Steps to Creating and Getting a Head Start on a Homeless at Heart Initiative

An initiative can be created individually or through a group (school, church, scout group, service club, etc.). We discuss later the steps that are particular to a group but have included the following steps which are applicable to either approach.

Strategies that apply for individuals and groups

  • Plan ahead. The earlier you get started, the better prepared you will be to handle the things that arise that you did not anticipate. Using time in the summer before the next Valentine’s Day is good because you can visit homeless shelters to understand the needs of the shelters and their interest in participating in the next HAH initiative. Even though the very first HAH initiative was put together in 5 weeks, we think it is important to have most of the planning done before Thanksgiving.
  • The major components of the program are as follows:
    • Demand – these are the persons and organizations receiving the boxes and cards
    • Supply – these are the boxes and cards that are delivered to the people who are homeless. The boxes and cards come from three sources:
      • Contributed boxes
      • Contributed cards
      • Boxes you or volunteers make that are funded by cash or donations of articles to go into the boxes
    • The overall organization and the logistical plan for connecting the supply with the demand.
  • Creating the demand: identify homeless shelters and other organizations that serve those that are homeless and on the street.
    • If you are starting an initiative in a city where others are already operating, you should work with them to see their list. You should still try to identify other shelters and organizations that may be close to your home and are not on the larger list.
    • If you are starting the initiative in your city, you should talk to the HAH representatives in Atlanta who may be able to help you in this part of the process. You will do most of the work, however, and the best place to start is a Google search for “homeless shelters” in your city. Many times, you will find that there is a city wide initiative that is orchestrated by either a governmental entity or other non-profit organization. If you can find those organizations, they will be the best source of information in building your list.
    • Once you have created your list of shelters and other organizations serving the homeless, you should contact the organizations directly by telephone (best) or email to introduce them to the program. You can route them to the HAH website which should give them some perspective on the overall program. After you have made the introduction, a personal visit is very important because it establishes the credibility of the program and gives you clear insight into the needs of the shelter.
    • You should ask the contact person at the shelter if they have participated in a HAH initiative before. If so, you will need to coordinate any of your initiative to that shelter with the other HAH Ambassadors in the area. Multiple deliveries are okay but we want to present an organized image of HAH and to be efficient for the shelter.
    • Once you have made the contact and determined that the shelter wants to be included in the next initiative, you should get a head count for the shelter so you can determine your demand. Although you may not be able to differentiate your boxes upon delivery, you should still get a breakdown for the headcount of the shelter between adult men, adult women and children.
  • Set a goal of the total boxes and cards you want to distribute in your campaign.
    • If you are a part of a larger city-wide effort, your goal will be based upon the size of your group (e.g., number of students in a school) and/or your own initiative. You can have an individual initiative in addition to a group initiative you are running (see comments below on the different aspects of group versus individual initiative).
    • If you are starting the initiative in your city, your ability to deliver boxes and cards to different shelters will be based upon your goal. It is very likely that your goal for boxes and cards may not meet all of the demand in your city that you have identified. In that case, you will need to delete certain charities as it is better to make a full delivery to fewer charities than not meeting the demand for a larger group of charities. The shelters really appreciate anything you can give them but it still puts pressure on them to ration the boxes and cards among their clients.
    • We think the collection of 50 boxes is a reasonable goal for anyone with initiative. The collection of 200 boxes by a single volunteer is doable and extraordinary but it requires a diligent execution plan and outside donation support.
  • Recruit others to help you achieve your goal.
    • You should try to attract other students and parents that you know are reliable and can deliver on their goals.
    • You should set realistic goals for each volunteer and stress to them how important achieving their goal means to the overall initiative.
    • You should share with the volunteers the overall plans for this year’s initiative and keep them in the loop on the logistical plans.
  • Start accumulating shoe boxes ASAP so that you can use contributed dollars and materials to fill extra boxes to meet your goals.
    • The easiest way to collect boxes is through family, friends and neighbors. Everyone has an extra shoebox laying around.
    • You can also visit various stores to sell shoes, particularly athletic shoes, and see if they have extra shoeboxes to give away.
    • Another way that we have found leads to very predictable growth is to establish a relationship with a boutique shoe store, perhaps a running store, where they will let you leave slips of paper at the cash register encouraging people to take their shoes home in a bag and leave the shoebox at the store for you to pick up.
  • Collecting cash donations that you can use to buy content materials for the boxes that you will donate
    • Once you have identified your goals, it is in your best interest to solicit cash donations to help you fund the production of additional boxes. The following are ways that you can generate these donations:
      • HAH is a tax-exempt nonprofit organization and we can receive cash donations that are tax-deductible that we can route back to you for use in your initiative. Many people like to give tax-deductible contributions, particularly to an organization like HAH. You should make people aware that this is a nonprofit organization and that you can take tax-deductible donations that will be used in your city. All of the donations that are directed to HAH will be returned to you in full.
      • Another way to get cash donations is to use one of the popular fund-raising sites like Go Fund Me ( Our founder used that in the second year of operation and raised over $700 which allowed him to create another 140 boxes to give to the shelters.  A negative of these sites is that they charge a fee to use their website which is a % of donations. These can still be effective because you can reach people through Facebook posts, etc. that you would not have reached otherwise.
      • You should also identify businesses, like grocery stores and drug stores, that will support you with materials currently on their shelves or other things they may plan to throw away.
      • Finally, you can just get family, friends and neighbors to give you cash or gift cards to purchase content material.
  • At this point, you should start to identify content materials for your boxes and set a target acquisition price for content materials.
    • We think all of the boxes should have bottled water, socks and handwritten Valentine cards. We also like non-perishable snacks and breakfast foods as well as toiletries.  Specialty Valentine candies like Sweethearts are also appreciated. Many shelters will not allow clients to take certain things to their living quarters so you should get a sense of that when interviewing shelters.
    • Many people like to donate books so that can be an added component.
    • If you are making boxes particularly for children, you may want to include some types of toys. If you are making boxes particularly for adults, you may want to include some types of hygiene products.
    • In our initial campaigns in Atlanta, we set a price target of $5 for each box. That worked well for us and allowed us enough room to create some nice boxes.
    • You should try to buy materials in bulk. Costco was our favorite store and they also supported us with extra gift cards.
    • Finally, some volunteers have chosen to use plastic containers instead of shoe boxes. The advantage of this is that the containers can be used effectively by the persons receiving them. The disadvantage of this is the added cost although you may find some bargains. We are working to see if we can collaborate with a manufacturer to get these containers and make this a more viable option.

