Darell Hammond was a college student when he built his first playground. Within a few years he had helped create KaBOOM!, which since its establishment in 1995 has built or renovated more than thirteen hundred public playgrounds, skate parks, and sports fields in the United States. Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Hammond about the organization's evolution, its efforts to build a hundred new playgrounds in the Gulf Coast region, and why healthy, sustainable play spaces for kids should be considered a necessity rather than a luxury.
Philanthropy News Digest: When you created KaBOOM! in 1995, there weren't many groups like it. To what do you attribute the organization's success?
Darell Hammond: Our fundamental premise is that individuals and communities can discover their own voice and power when they come together and do something. And because kids need places to play, you can solve both problems at the same time. Organizationally, I think we succeeded in part because we were slow and deliberate about building our product, our processes, and our people, rather than concentrating on our marketing and communications. We set out to build a smart process and product first, while other people did our marketing and communications for us. We've always felt like we were behind the curve in telling our story but ahead of the curve in developing our product.
PND: Was that by design or did it just kind of happen that way?
DH: I was twenty-four when I founded KaBOOM! and was flying by the seat of my pants, so not a lot of stuff initially was by design. There was a lot of intentionality in what we did, but it wasn't strategic; we had an end point in mind and we were making decisions to get us there.
PND: Tell me about the Rally Strategy.
DH: Rally, which is brand new for KaBOOM!, is a public movement to build support for play. It's about building a sustainable, local movement and infrastructure which demonstrates that play is important. We know where the play opportunities are for kids, and we're going to advocate for a legislative plan of action to improve the conditions that obstruct those opportunities as well as a plan to measure the gap between quality and distance. Last year, the first year for the initiative, we recognized thirty-one communities across the country that are making commitments to make play an important component and priority in their communities. But we need to do more. People are beginning to see that play is important to success in school and in fighting the obesity epidemic. They're beginning to see that it is an old-fashioned solution to a host of modern-day problems. But the thing we've got to do is turn interest into action, and Rally is the action we're asking people to take.
PND: While you've received a lot of support from corporate funders, you haven't had as much success getting grants from foundations. What have been the chief obstacles to KaBOOM! getting more foundation support?
DH: We recently reached the $100-million-raised benchmark and are tremendously excited about that. Yes, most of that has come from a corporate fee-for-service model. But we didn't start out that way; it's another thing we kind of fell into. When we started KaBOOM!, we thought the dollars would come from philanthropic sources — the foundations of the world. I still remember a meeting with one foundation officer in which, as the meeting was coming to a close, she patted me on the head and said, "At the end of the day, it's just a playground." The implication was that compared to hunger, homelessness, or AIDS, playgrounds just weren't that important. That really struck a chord with me.
Where we were having success, however, was with communities and corporations that were trying to bring their employees together in team-building events. Not community affair events, initially, but just team-building events. So we slowed down in order to move faster, if you will, and built a product based on a fee-for-service model for corporations working side-by-side with communities to design, plan, and construct places where kids could play. We were very intentional about that. Corporations would tell us we did a good job, they wanted to do it again, but there were things we needed to fix. So we kept working on fixing the things that needed work, instead of trying to grow before we were ready to grow. And today we're quite proud of the fact that many of our corporations have been with us for six or seven years. They are the biggest advocates and marketers of what we do, because we do what we say we will do.
Now, while we were focusing on that strategy, we weren't particularly looking for foundation funds. There's a whole process involved in that in which you have to map your strategies against their strategies, and we were too busy with other things to focus on that. But as we embark on this next iteration of programs — for which we hope to raise $100 million in three years — we're meeting with a lot of foundations for the first time. It's almost like we're starting over, in that we have to learn who they are and how to speak their language. I met with a program officer just this afternoon who said, "I've known KaBOOM! since you first got started, but I never knew what you actually do." In a sense, we're re-introducing ourselves to the foundation community.
PND: After Hurricane Katrina, you partnered with a lot of organizations in the Gulf Coast region with the goal of building a hundred playgrounds. Where does that effort stand, and why do you think it's important given all the other challenges the region faces?
DH: It's a good question. After the storm, I remember going down there and questioning whether we should be building playgrounds when there were so many other immediate needs in the region. But, you know, whenever I said what I could offer was a playground, nobody ever said no. So we committed to building just one playground. And a little more than one hundred days after Katrina, on December 17, we were ready to open that playground in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. It was a week before Christmas, and people kept telling us, "Yeah, but it's Christmas, everyone is shopping, nobody's going to show up, they're going to be busy getting ready for the holidays." Well, people couldn't have been more wrong. Six hundred and fifty people showed up. Afterward, we were told that people drove from New Orleans, from Alabama, and from points in between to see this playground because it was the first permanent structure along the Gulf Coast to be built or rebuilt. And that's when everything shifted for me; that's when I really, truly realized that play is not a luxury, it's a necessity. And when done right, it can have a multiplier effect in communities.
You know, I was just down there recently and a business had put an ad in the local paper advertising the fact that it was two blocks from a KaBOOM! playground. I look at that and am just thrilled to see that KaBOOM! has become synonymous with joy and excitement. So far, we've completed seventy-nine playgrounds in the region, at a cost of $7.2 million, and we're well on our way to meeting our goal of a hundred. But more work needs to be done, and we won't stop until we've met the demand in the region for our product, which means we'll be down there for a long time to come.
— Matt Sinclair