Personal passion and vision. Cradles to Crayons started when I realized that, in many ways, Clothing Insecurity is an issue of supply and demand. I was helping my young niece get dressed and noticed many pieces of clothing were outgrown. Others were never worn, with price tags still on them. I saw the inequality in access to the basic need of clothing and founded Cradles to Crayons.
For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lynn Margherio.
A leader in the fields of social justice and children’s issues, Lynn Margherio is the Founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons. She leads this national non-profit with operations in Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and online at Giving Factory Direct, which provides children living in poverty with everyday essentials — including new or gently-used clothing, shoes, winter coats, diapers, backpacks, and school supplies. To date, the organization has served 3 Million children.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?
Back in 1990, I was at my first job doing management consulting, and I got assigned to a pro bono education project supporting the bi-partisan Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce where I did research and helped edit a report called America’s Choice: High Skills or Low Wages! The project, with leadership from former U.S. Labor Secretaries William Brock and Ray Marshall, and Hillary Clinton, laid bare the unequal distribution of education and opportunity, the worsening income inequalities, and the need for swift and comprehensive reform. This opened a window for me to see into the growing income inequality in this country, and the important and complementary roles that the corporate, nonprofit, and public sectors have to play to affect societal change. It was an incredible, eye-opening experience that expanded my knowledge and awareness of these important issues and ignited my passion to be a force for change.
But the most profound life experience was turning 40 and becoming a first-time mom. It transformed me in a way I never knew was possible. I had spent my 20s and 30s focused on my career, regularly working 12-hour days, often through weekends. Work-life balance was not in my work lexicon. Few were modeling vulnerability at the office for my generation — and very few leaders were women. There was no discussion about the relationship between career and parenting.
The love that flooded me when my daughter, Kyra, was first placed into my arms was unlike anything I had ever known. Suddenly, I spoke the universal language of parenthood and knew, understood, and felt an overwhelming desire to protect, care for, and nurture her. Bringing her home from the hospital, I would wake up in the middle of the night to check that she was okay, feeling immensely relieved to see her little chest move up and down with her regular breathing. This child — this vulnerable, new life — was relying on me for safety and survival. She was relying on me for everything. Years later, with a teenage daughter and a pre-teen son, I still feel that parental love and its intensity. And my feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty about my own parenting skills and decisions are still there — just different.
These experiences have shaped the issues I fight for, how I lead, and the values that keep us centered at Cradles to Crayons. I have had the privilege to work on issues I care deeply about — education, health care, innovation, and ensuring children’s basic needs. As a leader, I know the importance of encouraging life outside of work and we’ve been intentional in doing so at Cradles to Crayons through policies and modeling behavior. We seek to build a culture that enables our team members to meet their goals, supports them during times of difficulty and stress, and shares their celebrations.
Cradles to Crayons cares about being inclusive, accessible, and supportive of basic human needs — caring about people is at the center of everything we do. Our volunteer activities are designed for everyone — children and grownups alike. Building that empathy muscle can’t start too early! Our core value that “Quality = Dignity” recognizes that everyone wants the best for their child — and they deserve nothing less. And it acknowledges the courage and strength it takes for a parent or caregiver to ask for help in meeting the basic needs of their children, despite the fears and vulnerabilities they may feel.
You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.
Resilience. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve faced rejection, but if there’s anything that I’ve learned over the past 20 years, it’s that “no” does not mean “never.” It means not yet. The key is to get up and try another way. Whether it was coming up with the funding to pay my team in the early years, or reinventing Cradles to Crayons during the pandemic when our volunteers couldn’t help in the traditional way, the answer was always to try again. And this is a character trait that everyone at Cradles to Crayons embodies when donations are disrupted, volunteers don’t show, or delivery trucks are delayed — we all get up, pivot, and press on.
Integrity. A strong moral compass, with the words and actions ready to support, hasn’t let me down. It’s what helps me prioritize children’s needs, strive for dignity and respect in everything we do at Cradles to Crayons, and serve with a grateful heart.
Collaboration. Everyone is important — full stop. The key to my success and Cradles to Crayons’ is this: Respect everyone’s life experiences and leverage their skills and abilities to make something truly wonderful. We recognize and value the significance of every person. Because of the work and passion of our board, staff, volunteers, and partners — we have served nearly 3 million children. That kind of impact doesn’t happen with just one person — it happens because of teamwork.
What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?
I admittedly got sidetracked answering this one — just thinking about it brought up so many memories for me from the past 20 years! Probably the most interesting discovery is seeing just how much joy people get from giving back — it’s palpable, it’s significant. It’s so very simple, but our culture just doesn’t make it a priority. So, we forget. We forget to make room to think about our own personal contributions towards meeting others’ needs. Receiving and giving are both essential to our own health and wellbeing. Taking a moment to support another human in some way brings us inexplicable purpose and connection — it’s an unrivaled experience, and people recognize its value when they are doing it. Being able to provide help when help is needed brings us closer to each other, ourselves, and a collective moment of unity reminding us that we’re all in it together.
Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?
Cradles to Crayons uses the term “Clothing Insecurity” to formally recognize that children do not have reliable access to adequate, affordable, and seasonally appropriate clothing. We recognize this as a national crisis — one that is hidden and yet impacts children across the country. It is hard to process that here in the United States, the richest nation in the world, more than 20 million children (that’s 2 in 5) face Clothing Insecurity and very little is being done about it — whether that’s distributing essentials to fill gaps or changing federal policy to provide families with access to sustainable resources.
Only 3 (food, housing, energy) of 4 basic needs are supported by federal safety net programs. Clothing a growing child is often not possible when families need to prioritize their limited resources on survival needs like keeping the lights on and putting meals on the table. We know that without adequate and appropriate clothing, children face unfair barriers and participate in life on an unequal playing field.
Cradles to Crayons started 20 years ago by simply connecting children to resources. We knew there were new and nearly new clothes, shoes, and books — hardly used — in some homes. And we learned from our Partner organizations that sometimes the hardest things for families to find were the simplest — a warm coat, pants that fit, school supplies, diapers. Our efficient and effective three-step model was built to provide kids with the essentials they need, free of charge, by reliably connecting communities and resources. The process is simple:
- New and nearly new children’s items are donated through community and corporate drives and collections.
- Donations are processed and packaged by volunteers in our warehouse, which we call The Giving Factory®.
- These custom packages are distributed to local children through our collaborative network of diverse service partners.
We currently do this in three physical locations: Massachusetts, Chicagoland, and Greater Philadelphia and have supported nearly 3 million children to date. But the need is far greater, and we need to find bigger, more effective solutions to reach more children.
This year we launched Giving Factory Direct — a first-of-its-kind online donation platform that connects donors directly from their homes to specific children who need the clothing they have to give.
Leveraging digital is a scalable way to address Clothing Insecurity on a national level, engaging product donors from all across the country, and serving children outside of the boundaries of our current physical locations. Giving Factory Direct has the potential to change how children’s needs are met, with the essentials they need, when they need them.
We know that direct service, while critical in meeting children’s immediate needs, is just one part of the solution. That’s why we are also focusing on education, advocacy, and policy — the information sharing that will make Clothing Insecurity everyone’s concern. It is our job to make our country see what this truly looks like and invest in the solutions to stop it — including direct supports like those Cradles to Crayons provides every day, more people donating children’s clothing in their communities, and changes in state and federal legislation to include funding for these items through our social safety net and cash assistance programs.
What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?
Clothing Insecurity affects nearly every aspect of a child’s development: It’s a health, safety, emotional, and social issue, and the worst part is that too few are talking about it, let alone working toward creating a solution. The longer we, as a society, delay in discussing, learning, and fixing this issue, the longer our nation’s children suffer.
Without affordable, adequate, and appropriate clothing, children face unfair barriers and participate in life on an unequal playing field, a persistent reminder of the drastic income inequality plaguing the United States. Lack of proper clothing is one of the top 10 reasons kids miss school. They are also more likely to miss medical appointments and social outings, creating significant short and long-term social and economic deficits.
Let me tell you what this looks like: Some children wear bathrobes instead of coats to school, some kids don’t even go to school because they don’t have a coat or gloves, and some siblings share one winter coat between them — the ones without the coat that day stay home. Affording diapers is also an increasing problem for families — even before the pandemic. Now, more than 1 in 3 American families are facing diaper need — exposing children to health risks and parents to missed wages, as many daycare programs will not accept children with an insufficient number of diapers.
With 20 years of experience, we have a voice — a stake in the game — and we are demanding a new outcome to this unnecessary and preventable barrier for millions of American children.
Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?
This past September, we got an order for first-grade student in the Boston Public School system who was living with her mother and 13-month-old sister in a hotel-based homeless shelter. We’ll call her Sara. Six-year-old Sara had one outfit to wear to school. The other kids in her class started to make fun of her, asking her why she wore the same clothes every day and calling her smelly.
Sara tried to make herself invisible in the classroom, shrinking into her seat, afraid to meet anyone’s eyes. When her teacher realized what was happening, she approached the school’s family liaison and they arranged for an order to be placed with us. When she got her week’s worth of matched outfits from Cradles to Crayons, Sara was like a different child. She walked into the class with confidence and the teasing from her classmates stopped. She is now starting to raise her hand to answers questions and is building happy and successful friendships.
Here are quotes from other children who have benefitted from our services:
- “You guys inspire me. I want to do something like what Cradles to Crayons does in the future because a little thing like a backpack…can just change anybody.” — 11-year-old child
- “I use the pencils not only for myself but for others who need one.” — 12-year-old child
- “The new backpack made me feel special because mine is just like the other kids.”– 12-year-old child
We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?
