I was a kid who did not grow up volunteering and therefore was not able to really make a positive impact until later in life. Now, I’m on a mission to encourage young people to volunteer so they can start to make a positive impact on our society much earlier on. The power of volunteering is real. As a young person, it will allow you to feel a sense of connectedness to something beyond just yourselves, and it will allow you to feel good about the practice of giving back. I’m also a firm believer that volunteer service is a critical training tool in building kindness and empathy.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lynn Margherio, Founder and CEO of Cradles to Crayons. 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, and Philadelphia which provides children facing the challenges of poverty with everyday essentials — including new or like-new clothing, shoes, winter coats, backpacks, and school supplies. To date, the organization has served nearly two million children.
In an effort to address the national crisis of children’s clothing insecurity, Lynn launched Cradles to Crayons in 2002. Since that time, she has led the organization to not only successfully fulfill the needs of millions of children, but in doing so, offer meaningful volunteer experiences to people of all ages and backgrounds, engaging more than two million adult and youth volunteers including children as young as five years old.
In her role as CEO, Lynn directs all aspects of the organization. She has built a highly successful product, volunteer, and marketing partnerships with multinational corporations, major league sports teams, foundations, and philanthropies. Her governance experience includes significant collaboration with boards of directors — recruiting and developing both national and local boards of directors of high-profile business and civic leaders.
Among many accomplishments, Lynn has led multiple successful capital campaigns, raising millions of dollars to fund expansion, and has steered Cradles to Crayons through major relocations and organizational restructurings. She tripled the reach of the organization by launching operations in major cities (Chicago and Philadelphia) with New York scheduled as its next location — all part of a national expansion campaign to serve the more than 22 million children across the U.S. who are clothing insecure. For these efforts, the organization has been recognized in the top 2% of charities nationwide for overall operational excellence, receiving Charity Navigator’s highest (4-star) rating every year since 2008.
As an industry thought leader and advocate, Lynn’s work has been recognized with numerous awards including the National Committee on Child Labor — Lewis Hine Professional Service Award; the Boston Celtics — Heroes Among Us Award; the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce — Pinnacle Award for Achievement in Nonprofit Management; the Women of the Harvard Club Leadership Committee — Boston’s Most Influential Women Honoree; the Boston Business Journal — Extraordinary Community Leader; Bank of America — Neighborhood Builder Award; Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts — Community Partner of the Year Award; Georgetown University Entrepreneurship Alliance — Excellence Award for Best Social Impact and Facing History and Ourselves — Upstander Award.
Prior to launching Cradles to Crayons, Lynn served as Executive Vice President of the Clinton Foundation where she led international health care and policy teams working in regions across the globe. Other roles included serving as a Vice President for SJS, director of the Emerging Digital Economy Report at the U.S. Department of Commerce, and working in strategy for IKEA. Earlier, she had served as a senior policy advisor on the White House Domestic Policy Council during the Clinton Administration. Lynn began her career as a business strategy consultant for Telesis and Towers Perrin, advising Fortune 500 corporations on competitive positioning, market analysis, and growth strategies.
A graduate of Georgetown University, Lynn also completed the Strategic Perspectives in Nonprofit Management program at Harvard Business School. A frequent speaker, Lynn has presented to numerous organizations and in a variety of settings. She delivered a well-received TEDX talk titled: Building an Army of Empathy. She has also appeared in the media including television, radio, and print.
With service on numerous boards and in advisory roles, Lynn is a former advisory council member for Citizens Bank, a member of the UMass Boston Center for Social Policy Leadership Council, and a member of the Women’s Network Advisory Board for the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. She is currently a member of the Massachusetts Women’s Forum and serves as a judge for Mass Challenge.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Lynn! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
I grew up in a very civic-minded family. Every year when I was young, my siblings and I volunteered at the Festival of Trees, an annual charity event that my mom helped run for the Detroit Children’s Hospital. I remember always feeling that even though I was just a kid, I had an important role to play; that feeling of giving back is pretty powerful.
Ironically enough, I didn’t do much volunteering as I graduated into my teen years and beyond, aside from one experience in high school, and that was to fulfill a service requirement. That’s one of the reasons that now I’m on a mission to encourage more young adults to volunteer. It’s a vital part of our communities and ourselves.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I love books, so it’s really hard to pick just one. Something that recently struck me was a TED talk called “The Danger of a Single Story” that was introduced to me by my 12-year-old daughter after she watched it in school. Her curriculum is focused on Africa and its history and she is learning how to question stereotypes, probe assumptions, and analyze history from the perspective of who is “telling the story.” This is very different from how Eurocentric and selective history was taught when I was in sixth grade, and it’s critical to understand all the different perspectives to build a more complete and accurate story. History can be so specific based on who is and isn’t included — and that can build a lot of bias. Learning and considering the full scope of the story is foundational for social justice.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?
Absolutely. I lead an organization called Cradles to Crayons. We are a national nonprofit with operations in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia and we provide children facing poverty with everyday essentials — including new or gently used clothing, shoes, winter coats, backpacks, and school supplies.
We are working to address the issue of clothing insecurity, which is often overlooked but critically important. The United States government safety net programs only minimally support the basic needs of food, housing, and energy — and only a handful have clothing allowances that are inadequate at best. So, while some children are struggling through their childhoods for not having the “right” clothing, 22 million of them may have no clothing at all. This clothing insecurity crisis, made worse by economic inequality and underscored by technology-driven social dynamics, is at the center of our mission. We work closely with communities to collect new or nearly new children’s items to be distributed to other children in the community through a collaborative network of service partners in the form of “KidPacks”. Through this process we have been able to serve nearly two million children — a figure that I am incredibly proud of, but also reflects the massive deficits in our country’s resource support.
