Laura Fruitman and Kris Kepler
Published 2 years ago.
About a 8 minute read.
Mobile shower pioneer LavaMae^x^ and Unilever brand The Right to Shower have built a partnership that’s given more than 38,000 unhoused people dignity, hope and a fresh sense of opportunity.
Did you take a shower today? Anytime this week? Imagine if you couldn’t. What
would that feel like? How would it affect your self-perception and the way
you’re able to move in the world?
Doniece Sandoval and Laura Fruitman each undertook that act of
empathy and felt compelled to act on it — Sandoval by creating the nonprofit
LavaMae^x^ to bring mobile showers and other essential
care services to the streets, where unhoused people need them most; and Fruitman
by founding The Right to Shower, a
Unilever brand that donates a portion of its profits to mobile shower providers.
Their shared conviction that hygiene is a human right, along with their
determination to restore it to people experiencing homelessness, led to a
cross-sector partnership that has brought a fresh sense of opportunity to
communities across the US.
In 2013, Doniece Sandoval had three experiences that compelled her to open her
eyes and truly see the homelessness crisis on San Francisco’s streets,
culminating with the one that showed her how she could help. Walking in the
design district, Sandoval passed a young woman who was panhandling.
“She was distraught, disheveled, and she kept saying over and over that she
would never be clean. While I knew her words probably meant many things, I got
curious about what her chances were of getting physically clean.”
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Not good, it turned out. Sandoval learned that the city had only 16 public
shower stalls for about 7,000 unhoused people. She also found out that the city
transit agency was retiring old buses. Bells went off in her head, and she
decided she would convert the buses into well-stocked, thoughtfully designed
mobile shower and toilet facilities. Barely a year later, Lava Mae (now
LavaMae^x^) began taking showers to the streets.
Across the country in New York City, I couldn’t shake an experience from the
early 2000s, when I regularly chatted with an unhoused man I saw in my
neighborhood. I was touched — and troubled — when he told me I was the only
person who ever talked to him.
Years later, while working as a senior executive on Unilever’s Dove brand, I
saw Doniece Sandoval’s TEDx talk
about launching Lava Mae. Inspired, I pitched Unilever on creating a
purpose-built, natural soap and body wash brand that would dedicate 30 percent
of its profits to expanding access to showers. I built The Right to Shower as an
Entrepreneur in Residence at Unilever, launching the line in April 2019 with
four fragrances — each named for an emotion I wanted to evoke in users: Joy,
Strength, Hope and Dignity.
The belief that access to cleanliness is a fundamental human right — and
contributes to restoring health and dignity for unhoused people — is embedded in
The Right to Shower; and while developing the brand, I sought partners who could
make that belief a reality on the streets. I reached out to Doniece in 2018, and
The Right to Shower launched with LavaMae^x^ as a key mission partner. As a social
enterprise, The Right to Shower provides funding as well as products for shower
initiatives; LavaMae^x^ draws on its expertise to advise the brand and to
identify, vet and recommend projects for The Right to Shower to fund.
The partnership came at a pivotal moment for LavaMae^x^. Responding to demand
from around the
the team had already begun piloting a shift away from acting primarily as a
direct service provider toward working primarily as a consultant that teaches
social entrepreneurs and community groups to bring LavaMae^x^-designed mobile
showers and other essential care services to their own streets.
The relationship with The Right to Shower accelerated the pivot’s proof of
concept. I (then senior direct of programs and impact) stewarded the
partnership; and when the nonprofit rebranded in January 2020 as LavaMae^x^ — for
exponential growth and impact acceleration — I took over as CEO and led the team
in its shift to wider impact. LavaMae^x^ now works with startup service providers
LavaMae^x^ Connect platform and one-on-one consulting, and
provides seed funding via The Right to Shower grants to providers that are ready
LavaMae^x^ has directly trained and helped launch 33 service providers since the
pilot phase of the consulting program began in 2018. 20 of these US-based
providers received seed funding through the partnership with The Right to
Shower; and collectively, they’ve provided more than 82,400 showers across 37
communities alongside 3,250 volunteers.