If you have accomplished all of this by Thanksgiving, you should start developing your execution and delivery plan. The following comments are worthy of review.

  • In our first two years, we delivered many of the boxes to the shelters by renting a U-Haul truck. We are moving to a model of having the volunteer groups deliver the boxes to the shelter; this solves logistic issues for you and allows the volunteers to experience the joy of giving the boxes away.
  • We generally give the boxes away over the weekend before Valentines Day. This works best logistically and gets more volunteers involved. Often, there are other weekend service opportunities with the homeless that are available for additional volunteer activity.
  • There are many people who just want to write cards and this is very helpful so please take advantage of these opportunities and encourage them.
  • You should look for publicity opportunities through neighborhood and city media outlets. If you are successful, there may be schools or business organizations that will want you to speak to their members about your efforts. These speaking engagements are important to publicize the HAH website and any personal cash donation opportunities. You should work with Atlanta HAH to set up other media opportunities like Instagram. Having a photographer for the weekend is really helpful.


Strategies that apply only for groups

·        Points of entry. Most organizations like schools and churches have designated people in charge of community service projects. It is very important that you get to that person as they will have primary influence on the decision to allow HAH as a designated program. Fortunately, we have found that they like the idea of a Valentines Day project as the second half of the school year s starting and there are not a lot of natural community service projects at that time. You need to get with them as soon as possible because they like to have things planned well for the year. We would suggest August to late September as the window to establish contact and get the program approved.

o   We like finding students with initiative and entrepreneurial energy to be actively involved int eh project although an enthusiastic teacher who is an advocate can work wonders. These enthusiastic students, if it is not you, can be a great advocate to the key person in the organization making decisions.

·        Student and parent activists. If this group is your school or church group, you should leverage your friendships and recruit them to be vocal activists for the campaign. They can host smaller home parties where students can make boxes and cards.

·        Types of student activities to support the HAH initiative. We have noticed that the types of activities will vary significantly from pre-school age students to high schoolers.  The following are types of activities that we have seen work effectively:

o   “Bucks for boxes” was developed by one student for his middle school and it was effective. This was a campaign for students to bring empty shoe boxes to school with $5 in the box. A smaller group of students the used the funds to buy supplies and build their own boxes. They funded over 200 boxes with the donations. This strategy can work well in high schools also.

o   “Content competition” was used in one middle school that had pre-assigned teams for other campus activity. The team that brought the most content for the boxes won a special award for their success (this could be a pizza party, a casual day at school, etc.).

o   The pre-school and elementary schoolers are particularly excited about making boxes so you should give great focus to those type groups. Older groups require more creativity like the strategies mentioned previous.

  There are plenty of additional things that come to mind when starting this campaign but this should get you started. You will not regret creating a campaign, whether you do it yourself or though some group. It will use the very best of your drive and natural entrepreneurial energy while allowing you to help others and deliver a special gift on the weekend of love, Valentines Day. We wish you much success and are waiting to share our knowledge with you. You can reach Charles Plyler at (cell # 404-998-9730) or David Plyler at (cell# 404-441-2630)