Building playgrounds is serious business
A nonprofit called KaBOOM galvanizes corporations and communities to build playgrounds in underprivileged neighborhoods. Here's a look inside the vital work behind the play.
PHILADELPHIA (Fortune) -- As the sun rose over the vacant lot in North Philadelphia, the light of day could do little to brighten the scene. Strewn with trash and leftover bricks from row houses that had been torn down, it was a depressing, unusable backyard for the neighborhood charter school, Alliance for Progress.
But this dawning day would not be like any other here. As if organized by some invisible, beneficent force, about 300 parents, teachers, and employees of IBM and software giant SAP descended upon the scene, an army equipped with hand tools. In just seven hours, the eyesore was transformed into a gleaming, state-of-the-art playground featuring a huge metal play dome, a multicolored slide, a rock-climbing wall, and three basketball hoops of various heights. The school's walls were emblazoned with freshly painted murals.
As students decorated a fence with colorful tiles they had made, a group of sweaty volunteers surveyed their handiwork with satisfaction. Said Jim Goldfinger, senior director, SAP's CRM Value Network, who shoveled mulch and helped build large outdoor easels: "This has been a great way to get out. My kids now have more respect for the company I work for because they can see something like this."
While local politicians stood about claiming credit for the wondrous transformation, a few people in purple T-shirts with the KaBOOM logo darted through the crowd, supervising the final touches. These were the agents of the hidden force: an 11-year-old nonprofit that has brought together volunteers to build 1,361 playgrounds, skate parks, and ice rinks in North America. While each project depends on the sweat equity of people in the community, these "BOOMers" - many of them just out of college - are highly organized project managers who supervise every aspect of a play space build, from choosing the sites to coordinating the volunteers to making Band-Aids available for scratches incurred in the line of duty. They are part of a remarkable organization whose mission comes from the heart - "a great place to play within walking distance of every child in America" - but whose tactics are highly systematic and insightful about human nature.
"The secret sauce with KaBOOM is not the playground," says Brad Shaw, senior vice president of corporate communications at Home Depot and a KaBOOM board member. "It's really the project management and the fun."
The organization is deeply serious about communicating the fun factor. At KaBOOM headquarters in Washington, D.C., the waiting room has a tire swing, a slide - and no chairs. The whole place is painted in bright purple and orange, with the company's logo - chosen because it evokes an explosion of energy - splashed everywhere and written as a comic-book sound effect. But little is left to chance at KaBOOM, from the branding to the dress code to the strict process by which play spaces are designed and built. "KaBOOM is one of the best-run nonprofits," says Robert Nardelli, CEO and Chairman of Chrysler, who has worked with KaBOOM for seven years, starting when he was CEO of Home Depot. KaBOOM has also tapped into a deep desire on the part of corporations to give back while also finding a way for its own employees to connect. "It's bringing people together in multifunctional teams, working on a project, seeing success and gratification," says Nardelli. "All the things you want to do in business you accomplish within eight hours in building this playground."
Central to KaBOOM's philosophy is giving everyone a stake in the outcome. Unlike many nonprofits, KaBOOM makes the local community a full participant in its projects by requiring it to raise part of the money for the play space - usually about 10% of the cost, which for a typical playground ranges from $70,000 to $125,000 in total - and also by providing much of the physical work. Corporations raise most of the rest of the money, but they can't just write a check either. Employees work side by side with the locals to assemble jungle gyms.
"It's a way of engaging the community to solve its own challenges," says Darell Hammond, 36, KaBOOM's co-founder and CEO. "This isn't a handout, this isn't pure philanthropy. This is an investment on everybody's part." Hammond, who resembles a big teddy bear, doesn't fit the usual profile of a philanthropist. His childhood was marked by poverty, not privilege. Born the seventh of eight children to a truck driver and nursing-home worker in Jerome, Idaho, Hammond quickly learned the value of a safe haven. His father abandoned the family when he was just two years old; his mother two years later became incapable of taking care of the family. All eight children were sent to live at Mooseheart Child City & School near Chicago, a home for poor children funded by the Moose fraternal organization.
"I didn't have a bad upbringing," he says. "I had what I considered to be a normal, happy upbringing. But I do what I do, no doubt, because of it." At Mooseheart, Hammond was called "the lawyer" because he was always standing up for kids in need. But law school never really interested him. He wanted to help kids - and after dropping out of college and discovering that he was dyslexic, he decided to do just that. In 1995, after he and KaBOOM co-founder Dawn Hutchison read an article about two Washington, D.C., boys who suffocated while playing in the trunk of a car, they decided to start a nonprofit that would use play to further social change. Hammond and Hutchison (who left KaBOOM in 1997) began fundraising the usual way, seeking money from large foundations.
