Wayne Elsey, CEO and founder of Soles4Souls, traces the birth of his sprawling international charity to watching news coverage of the 2004 Indonesian tsunami and seeing a single shoe wash up on a beach.
From that initial seed, he said, sprouted an operation that last year brought in more than $73 million in donated footwear and contributions.
It's a great story, but Elsey — a part-time Orlando resident — has a way of making it seem simple. The truth, observers say, is that the former shoe-industry executive is both a savvy marketer and a brilliant businessman. He also has impeccable timing: Among other things, he jumped into the nonprofit world just as for-profit companies began forging alliances with charitable causes to beef up their public image.
"I'm a business guy, not a nonprofit guy," said Elsey, 47, on a recent stay in Orlando. "And branding is really my background. Our brand is easy for people to recognize: We get and we distribute shoes. And the return on investment is the number of lives we can make a difference in."
At last count, that was about 16 million or so — the number of pairs of shoes distributed to disaster victims and the poor in 125 countries, including the United States, Haiti, Peru, Tanzania and Honduras. There remain 300 million to go — the number of individuals worldwide, Elsey said, who don't own even a single pair of shoes.
The mission, experts say, is a critical one. Being barefoot is not merely inconvenient. It also exposes skin to potentially lethal infections and parasites.
"In developing countries, there are injuries all the time because of lack of shoes," said Margaret Linnane, executive director of the Philanthropy & Nonprofit Leadership Center at Rollins College. "There are children who can't go to school because they don't have shoes. The problem is very real, and the need is tremendous."
After that shoe-on-the-beach scene, Elsey made some calls to fellow industry executives that ultimately triggered the donation of a quarter-million pairs of shoes to tsunami survivors. But it took Hurricane Katrina and another few years for the notion of launching a nonprofit to gel.
The catchy Soles4Souls name, he said, simply came to him during an initial brainstorming session with friends, and he jotted it down on a napkin along with the tagline: "Changing the world, one pair at a time."
That salesman's intuition has served him well.
"He was one of the first CEOs to put out his own blog," said Mark Hrywna, senior editor of the trade publication The NonProfit Times.
But the charity also caught his eye, Hrywna said, because it grew so big so quickly. In the five years since its formation, Soles4Souls has joined the top 1 percent of the nation's charities in terms of revenue. Last year alone, it doubled in size.
'The best get results'
Elsey built his organization largely by tapping his former colleagues for donations of new shoes — a move that generates good consumer buzz for both business and charity.
"Cause-related marketing has gone completely off the charts," said Ken Berger, president and CEO of the leading nonprofit-watchdog organization Charity Navigator. "According to research, 85 to 90 percent of the public, if they have to choose between a product that is or is not affiliated with charity, will go toward the charity's. So the business community knows this will help the bottom line."
In fact, most of the donations to Soles4Souls don't come from good-hearted folks cleaning out their closets and donating their "gently used" footwear — or from the writing of checks. Most come in the form of new shoes from the industry.
Elsey has maintained close ties with industry executives, and he is still paid as though he were one of them — more than $454,000 in fiscal year 2009-2010, the latest period for which IRS records are available. The figure has raised some eyebrows.
"That's an unusually large salary for a charity of that size, especially when you parse out the in-kind donations," Berger said. "For comparison, the American Red Cross, which is a multi-billion-dollar charity, pays its CEO $650,000 a year."
The average for U.S. charities of all sizes is $150,000, Berger said.
Elsey counters that his board conducted an independent survey of both for-profit and non-profit enterprises and set salaries accordingly. And, he said, he's worth it.
"The charity is a huge success story of the business strategies that I have brought in," he said. "I believe and have proven that: Pay the best, get the best. The best get results."
Elsey also has created a small army of what he calls "raging evangelists" for the cause by inviting the public to spend vacation time — and dollars — on one of the charity's Travel4Souls missions. A five-day trip to Peru, for instance, costs $2,400 and covers air travel from Miami, lodging, meals, security and getting to spend your days helping fit appreciative Peruvian children with shoes and clothing.
"If I can show people firsthand what goes on and let their hands get dirty, they will be the people who will sustain our organization down the road," Elsey said. "There's no glamour about these trips. There are no 500-count sheets in resort hotels. They see what it's really like, and they become fired up about making a difference."
Linnane calls the move "highly creative." And it's a proven way to get those enduring donors, Hrywna said.
"Retention is a big problem," he said. "I've seen statistics that say something like 60 or 70 percent of your first-time donors this year won't give again next year. Charities are always looking for people to become evangelists for their cause."
Elsey himself goes on many of the missions — there are 18 planned for 2012 — and each tends to spawn a new story to tell.
In Haiti six months ago, he recounts, he witnessed a woman trading a used pair of green sneakers from Soles4Souls for a goat. The animal's milk, translators told him, would help feed the woman's children.
On a trip to Mexico, Elsey said, he gave a pair of shoes to a barefoot 80-year-old man who was digging ditches.
"His feet were nasty," Elsey said. "He'd never had shoes. I had to teach him how to tie the laces. But when he got them on, he smiled at me like he had just found this pot of gold at the end of the rainbow."
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