Giving Back: A Personal Connection to Charity
Sheila G. Mains and her team use their successful Brownie Brittle line to help build awareness and raise funds for pediatric cancer research.
Two weeks before her stepson Scott passed away from a rare pediatric cancer at age 34 in 2012, Sheila G. Mains, founder and CEO of Brownie Brittle LLC, remembers, “We were in the emergency room and he asked, ‘If I were to have lived, would there have been a place in the company for me?’”
A month after his death, she traveled to New York City to participate in her first bake sale for Cookies for Kids’ Cancer, and when she arrived, her team already had pictures of Scott all over their table. “I thought, [he is] working with me,” says Mains.
Connecting with Cookies for Kids’ Cancer
Since 1992, Mains has been making and selling innovative brownie products to restaurants, club stores, and theme parks. In 2011 she launched Brownie Brittle, and the crunchy snack has landed in tens of thousands of stores in the U.S., Canada, China, Korea, Australia, and the Caribbean.
On the day they were moving her stepson into hospice care, she received an email asking her to participate in a bake sale to benefit pediatric cancer. “I don’t believe in coincidences,” says Mains. She responded to the public relations person—who knew only that Mains made delicious brownie brittle and might be interested in helping—and told him Scott’s story. “It was the first time in months that my feeling of helplessness passed,” she says.
At that first sale in New York City, they raised $30,000. She had never been to Manhattan but when she arrived she met Gretchen Witt, who lost her son Liam at age six to pediatric cancer and founded Cookies for Kids’ Cancer in 2008 with her husband Liam. “We hugged and cried, sharing what no two mothers ever want to share.”
Scott had Ewing Carcinoma, a rare cancer for adolescents and adults to get. “The problem is there’s not enough research dollars going toward this type of cancer because it’s so rare in adults. Less that 4 percent of money raised nationally for cancer research goes toward pediatric cancer research,” says Mains. Yet, 14,000 kids are diagnosed annually. “It’s not just about the cure. It’s about better treatment. The treatments are barbaric for children because they’re meant for adults,” she continues.
The Witts pledged to support the development of more effective, less harmful treatments by giving people a simple way to get involved—bake sales. To date, the foundation has granted nearly $4 million to research.
Getting the Word Out
In 2012, Mains began organizing bake sales in her home base of West Palm Beach, Florida. Since then, Brownie Brittles’ big bake sale occurs every September, coinciding with Pediatric Cancer Awareness Month. This year, Jacqueline’s Gourmet Cookies in Salem, Massachusetts, also a CFKC partner, donated 25 cases of frozen dough to Brownie Brittle’s sale. “We paid the freight and they sent the product.”
Mains aggressively markets the events with social media promotions and flyers. “I do talks about pediatric cancer research two to three times per month, and I’m always sure to shout out about the sale.” It pays off. In one day, they made $8,000 for the charity.
The bake sales for CFKC are continuing to grow in number and often they are sparked by a personal connection to pediatric cancer, as was the case with the Mains. When a child is diagnosed with cancer, everyone around the child wants to help. Someone, often a member of the hospital staff, will talk about the work the charity is doing, and soon enough family friends are sponsoring bake sales themselves.
CFKC also relies on social and digital media to spread the word. “They don’t have a lot of money to spend since it all goes toward funding the grants,” says Mains, who contributes to the charity in additional ways: Each package of Brownie Brittle has a Cookies for Kids’ Cancer logo on the back and a portion of the proceeds from each sale is donated to the organization.
To be a successful partner with a charity, “there has to be a personal connection,” says Mains. “You have to feel good about it and make sure everyone is on board, ready to roll up their sleeves and raise money. It takes up our employees’ entire weekend to bake cookies.” She recommends everyone on staff weigh in on the choice of charity because it is important they feel connected.
Mains and two other employees work directly with CFKC throughout the year. “It doesn’t end up taking a lot of time,” she says. Her advice: “Giving back doesn’t have to be on a national level; it can be regional or local. Just give back to the community to get your feet wet. See how your team reacts.”
Mains also does a sizable amount of other local charitable work. She donates product to Palm Beach County Food Bank and this past summer, she contributed to a local children’s camp where each child received a one-ounce package of brittle in his or her lunchbox most days.
“We also opened up a community closet in a socio-economically needy school,” she adds. Parents can walk into the school and talk to a staff member about their needs. “If she or he can’t afford a uniform, or has four kids and is washing the uniforms every night, they can get additional new uniforms. Every year, we make sure it’s fully stocked.”
Impact of the Partnership
Mains says that the move toward the charitable work has created a business culture where “everyone is aware that we’re in it for more than dollars and cents. It brings everyone together. This brand is more than just a product—it has a heart and soul. Everyone who knows the story feels a connection to Scott.”
What she likes about partnering with CFKC is they don’t require partners to contribute a specific amount each year. “They’re aware that every little bit helps and they know awareness is so important,” she says. “Fortunately, we can give substantially now that the company has grown, but at first we just did what we could.” To date, they have donated $200,000.
Success Means More Dollars for Research
The company’s work with CFKC also helps motivate them to always be growing the brand. Brownie Brittle is available in chocolate chip, toffee crunch, mint chocolate chip, salted caramel, and peanut butter chip, and the product has received numerous accolades. Among these are Self magazine’s Healthy Food Award and being selected in Oprah.com’s “7 Fabulous Finds.”
The most popular Brownie Brittle flavors currently are chocolate chip and salted caramel brittle. “We launched peanut butter chocolate chip on the West Coast recently and will move it across the country,” Mains says. To get consumers excited about new flavors, she focused on a social and digital media blitz. “We created quite a frenzy about the new flavor. We tracked the shipments, telling people where they were and when they’d arrive.”
Through Pinterest, she posts recipes and has 1,400 followers; 7,946 fans on Instagram; 24,800 followers on Twitter; and 300,000 Facebook fans. Mains has a dedicated staff member for social and digital media, “but I do a lot of my own,” she says. “I think it’s nice to have a personality attached to a brand. I love getting tweets and emails from our followers.”
With other flavors coming down the pipeline and the upcoming launch of an organic line, Mains works hard to keep her customer base excited.
“We will continue our effort with CFKC, and we want to do more every year. It’s two part: raising awareness and raising funds for research,” she says. “Every time someone turns over a Brownie Brittle bag, sees the CFKC logo, and goes to the website, we’ve done our job and the organization is going to benefit.”
Through her loss, Mains has found a way to stay connected to her stepson. But she also understands that “giving back is the best thing anyone can do for themselves, the business, and the charity they choose.”
Denise Shoukas is a contributing editor to Specialty Food Magazine.
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