Do TOMS shoes—and all donations of goods—hurt the poor more than they help? One expert weighs in.
Melissa Kushner is the founder and Executive Director of Goods for Good, a nonprofit organization matching surplus goods with the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. She works with TOMS to distribute their buy-one-give-one shoes to 40,000 children in Malawi, East Africa.
By popularizing the buy-one-give-one model, brands like TOMS (shoes and now eyeglasses) and Warby Parker (eyeglasses) have put themselves at the center of a debate within the foreign aid community. In fact, the broader topic of distributing goods in developing countries at all has become a juicy one, and for good reason: material support can do as much harm as it can good. But it doesn’t have to.
Some people flat-out oppose the practice, claiming that donations displace local enterprise and create dependence. While such claims are not unfounded, they are a bit myopic.
After eight years of learning how to best provide goods to those in need, I can safely say that shoes, fabric, school materials as well as other necessities like eyeglasses can have a lasting impact, even after they wear out.
Goods provision can be right and when it is, it has far-reaching benefits. For example: Goods for Good has witnessed a 25 percent increase in school attendance by providing students and teachers with re-purposed educational supplies and trained over 200 vulnerable people in the marketable skill of tailoring who in turn created over 24,000 school uniforms for orphans and vulnerable children, based on the gift of surplus fabric.
Goods donations are worthwhile when they:
Good intentions are not enough; in fact, they achieve nothing on their own.
So how can companies like TOMS—or anyone trying to do good with goods—make a lasting difference? Here’s a short list of my most important lessons learned after nearly a decade of trying, testing and tweaking our methods at Goods for Good.
The Good Alone is Not Good Enough; It Must Be the Means to a Bigger End
Our research showed that many children in Malawi are not attending school because they can’t afford required uniforms.
By providing a uniform to a child, we are also enabling education. Each additional day, month and year spent in school has a lasting benefit. In fact, a South African study proved that one way to reduce pregnancies and delay early marriage—an endemic problem in Malawi as well—is to provide school uniforms to young girls.
Leverage the Good
Each uniform can do even more. By working with communities, Goods for Good observed that missing uniforms weren’t the only problem of course, the reason children couldn’t afford uniforms was because many parents had no income. Instead of providing finished uniforms directly to the children, we provided raw fabric to the community to fully leverage the good, allowing us to address both problems. Through their own initiative, local tailors organize vocational tailoring courses for guardians of schoolchildren and they create uniforms for younger orphans in the community.
Work With Local Institutions
There is a big difference between a well-intentioned tourist giving a child a pair of shoes and a teacher providing required school shoes to her student.
The tourist can see that the child is barefoot and needs shoes. The teacher on the other hand knows that the child requires black shoes to attend school as well as de-worming tablets to cure the existing parasitic infections. The teacher also knows that this particular girl has two other orphaned siblings at home who also need shoes and other methods of support.
When materials are provided in partnership with trusted community members, such as a teacher or local community group leader, that person knows best who to give the goods to, and why they need them. They can also help to make sure the shoes, or glasses or anything else don’t go to waste.
Use the Good to Support Local Initiatives, Not Replace Them
The Malawian government provides notebooks and de-worming tablets to schoolchildren. While these are both worthwhile interventions, their impact falls short without complementary support. That’s a great scenario when goods donation works. What good is a notebook to a child who cannot write in it because she has no pen? Likewise, how effective is a de-worming tablet to a child who has no shoes to protect him from future hookworm infections?
Goods for Good helps to enhance these initiatives by distributing pens in conjunction with the government’s notebooks and TOMS along with the Ministry of Health’s de-worming program. By coupling interventions, both parties are more effectively meeting the common goal of caring for children in need.
Goods for Good has applied these principles to our partnership with TOMS and others like it, and it's paying off. School materials, TOMS and a uniform were the catalyst for 14 year-old Assamu Danda to re-enroll in school; excess fabric has enabled guardian Manesi Abel to start her own tailoring business, and surplus administrative materials and tailoring inputs have enabled community leader Christopher Goma to increase the number of orphans his group supports.
Partnerships between TOMS, Goods for Good, and local organizations in Malawi prove that giving goods can be done right, and when it is, buy-one-get-one products, in-kind donations, and other materials, have the power to transform lives.