EVOLUTION: The Closing of ScholarShop

Faith SandlerCommunity, Giving, Impact, Words of Faith

black and white photo of Dorthy Pelton and Evelyn Newman

From left: Dorothy Pelton and Evelyn Newman

On the day ScholarShop began its closeout month, The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis received a grant from the Eric P. and Evelyn E. NewmanFoundation that was twice the size of their recent annual grants. A letter from Trustee Andy Newman read, “The excellence of The Scholarship Foundation continues to enhance our community in many ways, and we are pleased to support the fine work you do”. Andy couldn’t have known the exact timing of the closure, but he does know plenty about the founding of ScholarShop and its remarkable 57 years of fundraising for area students. After all, it was his mother’s idea (and Evelyn Newman was the source of many good ideas) in 1960 that started this social enterprise long before anyone had coined the term. And it was Eric Newman who led the process of securing the Clayton Road location of ScholarShop in the late 1980s.

It takes much more than a good idea or an apt term to build a business like ScholarShop. For its first 30 years, ScholarShop was managed and staffed entirely by a corps of dedicated volunteers, supervised by volunteer chairpersons. The longest serving chair was a woman who rarely sat down. Miriam Goldman often worked seven days a week to prepare merchandise, ready the sales floor, and balance the books. She gave 18 years of nonstop service, free of charge and full of strength.

When I arrived as the Foundation’s first Executive Director in 1989, I was told not to concern myself with ScholarShop but to focus instead on finding students who needed all the money that was being raised. And for several years, my primary role was to facilitate the annual transfer of the “big check” (mounted on a huge board) rightly boasting the total proceeds.

ScholarShop did not stay stagnant. Key to its success: a prominent location on Clayton Road was purchased and renovated extensively three times. Adjacent to the region’s then-most successful and expanding shopping mall, ScholarShop was increasingly visible, and the parking lot always full. With expanded public exposure came the need for professional management, a tough but important transition for the organization.

When Roxanne O’Connor came on board as ScholarShop Manager in 1998, she unknowingly followed in Miriam Goldman’s footsteps, giving much more than was expected and taking to heart the notion that the sole purpose of ScholarShop was to raise funds for students. Staff and volunteers were loyal and true, and it took a massive team to keep pace with the donations and the demand. Shopping and wearing resale became trendy. Simultaneously, recycling and repurposing was increasingly the norm, so that donations to ScholarShop grew exponentially in volume. Under the leadership of Deputy Director Kim Abel, ScholarShop adapted to conditions by automating, opening a second location, improving efficiency of donation processing, and paying constant attention to the customer experience.  ScholarShop was the “gold standard” of nonprofit resale, regularly contacted for counsel and often imitated.

Most importantly, at its peak ScholarShop raised $1.5 million annually for area students. For each customer who could name the perfect Chanel suit or Brooks Brothers blue blazer acquired on the sales floor, there were ten students whose interest-free loans were fueled by sales proceeds. For five decades, it was the perfect recipe, with ingredients altered to meet then-current tastes.

By 2012, though, the climate around ScholarShop had changed significantly. Just a partial list reveals the challenges: a glut of low-cost and low-quality textiles providing price competition and huge increases in unsaleable donations; numerous smaller resale apparel businesses opening and closing in the region; a reduction in available volunteers for the type of work ScholarShop needed; accelerating downturns in retail nationwide; and shopping habits turning from bricks and mortar to online purchase.

A few years later, the board of directors of The Scholarship Foundation faced a very difficult decision.  After ten months of deep study, and several years of piloting a variety of strategies to boost net revenue, ScholarShop appeared to be headed to a flat line, if not a loss, by the close of 2018. In spite of all the ingenuity and hours of hard work on the part of so many, by the start of fall semester 2016 we found ourselves turning away 77 qualified students in order to account for the revenue shortfalls of ScholarShop. Our board faced a straightforward decision. Would we sustain ScholarShop at the possible risk of current and future students, or change course?

The board’s deep discussion and courageous vote in September 2016 continued ScholarShop’s position as trendsetter. Now, instead of inquiries about inventory processing or sales strategies, The Scholarship Foundation is receiving calls from nonprofit leadership and academia asking for information on the decision-making process and the sustainability plans adopted. Donors are responding with renewed commitment to the mission and an immediate acknowledgment of “students first.” By the time ScholarShop closes its doors on July 3, its customers, staff, and volunteers will have had 8 months to prepare and plan for the change.

Change is always a tangle of loss and opportunity. No matter the logic or the data, the closing of ScholarShop is sad. The store is fun. The volunteers are remarkable. The staff has been heroic. How will we ever feel good again about filling our closets? How will we ever feel good again about emptying them? ScholarShop has an energy and a spirit of adventure that St. Louis has supported mightily. Every day, folks from all walks of life found treasure together on our sales floor. We will miss them and they will miss each other. That’s loss.

Yet, The Scholarship Foundation is no stranger to opportunity. When Evelyn Newman launched the idea of ScholarShop in 1960, no one could have known over the ensuing 57 years how many students would find in its proceeds a path to their dreams. Now, in 2017, we are poised and preparing for the next era of The Scholarship Foundation, working our way toward 100 years of service to the students of the St. Louis region in 2020.

Watch for us. We will be asking for your continued and increased support for students who have everything it takes to succeed except the financial resources to enroll. Our mission is to bolster democracy and build community by extending educational opportunity. And that is exactly what we will do.

– Faith Sandler