This seed funding, typically about $10,000 per project, has an outsize impact.
Most recipients use the money to buy or build out a shower trailer, and it’s
often the difference between starting service or stalling out.
“This funding was essential to our program,” says Ricka Davis-Sheard,
founder of Share
in Antioch, Calif. “We are a small, grassroots organization; and funding
from The Right to Shower spring-boarded us forward to be able to offer over 100
showers a month to those in need. Much of our support comes from small donors,
so this infusion of capital put us on a healthy track.”
With launch costs for mobile showers ranging from $55,000 to $85,000,
depending on the size of the trailer, a $10,000 matching grant from The Right
to Shower through LavaMae^x^ is often the last piece a provider needs to bring
care services to the street. Grants in successive years allow providers to
expand service to new locations.
“We were able to purchase two shower trailers with the seed funding through
LavaMae^x^ and The Right to Shower — one for Bangor, where the members of the
Brick Church have been providing outreach services to homeless residents for
years and are thrilled to be able to offer a hot shower; and a second shower for
the Disabled American Veterans of Massachusetts. This is part of a concerted
effort to reach out to homeless veterans and help to transition them off the
streets,” reports Peter Kelleher, founder of Support the
Soupman in Bangor, Maine — which also sells
The Right to Shower products on its website.
The partnership also helped LavaMae^x^ increase its training, advising and
resource offerings during the pandemic — work that included designing and
deploying a do-it-yourself handwashing station for communities that lack access
to running water. Currently, the organization is consulting with nearly 70
fledgling providers, and more than 884 people — from 381 cities in 22 countries
— are active members on its Connect platform.
A successful corporate-nonprofit partnership is not only about money; it’s
rooted in a deep level of mission alignment, mutual respect, and willingness and
ability to contribute to each other’s objectives. This foundation sets up the
partners to take a one-team approach and build a relationship that’s durable
enough to produce ongoing impact.
The Right to Shower and LavaMae^x^ collaborate on both service expansion and
marketing opportunities. LavaMae^x^ collects impact data and stories; and The
Right to Shower spreads them on its communication channels to show the value of
a shower in restoring unhoused people’s hope and dignity. The brand hired a
former LavaMae^x^ employee to help lead social media, and her voice has lent
authenticity to the corporate message.
The partners also work together on high-profile campaigns around events such as
Homelessness Awareness Month and World Water Day; and during the
COVID-19 pandemic, The Right to Shower led six Unilever brands in donating
products that LavaMae^x^ and its provider network incorporated into hygiene
kits for unhoused
And the funding, of course, is important. As the impact data above illustrates,
the ability to provide grants over multiple years has significantly extended the
The combination of funding and advising that the LavaMae^x^ and The Right to
Shower partnership provides has dramatically accelerated social entrepreneurs’
ability to bring their services to the streets, where unhoused people need them
most, and to deliver those services with Radical Hospitality — the LavaMae^x^
ethos of meeting people wherever they are with extraordinary care.
More cross-sector partnerships like this are needed, not only to serve unhoused
people living on city streets, but also to care for the growing number of people
displaced by extreme weather events and the long-term effects of climate change.
All these people need showers and more — LavaMae^x^ is also training providers to
deliver one of its newer concepts, Pop-Up Care
Villages: a multiple-provider service model where
guests can get haircuts, medical care, legal advice, employment assistance and
other free services in addition to showers.
The village approach is the way to marshal a community’s resources for maximum
effect and make displaced people — whatever the reason for their situation —
feel connected to others and cared for. As we discovered during the pandemic,
that’s a feeling we all need; and any collaboration that can generate it is well
worth the effort.
Published Nov 2, 2021 8am EDT / 5am PDT / 12pm GMT / 1pm CET
Laura Fruitman is co-founder and general manager of The Right to Shower — a
personal-care brand that offers high-quality, ethically made, head-to-toe
cleansers and commits 30 percent of profits to mobile shower initiatives that
help people experiencing homelessness.
Kris Kepler is CEO of LavaMaex — a nonprofit accelerator that transforms the way communities around the world see and serve their unhoused neighbors. @lavamaex