There are several ways to help us move this work forward. The most important one is to remember that millions of American children are currently living in poverty, low-income, and homeless situations — and they are going without many critical necessities essential to their development. Everyone should make room for caring about this issue — it is insidious, and it is stoppable. There are also simple ways to engage yourself, your networks, and your communities to make a tangible difference.
- Volunteer — Empathy is a muscle that needs to be flexed and nurtured, but in a virtual and fast-moving world, that muscle often isn’t exercised and gets pushed aside for convenience or efficiency. By giving your time, skills, and effort through volunteering, you are building the kind of kindness and empathy that is desperately needed in order to connect to those who may be in need of your service. At Cradles to Crayons, volunteers are critical to the processing and packaging of the high quality and gently used essentials that children receive. Volunteers are always an essential support to mission-driven work.
- Donate — A seasonally appropriate coat. A pair of shoes that fit. Pajamas. School supplies and books. These are just some of the items a child living in poverty desperately needs — and many families have these things sitting unused in their attic or basement. Consider giving items that you or your friends and family don’t need to a child who does. Our online Giving Factory Direct platform can match you directly to a child, or you can look online for other organizations in your area taking donations.
- Give — Financial support is what helps keep highly efficient nonprofits — like ours — running and able to reliably serve those in need, while also providing meaningful engagement activities for families, companies, and organizations to come together and give back to their community. Financial gifts are the easiest way to provide the most significant support for a mission that you are passionate about.
Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.
- A very loud voice. Tell the people your story. Tell them again. Tell them to tell their people. Make it infectious. Make it un-ignorable. Make it the most important thing they’ve heard all day. Telling the public what you do over and over again helps build the brand and reinforce how vital the services are. Name recognition is credibility.
- Personal passion and vision. Cradles to Crayons started when I realized that, in many ways, Clothing Insecurity is an issue of supply and demand. I was helping my young niece get dressed and noticed many pieces of clothing were outgrown. Others were never worn, with price tags still on them. I saw the inequality in access to the basic need of clothing and founded Cradles to Crayons.
- Great people. The success of Cradles to Crayons is founded on and operated on the reality that we are better and stronger together. We all have our unique voices, ideas, skills, and visions — bringing the best of everyone into a collaborative environment is not only a recipe for success, it’s also energizing and inspiring to come together to make something happen. We leverage our collective effort and genius to find every way we can positively impact the lives we serve and raise awareness about childhood poverty to keep the momentum going.
- Irresistible Inspiration. Make it easy for people to engage with you to amplify your reach and impact. At Cradles to Crayons, in-person volunteerism and deep community partnerships have been core to our success since day one. Think about how you can engage a broader community in your mission — what could individual volunteers or groups of people do to help — share their expertise, walk for your cause, support an advocacy campaign, give money, build your base of supporters through crowdfunding and social media.
- Strong fundraiser(s). Fundraising is critical to your nonprofit’s operations and growth, so it’s important to have skilled fundraisers who infuse creativity and strategy into asking for money and building your philanthropic engine to realize your longer-term vision.
How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?
As families lost their jobs, schools closed and shifted to remote learning, and childcare proved problematic, we heard from families that they were even more in need for diapers and clothing. Cradles to Crayons gave out 11.3 million diapers and nearly 4 million wipes, a whopping 333 percent increase in demand, during the first 18 months of the pandemic. Clothing demand also surged. Simply put, families could not and still cannot afford clothing and diapers.
The pandemic elevated the problem of Clothing Insecurity and illuminated the increasing need for us to advocate for these issues and make the hidden crisis of Clothing Insecurity center stage in our nation’s consciousness. While the details of pandemic success may have changed, Cradles to Crayons success is still measured simply by our ability to meet families where they are with the basics their children need. And in more ways than one, we’re doing that even better now than we were before.
How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?
I first have to let it sink in and process it. I find I’m most successful when I can turn off my brain — like going for a long walk, jog, or swim. Then, depending on what it is, I’ll talk — with my husband, my mom, my best friend, my leadership team, anyone who wants to listen — to get their reactions and ideas. Through this process, a vision emerges for how to shift that setback into an opportunity, and I can refresh my focus on moving forward.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Mackenzie Scott! I’m inspired by her commitment to support organizations the serve people in need. She has quickly become one of the most consequential philanthropists of our time and an incredible force for good.
You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?
Visit us at www.cradlestocrayons.org and engage with us on social media:
- Facebook @C2CBoston
- Facebook @C2CPhiladelphia
- Facebook @cradlestocrayonschicago
- Facebook @GivingFactoryDirect
- Instagram @C2CBoston
- Instagram @C2CPhiladelphia
- Instagram @givingfactorydirect
- LinkedIn @Cradles to Crayons
- Linkedin @Cradles to Crayons Massachusetts
- LinkedIn @Cradles to Crayons Chicago
- LinkedIn @Cradles to Crayons Philadelphia
- Twitter @c2cboston
- Twitter @C2CChicago
- Twitter @C2CPhiladelphia
- Twitter @GivFacDirect
Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.