For years, auto dealer Bill Kindle, 61, has used his private jet to fly cancer patients to treatment centers. He has donated Ford F-350 pickups to help rescue stranded dolphins and seals along the southern Jersey shore.
Kindle Auto Plaza in Cape May Court House, N.J., with a Ford-Lincoln and a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram store, has donated $150,000 annually to various community charities for years.
But it took Kindle's son, Steven's, initiative to turn his father's charitable impulse into a community fundraising powerhouse under the banner Kindle Community Challenge.
This year, for every car a customer buys, Kindle Auto Plaza is donating $30 to a local charity of the customer's choosing. For every repair order, the company donates $4. The two stores combined sell about 1,200 new and 1,000 used cars per year.
Kindle runs ads promoting the challenge, brought to you by your "Honest Neighbors." The ads briefly profile some of the charities in the program and mention Kindle Auto Plaza's support of them. Customers can learn more details at honestneighbors.org.
"My son came up with this idea that we give the money and involve the community in that. People just love it," says Kindle.
Steven Kindle, 29, says the customer input helps Kindle identify the charities that are important to the community.
"I love the campaign," he said. "It has turned our customers into advocates."
The New Jersey shore was battered by Hurricane Sandy in 2012. The area's primary industry -- tourism -- was devastated.
"You've seen traditional advertising where they're yelling, 'Buy now! We'll give you more money on your trade!'" says Steven Kindle. "I just didn't want to do that. Right now the community is hurting.
"We still do traditional co-op advertising. But I wanted to let people know we're not just car people. We're coaches for high school track teams, we're foster parents."
Some of the ads feature dealership employees, many of whom volunteer for local charities.
The Kindle Community Challenge works like this: After a customer buys a car or pays a repair bill, he or she will receive an Honest Neighbor Giveback Card ballot to designate a Cape May County charity from a list of more than 50. Alternatively, the customer can visit honestneighbors.org and make the selection there.
The charities include the Animal Alliance of Cape May County, the local Disabled American Veterans chapter, the Coalition Against Rape and Abuse, the Helen L. Diller Vacation Home for Blind Children and the Marine Mammal Stranding Center, which rescues stranded mammals such as dolphins and seals.
The challenge has raised $90,000 so far. Customers are invited to a big party Nov. 14 at which the Kindle Community Challenge will present checks to the charities. Steven Kindle expects a crowd of about 300. The Kindles organized the challenge in cooperation with Princeton Strategic Communications, a marketing communications firm in Trenton, N.J. The Kindles say they've learned a lot during this first year. They'll announce future Kindle Community Challenge plans at the party.
The Kindles say the challenge has helped attract customers from out of the area. Steven Kindle says one customer drove past two Chrysler dealerships before arriving at Kindle Auto Plaza. Another said she would suggest the Kindle concept to a dealership in her own community.
Steven Kindle says the charitable donation helps alleviate the pressure associated with selling a car: "It switches the high-stress situation into a feeling that a customer is able to give instead of just taking money from them."
Bill Elliott, chairman of the John R. Elliott Hero Campaign for Designated Drivers, says the generosity of Bill Kindle and his dealerships has benefited his charity to the tune of about $25,000 in recent years.
The charity is named for Elliott's son who was killed by a drunken driver in 2000 on his way home from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., for his mother's birthday. Elliott and Bill Kindle formed a bond because Kindle's older son, Bill, also was killed in a car accident about the same time.
Says Elliott: "He has empathy toward our cause because of the loss of a son. Our program addresses the issue of getting somebody home safely instead of saying, 'Don't drink and drive,' which people have heard a thousand times. We have basically labeled a designated driver as a hero."
Elliott credits Kindle's longtime support with helping the Hero Campaign grow from a local charity to a regional one stretching from New England to Kentucky. The Hero Campaign was even title sponsor of a NASCAR race: the John R. Elliott Hero Campaign 300 at Kentucky Speedway.
"Bill is the real deal. With an organization like ours, staying alive is one of our first challenges," Elliott says. "The fact we have grown and become as big as we are is due to the support of Bill Kindle."