Fifteen years ago, Darell Hammond, a 24-year-old college dropout who was raised in group home outside of Chicago, had an idea. He wanted to build playgrounds for kids who needed a place to play. He started with a playground in southeast Washington, D.C., raising money from the Home Depot Foundation and others to pay for the job, and assembling a group of volunteers to do the work. Then he built another. And another. Since then, KaBOOM!, the nonprofit that he started in 1996 (again with help from Home Depot, which remains a supporter to this day), has built 1,800 playgrounds across America, more than anyone. Lately KaBOOM! has done something even more unusual–it upended its business model, and decided to share everything it has learned about play and playgrounds, which happens to be quite a lot, with the rest of the world.
“We decided to open-source our model online,” Darell told me recently, when we met in the group’s playful surroundings–toys are scattered everywhere–on Connecticut Avenue in northwest Washington. “We realized we were a drop in the bucket, when compared to the demand.”
I’d run across Darell now and then over the years, but we’d never sat down to talk until then. He’s an impressive guy and, more importantly, he has built an impressive and deep organization. KaBOOM! brought in about $21 million in revenues last year, and it has a staff of about 75 people, including former senior executives from Ben & Jerry’s, U.S. Food Service, and Discovery Communications’ Animal Planet. More important, KABOOM! built 162 playgrounds last year, and mustered 40,880 volunteers to do so.
In every case, people from the neighborhood where the playground is located play get deeply involved in planning and building it. Typically, they spend three months planning and designing the space, involving kids and adults, before as few as 200 and as many as 1,200 people gather to construct the playground in a single day. “Organized chaos,” Darell calls it. What happens next matters, too: Neighorbood groups often build a second playground, or organize a crime-watch group, or lobby a city for better services.
“Right from the building, we weren’t just about building playgrounds,” Darell says. “We were about building community. We use the playground as a mechanism to build social capital. It’s Trojan Horse.” (His thinking around empowering communities was influenced by studies he did with the Asset-Based Community Development Institute at Northwestern Univeristy, which has studied KaBOOM!)
You probably don’t need to be persuaded that America needs more playgrounds. As KaBOOM! explains:
Play is on the decline throughout America. Not enough playspaces are being built, and those that exist are often in disrepair. Fears surrounding lawsuits and safety are trumping common sense, resulting in sterile, uninspired play environments. Recess is being eliminated from our nation’s schools. Kids are overscheduled, and in their free time, many choose to stay indoors, lulled by television, computers and video games.
But until I sat down with Darell, I didn’t realize how much demand there is for the work done by KaBOOM! The organization got about 14,000 requests — 14,000! — for playgrounds last year. Most came from individual parents or kids, but many came from community groups, schools, PTAs, churches or businesses with the capacity to get the job done. Kaboom built hundreds of playgrounds; thousands were needed.
This is where KaBOOM!’s new model came into play. Back in 2004, Darell was preparing to get married when he came upon The Wedding Channel, a compendium of resources about weddings. Why, he wondered, couldn’t KaBOOM! do something similar for playgrounds?
According to the Monitor Institute, which produced a report about KaBOOM! (available here), the nonprofit had already “documented and codified its building processes, published handbooks and developed in-person training sessions for local leaders.” Hammond had seen Meetup help people organize themselves, and he admired the open-source software movement. But KaBOOM! was taking the Web 2.0 to the next level, he explained:
We saw no examples of nonprofits using online platforms to empower people to self-organize around the nonprofit’s own model for community change. But to us, it felt like the natural next step.
To get the project going, Darell managed to raise $6 million from the Omidyar Network, a “philanthropic investment firm” that is market-friendly and all about empowering individuals. Early results of the open-source model are very promising. Last year, for instance, KaBOOM! says it provided help online that helped get 1,800 playgrounds, much of it practical advice about things like vendors of playground. Omidyar has given another $9 million to KaBOOM!
Besides going open-source, KaBOOM! has been going green, Darell told me. The group wants to build playgrounds with “less equipment and more nature,” in part because that’s what research shows kids enjoy. They did one playground in Hawaii with no equipment at all. “Everything on the property was native from Hawaii, and reclaimed instead of new,” he said.
Without corporate support, KaBOOM! would be nowhere. The Home Depot Foundation has been its best ally, giving a total of about $55 million. Other corporate funders include Kraft, 24-Hour Fitness, Foresters (a Canadian insurance company), Huggies, JetBlue, KoolAid, Mutual of Omaha and MetLife, the NBA, Nestle and Giant/Stop & Shop. Businesses typically pay all the costs of building a playground, and KaBOOM! manages the project and engages the neighborhood.
This weekend, on the 5th anniversary of Hurricana Katrina, KaBOOM! will build its 135th and 136th playgrounds in the gulf since the storms. Its funders there include Jim and Donna Barksdale, The Home Depot Foundation and Marriott International, which has worked with KaBOOM! before. Joe Blanchek, general manager of the New Orleans Marriott convention center, told me by email:
I truly enjoyed watching the children show their creativity by drawing their dream playground. There is a lot of excitement in the room when the kids get out the crayons and start “designing”….Then [building the playground] is truly a rewarding experience for all. It is great to have the children watch you with wide eyes as they see their future playground coming together!
Darell will be there, of course; he gets to about one playground build per month, but he takes even greater satisfaction in knowing that more work than ever is getting done without him. “We want to go further and faster,” he said.
Here’s a cool time-lapse video of KaBOOM! and Marriott, building a playground in New Orleans. Enjoy!