17 April 2011 ~ 10 Comments

TOMS Shoes: An opportunity for “Bad Aid” to generate “GREAT Aid”

I have purposely stayed out of the “TOMS Shoes = Bad Aid” campaign that has been going on for the past few weeks and haven’t tweeted about it. It was not because I am not strongly opposed to aid which is about “giving things away”, as I clearly have learned from experience that that is an ineffective model but because I’ve learned through this blog that I need to be better at not just complaining about things and stamping out good intentions, but instead trying to find ways to harness them.

I have come to the realization that, although giving shoes away might be “bad aid” – Blake (the founder of TOMS Shoes) and the TOMS Shoes brand are in a unique position to generate PHENOMENALLY positive impacts now and through the efforts of the next generation. TOMS has opened a door and thousands of young Americans are lining up to walk through it (bare feet and all).

I wasn’t planning on discussing this yet, but then these two things happened:

a) Saundra and the Good Intentions are Not Enough team made this video as an anti-campaign to TOMS Shoes “A Day Without Shoes” called “A Day Without Dignity

b) I shared the video with some people I know who also care about the issue of fostering responsible development models among the next generation of development workers, and I was quoted in this blog.

So – now it looks like I should write about this, and I want to be clear about two things:

1) TOMS Shoes isn’t an aid organization, they are a shoe company, so I believe we can’t judge them as if they were an NGO. They are opening up a HUGE discussion about doing business better, they are getting kids across America to think about their purchasing differently, and they seem to be very motivated by good intentions.

2) TOMS Shoes is only relevant as a discussion point in this space of charity models based on “giving things away” because they have been SOOOOO successful in other ways: in their marketing and in their building of a movement. If they were a local shoe store giving away a thousand shoes a year then they would a) not have a big chance of destroying markets through their giving nor would they be a viable source of funding for more large-scale solutions such as building local shoe factories and b) they would not be responsible for indoctrinating such a large populations of American youth with a “giving” model of development work.

Because of TOMS overwhelming success as a brand, Blake is in a very unique position. He, along with other NGO marketing heroes, like Scott from charity:water, have a whole generation of budding young do-gooders drooling over their every word. This is a fabulous platform from which they are now uniquely able to spread education and learning. If they take this generation with them on a development learning journey, if they bring everyone along from the “giving things away” charity model to a model which a) takes in local needs/opinions/input b) requires local buy-in both in terms of strategy as well as funding c) develops and supports local markets rather than giving away products and d) talks about the complexity, flexibility, long-term commitment and investment in human capital (rather than just investment in goods) which it takes to create high impact development programs to even begin to reach some of the goals we see for our world, then they are going to be great heroes.

Failed models of unsustainable charity have been tried over and over again with little large-scale impact, but people don’t know much about it unless they are living it. Why? Because it’s not a closed feedback loop.

Have you ever bought a car? Or a house? When doing so, did you read what Toyota wrote about Toyotas and then go out and buy a Toyota? No! You read that, plus you asked a lot of other people, people who owned them and could tell you if they were good or not, or you read reviews from people who had done the same. If you made a mistake and bought the wrong car, then you knew it a few weeks later when you were already bringing it into the shop to get fixed. You would have been mad at yourself for doing poor research and investing in the wrong thing and then when it came time for your next purchase, you would have done much more research and follow up to prevent making the same mistake.

It is VERY rare that we get a closed feedback loop in our donating. We might talk to other DONORS who have given, but if you have given to a charity researching cancer solutions, have you had a chance to talk to scientists working on the project to see how they think they are progressing? Have you talked to other scientists from a third party who are educated enough on the work to be able to share their findings? If you have written a check to Greg Mortenson’s project, which is getting destroyed on “60 Minutes” tonight for corruption it seems, were you able to speak with people in Pakistan to know a) if the school was wanted b) if it was built well c) if the money was used properly, etc? No…. and so if you DID invest in the wrong thing, it is very likely that you don’t know it. If you did, of course you would change. But since you don’t know, and it’s nicer to feel good about our donations than bad about them, it is rare that we try to really dig deep and find out how the aid work we support could be improved.

We know that we can’t keep giving things away – and that the people who need those things would be better off if they were able to bring in income to have excess funding to purchase those things themselves and decide how best to allocate their resources to support their families rather than waiting for us to give them the things we think they should prioritize.

I came to this stance having giving a lot of things away myself: t-shirts and toothbrushes to kids in the Philippines, volunteer trips throughout Asia, and most recently schools in Cambodia through an organization I started called PEPY. But, we realized we were making a mistake by giving things (schools, books, uniforms, supplies, etc) away. We realized two important things: 1) that schools don’t teach kids – people do and 2) that we would one day be leaving, and if we were, than our inputs needed to create impacts which would continue to bear fruit long after we left.

I had the closed feedback loop most people don’t get to have as I saw the impact of the work we were doing day to day, yet this learning curve still took me the last 5.5 years of living in Cambodia to achieve. I could have done things MUCH more effectively if I had known about failed development efforts and more responsible solutions which had been tried before me.