However, in light of the COVID-19 crisis, Cradles to Crayons recognizes that the word “essential” is being redefined with parents out of work and tasked with caring for and educating their children at home. Moments like this have uncovered an entirely new list of essential needs and challenges — both for those already struggling with poverty and for those who may be facing these challenges for the first time.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we saw that as an organization, we were uniquely positioned, operationally, to respond to a crisis like this. With on-the-ground resources in Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia, we are working with partners in local communities to make sure people can easily access the essentials through our Emergency Essentials Fund. And these essentials are not just a “nice-to-have” — they are a basic need. From making sure the family up the street has enough diapers and wipes for their newborn child, to giving soap, shampoo and even basic school supplies to parents facing financial uncertainty, we are leveraging the resources we typically use to provide children living in homeless or low-income situations with the essential items they need to survive and thrive.
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. We just don’t get up and do it. But you did. Was there an “Ah-Ha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
Yes, it was almost 20 years ago. I’ve always been civic-minded, but there was one day in particular that provided an “Aha Moment” for me to step up and do more. I was helping my niece get dressed and as I was taking things out of her drawers — clothes that she had outgrown already, yet still had tags on them — it occurred to me that she was growing so fast that there were now a lot of things in her world that she was no longer using. This included books she hadn’t read, toys she never played with and clothes she’d never worn. I didn’t have kids of my own at the time, so that’s why this moment really struck me. I had a background in management consulting, specifically looking at issues of supply and demand, so I started to imagine other closets, other drawers, and other playrooms much like my niece’s, across the country. It clicked right away. I saw a supply and demand problem that I thought I could help solve: putting those items that were no longer being used into the hands of children who could really use them.
After this, I determined that the issue was too important not to tackle. I made the decision to leave my job in management consulting and start Cradles to Crayons. And I haven’t looked back since!
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
We have so many great stories. Our recipient families are incredibly important to us, and we have built a strong network of donors and recipients.
One family in particular always stands out to me, and that’s an amazing woman named Cibele and her 8-year-old daughter, GiGi. Cibele and GiGi have moved through six shelters in Boston over the course of a year-and-a-half. In December 2016, they discovered Cradles to Crayons, and how we were able to offer support to them, like providing GiGi with a warm winter coat, snow boots, and warm socks to help her brave the harsh Boston winters. This story just speaks to the heart of our mission: Every child deserves to be warm and safe during the winter months. We believe that quality equals dignity and by providing a child in need with high-quality clothing and resources, we are equipping them with the dignity to succeed.
Are there three things that the community can do to help you in your great work?
That’s a great question!
In addition to encouraging people to donate new and like-new children’s items, we also encourage communities to take advantage of volunteer opportunities at our Giving Factory, where we mobilize more than 70,000 volunteers each year to participate in hands-on processing of the children’s items that are donated to us on a regular basis. Each station in our warehouse includes inspecting, sorting, and packaging donations so that they are ready for distribution to the children we serve.
However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our Giving Factory is unfortunately closed for volunteering and we are not accepting donations for new items. We hope that will change soon, so please continue to visit our website to learn more. We look forward to seeing you there in the future! In the meantime, keep an eye on our Boston, Chicago, and Philadelphia social media channels for updates — this unprecedented time has called for us to innovate new ways for engagement to ensure we can continue to expand our work.
Immediately, the best way to support our mission is through donations to our Emergency Essentials Fund or other monetary donations of any amount. This will allow us to continue leveraging our logistics expertise and bulk purchasing power to serve thousands of families in need.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
To me, you can’t be an effective leader without empathy, or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
This has been critical to my job as the CEO of Cradles to Crayons, both in how I advance the mission of the organization and create an engaging and diverse culture for the people who are a part of everything we do. I need to be able to fully understand the challenges that families and children may be facing in order to deliver impactful solutions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Ask for help.
- Get comfortable being on stage. As a founder or leader of any organization, you need to inspire (people with) your vision. What’s the big picture? Paint it. Lead toward that big goal. Take your audience with you on that journey.
- Build and nurture your relationships. It’s all about the people. People make things happen. Teams, boards, volunteers, friends, family. You need all of them.
- “Sleep on it” — reflection and downtime are key. Before plowing ahead with a new idea, addressing a conflict, making a difficult decision, or any other decisions of significance: Give it time to simmer.
- Make time for yourself (and encourage your team to do the same). Self-care is crucial. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of “you”.
If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
I was a kid who did not grow up volunteering and therefore was not able to really make a positive impact until later in life. Now, I’m on a mission to encourage young people to volunteer so they can start to make a positive impact on our society much earlier on.
The power of volunteering is real. As a young person, it will allow you to feel a sense of connectedness to something beyond just yourselves, and it will allow you to feel good about the practice of giving back. I’m also a firm believer that volunteer service is a critical training tool in building kindness and empathy.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I actually have two. “Everybody can be great because everyone can serve,” from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better, it’s not,” from Dr. Seuss. Both speak to the inherent empathy we are all born with. Just like anything that atrophies with time if not used, our empathy muscle needs to be continually flexed to keep it strong and engaged. Making service accessible to everyone helps bring us all together to continue to spread empathy throughout our lives and amongst ourselves.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Hands down, John Krasinski! Of course, I love “The Office,” but his “Some Good News” show was really a gift to getting through these dark and uncertain times. Also, he was born in Brighton (where our Massachusetts Giving Factory was located for eight years), and he grew up in Newton (where our current Massachusetts Giving Factory is) so it’s only fitting that our moves follow his. (We’d love to have you visit sometime, John!)
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!