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Belk Inc. takes the old adage “Charity begins at home” very seriously.

This story first appeared in the March 18, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

As the Southern department store chain launches its 125th anniversary celebrations, giving back to the communities it serves remains a top priority.

“Giving has been a major focus of Belk since its founding,” said Jessica Graham, vice president of community services, explaining that philanthropy was a focus of founder William Henry Belk, grandfather of chief executive officer Tim Belk and president and chief operating officer John Belk, when he the company was created in 1888. Dr. John Belk, William Henry’s brother, joined the business in 1891.

“When we went thorough the rebranding process a few years ago, charitable giving was reiterated as one of our core values,” said Graham, who oversees the company’s charitable giving and program development.

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Two years ago, the retailer pledged to give 2.5 percent of pretax income, which came to $5 million in fiscal 2012 and $6.2 million in fiscal 2013, back to the communities in which it operates stores. Prior to that announcement, the majority of the tax-exempt charitable funds went to the Belk Foundation, which lists as one of its goals closing the education gap and reducing high school dropout rates. In addition, the foundation aims to inspire more young people to have an intentional path after high school. The foundation’s predecessor, the John M. Belk Memorial Fund, was founded in 1928 when Dr. Belk died at age 62.

Belk, along with its associates and vendors, donated $19 million in fiscal 2013 to the foundation.

Education, breast cancer research and awareness and organizations that strengthen the community, such as United Way, are among the beneficiaries of Belk’s largesse. The three causes hit close to home.

Belk last Monday kicked off a $2 million partnership with a community service organization called Points of Light as part of its anniversary celebration. The effort will continue for 125 days. “We’ll bring our modern Southern style to schools in each of our markets and do makeovers, including painting, landscaping and building benches and bookcases,” Graham said. “We’ll do more than 200 makeovers.”

Belk wants employees to give more than lip service to its projects. “It’s our goal that all 23,000 of our associates will participate in some sort of education project,” Graham said. “Every makeover has a standard [to-do] list. Today we installed playground equipment. There may be some schools that don’t need that but need something else. Our associates are doing the labor and are being asked to fill each bookcase with 125 volumes.”

School principals will even get a once-over. Belk has offered to give them in-store makeovers that include apparel, makeup and hair styling.

One often-overlooked area that Belk would like to address is providing school uniforms for at-risk children. Belk last year donated 5,000 new uniforms to children in Charlotte, N.C., and Jackson, Miss. Graham said the program, now in its third year, will be expanded to a third market.

“You think of them needing food, pens and paper,” Graham said. “We found a real need. The first year we literally pulled them out of our inventory. We now order them from a vendor that ships them directly to schools for us.”

Breast cancer affects Belk’s customers a well as its employees. The retailer wanted to do something tangible, so it invested $6 million to build a mobile mammography center. Unveiled in December and launched in January, the mobile center will travel to each of Belk’s 116 markets, providing free mammograms to customers and associates. “We selected breast cancer research and awareness [as a cause] three years ago,” Graham said. “There’s a lot of passion from our associates and customers around the disease. There’s solid reasoning and personal passion behind the choice.”

Belk has made a multiunit commitment to the mobile center. “We branded it with a giant pink shoe and the words ‘Belk Gives on the Go,’” Graham said. “We’ve had it on the road for a month, and it’s been phenomenally well received. We do a big public relations push and in-store signage” before rolling into a city, Graham said, adding that the vehicle can do 32 mammograms a day. To coincide with the mobile center’s visits, Belk has started doing bra fittings in stores.

The mammograms are interpreted by a board-certified radiologist. “If a follow-up is needed, they track the results,” Graham said. “We may buy an additional [mobile] unit. Certainly it’s on our radar. It’s a significant investment.”

The mobile unit isn’t Belk’s only investment on the medical front. The retailer last year funded The Belk Boutique at the new Duke Cancer Center in Durham, N.C. The boutique, which provides cancer patients with hats, scarves, accessories and jewelry, represents a $1 million investment over several years.

Innovation is another one of the linchpins of Belk’s philanthropy. Recently, the retailer unveiled a multiyear commitment to the Belk College of Business at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte of $5 million to fund several professorships.

“We’re funding a professor of innovation,” Graham said. “Innovation is important to the company. We’re also funding a professorship of analytics in customer data, a fascinating, new and growing field, and an endowed chair in marketing analytics.” Donations will support the Belk Scholars Program, which will develop undergraduates for careers in analytics.

While Belk likes to keep its good deeds in its own backyard, it saw the need to venture to the Northeast this past fall. “We always give several hundred thousand dollars to the United Way across our footprint,” Graham said. “We also gave $100,000 to the Red Cross for Hurricane Sandy relief. We have so many vendors and customer and associates who have families there.”

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