportunity for repeat customers. Simultaneously, parents feel good about returning to businesses that genuinely care for the well-being of their family and the surrounding community.

These programs also give the brands a competitive edge compared with quick serves that offer similarly priced products but lack charitable giving efforts.

“It proves that they’re interested in more than just their businesses bottom line,” Giles says.

Terfehr confirms this statement through his explanation of Pizza Hut’s measurements of success.

“We try not to be too scientific with it,” he says. The only true measurement Pizza Hut puts behind the Book It program is the consistently positive feedback from parents and teachers, Terfehr adds.

“I think that’s the best measurement we can have.”

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