Home Depot keeps it close to home

For over a year, the retailer has been quietly working to end youth homelessness. Here’s a look inside its CSR strategy.

This story appears in the April issue of strategy.

Paul Klein, founder and president of social responsibility agency Impakt, says the cause a brand aligns itself with is sometimes better served with a strategic approach that is measured, subtle and focused on serving the long-term needs of an issue, instead of a national campaign that drives awareness.

Klein points to his agency’s work with Home Depot Canada. In October 2013, the retailer’s foundation and Impakt published their first white paper on youth homelessness, outlining the opportunity and role the company could have in being a key part of eradicating the issue. It launched The Orange Door, an initiative and $10-million commitment that has seen the retailer enlist suppliers and associates, embark on repair projects, develop programs and fund research. To date, roughly a year and a half after it was launched, the initiative has spent over $4 million of its commitment.

The thing that sets Home Depot’s work apart, according to Klein, is that it is built on the expertise of those who know the issue best, including academics, organizations that work with homeless youth and young people themselves. Those experts sit on the foundation’s advisory committee, which guides its efforts.

The Orange Door also hasn’t been the subject of any major campaigns, aside from some promotion in-store through displays and donation drives. That’s because research showed awareness wasn’t what was required if the retailer really wanted to play a role in the issue’s eradication. And Klein says Home Depot has earned a spot as the corporate leader on the issue among homelessness organizations, which to him shows its efforts are on the right track.

“In doing things this way, it may [not] have a short-term ROI in the way of impressions, clicks or even donations,” Klein says. “But in the longer term, there’s less risk and more ultimate value. It contributes to their reputation and is incredibly authentic and based in reality.”

Klein says, should the brand decide to go with a consumer-facing campaign, it would be more effective, as a research- and expert-backed approach provides a safeguard against the skepticism consumers have when a corporate entity associates itself with a cause.

Klein also says doing this goes against what he calls the “social change by convenience” trend, as it is a long-term program that isn’t simply asking for a click.

“These are serious issues and it requires a degree of consideration,” he says. “People are looking for more than clicking here or giving here and then it’s done. They recognize the issues require more than that to be addressed in any real way.”