The KFC Foundation dates back to a simple gesture by KFC founder and brand icon Colonel Sanders.
One day, the Colonel picked up a college student who was hitchhiking. He drove him back to campus and paid for the rest of his tuition. That level of kindness continues through the foundation, which has four core programs—REACH Educational Grant Program, Rise with GEDWorks, the KFC Family Fund, and MyChange with Sum180—that assist with education, crises, and financial wellness. Since 2006, the foundation has given away $20 million to KFC employees and students across the country.
KFC expanded the reach of its platform by forming the Kentucky Fried Wishes Program in spring 2019. Through the new initiative, restaurant employees with need–based or life–enhancing wishes were nominated to receive a wish, such as dental work, a car, debt relief, or a meaningful experience. The new program was created after receiving requests from employees and franchisees to help restaurant workers in ways that didn’t quite fit into the parameters of the four existing charities.
“We wanted to create something else that could recognize employees who were working hard and who have overcome incredible circumstances and hardships in their lives and are showing persistence and grit,” says Emma Horn, director of the KFC Foundation. “Persistence to keep showing up every day with a smile on their face—so this is our way to recognize those employees in the restaurants.”
In its first year, nearly 400 employees were nominated and the Kentucky Fried Wishes Program granted $35,000 worth of wishes to 10 employees across the country. Each granted wish was backed by an emotional story. One woman’s daughter was murdered by her boyfriend in front of her three children a couple of years ago. Tonya Brown, the winner, gained custody of her two grandsons while her granddaughter lives with her father. She received funds to help with mortgage payments so she could focus more on the grandchildren’s needs. Another woman was walking 3 miles between work and a recovery home where she and her son live. She received a car to help with transportation, which also allowed her to spend more time with her son.
To Horn’s knowledge, the KFC Foundation is the only organization in the industry granting these types of wishes for employees.
“What we loved about the nomination process was that it wasn’t just self-nominations,” Horn says. “It was people in the restaurant often nominated their co-workers, and the really tremendous part was when you saw some people get several recognitions and several nominations within their restaurant.”
Foundation staff and regional KFC leaders helped with the selection process. Each wish was a complete surprise to the winner, with many of them taking a picture with a large check afterward. In most of the cases, the employee didn’t even realize he or she was nominated. The program was so successful, Horn says, the program will be a permanent program going forward.
“It was great to see their enthusiasm and to see them get so excited about the selection process, and they were all involved with planning the surprises, as well,” Horn says. “So, when we were awarding one woman with her wish, as he [one KFC leader] said, the rain kept getting in his eyes and we were outside. It was drizzling a little bit, but not that much. You could see how much it impacted everybody surrounding that person.
“… It’s definitely an emotional thing. I still get choked up reading some of the stories or watching some of the videos of our announcements, and I got to go to several of them, as well, which was incredible,” she adds. There was a lot of rain in my eyes a lot of those days.”
Horn says the most powerful part was seeing the instant impact of the wish and the gratitude everyone had toward co-workers who recognized and nominated them. She describes the moments as overwhelming, and an experience that exceeded the expectations of those at the foundation. With every wish, confidence was restored, Horn says. That’s especially true of two women who received funds to undergo dental procedures to improve their teeth and smile.
“You just saw their beautiful smiles coming through and we got to see before and after photos for their procedures and they were strong, confident women before they had these medical conditions and you could see that diminish,” Horn says. “And with a small amount of money we were able to change their lives and bring back that confidence. It provided everybody who was granted a wish that sense of hope that somebody cares about them. … What we love and what we talk about at KFC all the time is building our family and you could see everybody in the restaurant rallying around the person who won and they felt like they were a winner that day.”
For 2020, Horn says, the foundation will grant 10 wishes once again, but this time around, it wants to engage more KFC leaders into the review process so they become familiar with local stories and have a better understanding of what’s happening nationwide in the lives of KFC employees.
It wasn’t just about the wishes being granted, Horn says—it was about creating a sense of family within the whole restaurant.
“It’s really about making our employees in the KFC restaurants feel like they’re cared for and that somebody knows they’re working hard and that we’re here for them,” Horn says.