Toyota had a tough year in 2010. Recalls of several of its cars for acceleration issues left the company's public image a little bruised.
Meanwhile, nonprofit organizations all over the country were hurting, too. Charitable giving had dipped in both of the previous years, though it did tick back up a bit in 2010 itself. A lot of those organizations, such as, say, a soup kitchen that couldn't pick up donations because it had no van, could have used something to drive around.
The folks at Toyota knew this and realized they had the means to fill the need and boost the company's image. So in March 2011, the automaker launched 100 Cars for Good, a Facebook program in which visitors could vote each day for 100 days for one of five charities to get a free car.
The program is back this year, running through Aug. 21, and it's only drawing more attention.
A history of giving
Charity is nothing new to Toyota, says Michael Rouse, the company's vice president of diversity, philanthropy, and community affairs. It's been giving to organizations in need since the mid-1980s, he says. Since 1991, the year the company started tracking its various arms' charitable giving, it has exceeded $550 million total in philanthropy, he says.
A lot of that giving didn't really happen in the public eye, though.
"The philosophy of all of that has always been that we don't want to spend a lot of money talking about what we do, we'd rather take the money we have available and do good things with it," Rouse says.
After the 2010 recalls, the company's upper management wanted to burnish Toyota's image as a corporate citizen, so Rouse and his team looked to other campaigns, particularly Pepsi's Refresh Project, which offered $20 million in grants to organizations with ideas to help communities.
"We did not have that kind of a budget," Rouse says. "We were sitting in a meeting racking our brains about what to do and how to do it, so I said, 'We don't have so many dollars to give away, but we're a car company. One thing we do have is cars.'"
Organizations often ask Toyota for help in that department, he says. School districts might raffle off cars to raise money, for instance. Nonprofit organizations need vehicles, generally trucks or vans, for their work. Others ask for hybrids to help with environmental causes.
Rouse presented the idea of giving cars to nonprofit organizations—for their use, not to be raffled off—to Toyota's U.S. Philanthropy Committee, which approves or rejects all such national program proposals, and was told to go for it.
"When we presented it to top management, there was a lot of enthusiasm about it," he says. "It made the Toyota car or truck the star of the show."
The go-ahead came in September 2010, which meant Rouse's team, Toyota's affiliate companies, advertising agency Saatchi and Saatchi, and other partners such as Creative Zing, only had a few months to hammer out all the details.
Toyota determined pretty quickly that all the donations should go to organizations rather than needy individuals. There would just be too many entries, Rouse says.
"We would need a whole floor full of people to deal with the requests," he says. "One thing we can do is provide assistance to organizations that help those people."
The group also settled pretty fast on the place to set up the program: Facebook. Rouse and the others knew users were going to vote on the winners, and they wanted to thwart cheaters.
"It's a little harder to game the system when votes are only coming through one portal," he says.
The ad agency, Saatchi and Saatchi, did the creative work on the Facebook app while Creative Zing worked on rules and methods to ensure winners really were who they said they were.
The period for organizations to apply—with a video, written information, and a plea for why they needed the car—lasted two weeks in March in each of the last two years. In 2011, Toyota got about 2,400 applications. This year, the number exceeded 4,200.
Rouse says interest really grew after organizations discovered that they really could win a car after last year's competition. "In the interim, there were charities that were contacting us, trying to figure out more information from us, when we were going to do it again," he says.
A third-party group of philanthropy and corporate responsibility experts whittled the number of applicants to 500 finalists. Toyota was looking for a diverse group of organizations, Rouse says. The company wanted entries from each state, representing organizations of different sizes and missions. That's what Toyota instructed the committee of experts to look for, he says.
When it comes to the voting itself, Rouse says Toyota tries to keep it as fair as possible. Organizations go up only against others of similar size, and the order of the candidates is random.
For the 500 finalists, the rewards of participating in 100 Cars for Good are more than the chance to win a car. They each get an HD video camera, $250 in Facebook ad credit, and a kit of sample tweets and press releases. Organizations that don't win a car get $1,000.
Last year, one organization that came in second place in one day's voting, Greater Phoenix Youth at Rix, sent an email to its community laying out all the benefits from being in the program. It increased visibility, made staff more fluent in social media, and inspired teamwork.
"I shared that with all our executives at a meeting, because I was just so moved," Rouse says. "There's a whole set of side benefits that go way beyond the vehicle."
For Toyota itself, the program means a lot more visibility for its philanthropic efforts. Nearly 27,000 people have viewed the video explaining this year's 100 Cars for Good program, and the company's Facebook posts about the program routinely get hundreds of "likes."
The company's trying to get everyone involved, too. Last year, "everywhere possible, we delivered vehicles at a Toyota dealership," Rouse says. "It opened up a relationship."
At one event in St. Louis, it meant even more philanthropy. The dealer there gave each local charity that won a car an additional $5,000.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.