There is a whole generation of young people out there primed and ready to go out into the world and “help” and we can help THEM be more effective by pointing them in the right direction. Ideally, they could all have a conversation with someone like Ivan Illich, but since that might not be possible, they can learn from those people they are already idealizing and following.

So, Blake and Scott and now Adam (from the speedily growing Pencils of Promise) and the inspired and inspiring Sean from (Falling Whistles) – you hold the keys today. You have the keys to the hearts, brains, and future actions of a whole generation of American youth looking to do good with their money, their time, and their futures. Let’s take them on a path where they are inspired to invest in people – invest TIME in people – and by that I mean give people the skills, connections, capabilities, ideas, and opportunities to solve their OWN problems, set their own goals, and fulfill their own needs. By showing America’s youth a way to positively impact the world through investing in the skill development of others, by taking them with you on your learning curve, and by continuing to rock your marketing so that you can reach more and more people with these messages, you will help prevent some of them from making the same mistakes so many of us made before them. YOU have the ability to speak to this generation and help them to use their power, influence, dollars, and votes to empower, rather than hinder, the communities and markets of the world. We’re all cheering for you to use your exceptional influence to make this generation get the learning curve faster. Close the feedback loop for them.

…and let us know how we can help! The development bloggers (myself included) need to throw out a hand and collaborate. We should all be reaching for the same goal. Let’s find a way to get there together – using your marketing genius and engaged following and the lessons learned from development successes and failures to empower today’s youth to make the changes our generations before them have failed to do!

  • Gabrielle

    Great points. And I think it is most important for us to point out what CAN be done and to encourage these founders to take hold of the power they have to influence the masses. Thumbs up.nnI’d like to hear your thoughts specifically on Pencils of Promise actually. I know you’re on your flight now; if you have time, shoot me an email? I don’t know much about them though I’ve skimmed through their website, but I recently met someone who is on their leadership team. They seem to have the right approach though in investing in people…but of course, this is just based on a few lines I’ve read on their website.

  • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom Murphy

    Nice post Daniela. I poked around to learn more about POP, turns out that I went to high school with one of the board members. I had no idea.

  • Justin Bedard

    Brillant post D. Awesome read.

  • http://www.goworks.org Bart

    Thank you for the wonderful post, in particular this sentence: Let’s take them on a path where they are inspired to invest in people – invest TIME in people – and by that I mean give people the skills, connections, capabilities, ideas, and opportunities to solve their OWN problems, set their own goals, and fulfill their own needs. At Groundwork Opportunities, this is exactly what we do under the motto “The Power of Their Ideas and Our Support”. Please check out our site and I would keen to hear your thoughts about our approach to facilitating long term economic growth in the developing world. http://www.goworks.org

  • Mkjenson

    Excellent post. I run a small giving circle of women committed to helping the needy through Christian organizations (many of which are hurting now). I first went into this wanting to go into a village and “take care of” all the needs, from water, to schools, to food, to churches, to clothing. You name it, I wanted to provide it. THEN I read When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert and learned how easy it is, from our western point of view, to want to fix things but to end up instead ruining entire economic systems, and completely trampling over the dignity of these human beings, just like us only poor. What an eye-opener.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Bart- Thanks for the link and the thoughts. The thing I find most tricky is finding ways to support changes in issues we see now, but not funding it all or doing it all from the outside, even if the idea was local. This is most difficult for us in our work in Cambodia when the change requires an investment in a thing (a building, a piece of infrastructure, etc). That said, I appreciated a talk I saw this week by Kevin Starr (not the same talk, but another on by him is here: http://www.good.is/post/how-not-to-save-the-world-or-why-the-lifestraw-is-a-stupid-idea/ ) where he talked about subsidizing change (another summary of his thoughts: http://www.good.is/post/eight-word-mission-statements-and-other-ways-the-mulago-foundation-obsesses-over-social-impact-measurement/ ). I hope you find these interesting too!

  • Anonymous

    It is great that you went out to educate yourself on these issues. I think most of us could use reminders about what works!

  • Emma

    This is a great way to view “bad aid”- as a potential way to provide “good aid.” I support what TOMS does as a business, but I think it could do so much more by really investing in entire communities over time rather than a few kids for as long as their shoes last. I recently became involved in the Fair Trade movement and would love to see TOMS support it rather than employing the use of exploited labor in China. They have enough support and momentum from a whole generation to leave a lasting impact on communities around the world.

  • Elliot

    I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you so much for your insight. I am part of that generation that is seeking to help others… I long to have something more than just an office job. I’m currently in the process of trying to create a business in Panama where I did mission work and I want to do something that can help to stabilize their economy, while at the same time teaching them how to do it themselves. I have my idea, but it is still pretty vague and I have lots of research to do, but this was incredibly helpful! Thank you :)