But not everyone saw jungle gyms and slides as the best use of grant money. "They saw play as a luxury," Hammond says. So the BOOMers turned to the business community, which they figured had both the money and the manpower to help. Says Hammond: "It was not by great design or strategy, frankly, but where we lucked into it was that we executed well, and when we executed well, people wanted to take care of us."
While play spaces are built in a day, the actual process begins as much as six months earlier, when a funding partner is identified. From there, KaBOOM looks for an appropriate site, considering the economic needs of a neighborhood. About ten weeks before the build, KaBOOM's project managers host a Design Day, when kids help to choose the types and colors of equipment. The equipment manufacturer, Playworld Systems, comes up with three designs, and the community chooses one. In the remaining weeks, volunteers join such committees as "safety and maintenance" and "recruitment" and carry out tasks including getting food and water for the build and prepping the site. Every project is done the same way - and that's why, barring acts of God, they generally come off without a hitch. KaBOOM has created partnerships with the likes of Kimberly-Clark, Ben & Jerry's (which created a flavor to benefit the organization, KaBerry KaBOOM), Fannie Mae, Target (TGT, Fortune 500) stores, and many others.
But its deepest relationship is with Home Depot (HD, Fortune 500), whose head of community affairs met Hammond on a panel and contributed time and money for KaBOOM's first build, in Washington, D.C. The company has assisted in building some 600 play spaces over time, and the relationship has endured through several leadership changes, peaking in 2005 with a $25 million three-year grant to help KaBOOM build 1,000 play spaces. "We looked at it and said, This is exactly what our people love to do," says Shaw, "build things fast with a tangible outcome." Some of the companies that take part also view the projects as a way to help identify potential leaders. "Think how many consultants you'd have to hire to put blindfolds on and spin you around somewhere," says Bill McDermott, president and CEO of SAP Americas & Asia Pacific Japan. "We don't have to. We're out there with the real people."
Hammond spends some 75% of his work life attending builds, wooing donors, speaking at conferences, and trying to persuade lawmakers of the social value of play. "Darell is undaunted," says Michelle Nunn, CEO of Points of Light & Hands On Network, a group that helps match volunteers with projects. "He has a personal magnetism and a drive, and he understands the marketing value of that too." While KaBOOM has won kudos from nonprofit watchers, Hammond still seems dissatisfied when he discusses his accomplishments, noting that while KaBOOM will build 229 play spaces this year, it has received more than 6,000 requests. So Hammond decided several years ago to make KaBOOM's project handbooks, best practices, and guidelines available on the web, free, to anyone with the passion to build a playground. "We are giving away our intellectual property," Hammond says. "We deliberately decided that we could go further, faster, in a dissemination model than we could by starting more chapters and affiliates."
Now KaBOOM is amping up its strategy, thanks in part to people like Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay and founding partner of the Omidyar Network. Omidyar contributed $5 million to build out the nonprofit's website and also to support KaBOOM's RALLY effort, which aims to bring the importance of play - as both a health and a community benefit - to the attention of lawmakers and policy experts. Says he: "KaBOOM's platform allows anyone to go online, access resources and a walk-through of the KaBOOM process, connect with other communities, and share ratings of playground equipment."
Beyond this, KaBOOM is trying to raise $106 million over the next three years to facilitate the building of 6,000 play spaces by 2010. Only 1,500 of them will be built through corporate partners; the rest will be built by self-starters who adopt the KaBOOM method and do it themselves. Back in Philadelphia, the playground is complete. "The kids never had any place to play," said Tyhesha Williams, a volunteer at the build whose daughter is in fourth grade at the Alliance for Progress. "And you know what? At the end of the day, we will say, 'We built this' - and we did. I've never been a part of anything like this."
Now a group of about 30 students stops dancing the "Cha-Cha Slide," the unofficial anthem of a KaBOOM build, and gathers eagerly in front of the playground for the official ribbon-cutting ceremony. They stare at the "triple racer" slide as if it's a giant, tempting ice-cream cone. "Pleeeeease," they beg Stacey Hill, CEO of the school. "Can we play?" Not tonight, Hill says, because the concrete has to dry. But thanks to KaBOOM, they can tomorrow morning - and every morning after that.