J. Jill Uses Donor Advised Fund for Charitable Giving

There are two things J. Jill executives understand about the women who buy their apparel: They are philanthropic and “they want to align themselves with a brand that stands for more than just providing clothing,” says Chris Gayton, senior director of brand marketing.

That’s why, for the past 11 years, J. Jill has given away more than $3 million in grants to organizations across the country that help women in need of education, job skills and housing. “Philanthropic initiatives are in our brand’s DNA, and they are in our brand’s DNA because they are in our customers’ DNA” says Gayton. “Our customer is a woman who leads a rich, full life. She values time with her family and friends. She gives back.”

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The Quincy-based retailer makes grants through its Compassion Fund, a Donor Advised Fund at the Boston Foundation. “In order for us to make it work and to cover the whole geography of where we do business, it made sense for us to partner with the Foundation,” Mr. Gayton explains, noting that the expertise provided by the Foundation and its operating unit, The Philanthropic Initiative (TPI), help them think strategically, keep grant making aligned with mission and make grants with ease.

While some companies establish private foundations to do their charitable giving, J. Jill decided in 2002 to establish a Donor Advised Fund instead because it was a simple, easy way to accomplish its goals.

J. Jill, which now has more than 225 stores nationwide, opened its fund with a $100,000 corporate contribution and immediately tapped into the Boston Foundation’s expertise by asking it to develop a list of charities it might support in Massachusetts and other locations where it had stores. The company wanted to partner with nonprofits that were helping women transform their lives, and the Boston Foundation was able to connect with community foundations across the country to help the firm find organizations it could support with confidence in all of its markets and locations.

Last year, J. Jill retained TPI to take a look at its philanthropic strategy and to further align it with the Compassion Fund’s mission and J. Jill’s corporate goals, help grantees have a greater impact on the women they serve and administer the newly designed grants process. The timing happened to coincide with the retailer’s new brand platform, “Uncomplicate,” which is J. Jill’s way of saying “trust us to take care of what you wear, so you can focus on the things in life that are most important to you,” says Gayton. 

That theme also helped to guide TPI’s work, says Lisa Spalding, one of the philanthropic advisors at TPI who worked with J. Jill. “Our goal was to ‘uncomplicate’ the Compassion Fund. We helped them recalibrate their strategy to align more closely with corporate goals and make a greater impact in the community.” As a result, the company will be making larger grants to fewer organizations and will concentrate its grant making in eight key markets.

J. Jill wants to have productive, long-term relationships with its charitable partners, collaborating with them on events and communications, says Gayton. “We want to give exposure to our partners and the work they’re doing. The Compassion Fund is really our way of supporting the communities where we do business – we are honored to give to these organizations that help women in need.”

This December, the company will donate five percent of the value of all gift cards sold to the Compassion Fund or to the charity of the customer’s choice, a move that could generate hundreds of thousands of dollars for charity, says Gayton, noting that “It’s the gift that gives back.”