Giving to Get?

March 14, 2013 § 13 Comments


Kalingalinga Sunset

Being in Africa and working in the NGO world has awoken me to the realities of development work. The truth is that the work is inexplicably tied to the money. It costs money to feed orphans and take care of vulnerable children (speaking of which, have you SPONSORED A CHILD yet?). It costs money to build schools and provide supplies so that children can learn and teachers can have a salary. It costs money to buy medicines and supplies for the sick.

In addition to private or public funds, this has caused many organizations to start income generating activities. An example would be local Africans who make jewelry, clothes, or purses and attempt to sell them in order to gain a profit. Most of the times, these items are marketed towards Westerners to purchase. The items are either sold in country and marketed to tourists or shipped out and sold in America or other developed nations.

Another recent trend has been TOMS shoes. If you have been living in a cave somewhere, the idea is that for every pair of shoes you buy, TOMS shoes gives one to a needy person in a developing nation. They have become extremely trendy items, especially for the younger crowd. People seem to love it, “I look cute/trendy/hipster-ish and I’m helping a needy child!”


Sunset over Lusaka

The question about whether or not this is an efficient way to help the poor is a different subject. My question to us as the “donors” (or should I say “consumers”) is: should we be giving our money to get something in return?

If I have $60 to spend, is it the best use of my money to buy a pair of TOMS shoes (which range from around $50 to $100)? If you do actually need shoes, you can probably get a decent pair of shoes for much less (likely under $40 retail, and if you shop at a thrift store even less). The same amount of money could be used much more effectively but the donor wouldn’t have the cute footwear item to show for it.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There are some non-profits who are doing great work and helping needy people through selling items to the West. I applaud them for their attempt to help need people who need it.

My questions to us as NGO workers is:

Is it right to be marketing to Western consumerism (i.e. greed) in order to fund development work?


Is it brilliant?


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§ 13 Responses to Giving to Get?

  • This is an excellent post and I’ve thought about this, quite a bit. It’s similar to when the church aligns itself with a star, be it a sports star or a Christian actor or something. I’ve questioned the morality of that, as well. And I still, well, I still just don’t know…

    • Oh, do I have some thoughts on churches aligning themselves with celebrities. Whatever happened to leading and serving the LEAST of these? Those who don’t have a voice, or nice outfit, or worldly power and influence?

      But that’s a post for another day.

  • maryaplotkin says:

    Hi Laura, thanks for posing this question. It is indeed valid. I think that consumerism is so deeply embedded in most people’s lives (and values) in the ‘developed world’ that it is a fight not worth fighting to move people away from it. If some funds are generated as a result of the consumer lifestyle, I have no problem with that. (We are probably getting some Toms shoes in TZ and I know that will make kids a lot happier than the development seminars and trainings that we usually spend money on!) What is more insidious is big corporations who are generally doing things very socially disruptive (ie oil companies, mining companies) who throw a little money into social responsibility ventures so that they can continue or expand their activities. Those ones I think we should stand up and shout about!

    • There are some big companies acting wrongly – however, if they want to give to social ventures, isn’t that something we should encourage? That actually seems like more of a possible long term solution.

  • Chris Kreft says:

    Great questions, Laura! This is something I’ve given a lot of thought to, and while I haven’t come up with “the answer” yet, here’s my take on it.

    Revenue generation for NGOs/nonprofits can come either in the form of gifts or in the form of normal economic profits through sale of products or services. The problem with gifts/donations is that it is very difficult to sustain. Unless you have a large, wealthy donor base who are committed to regular giving, it becomes difficult to sustain work over the long term. The problem with the sale of goods or services is that it detracts from the mission and goals of the NGO in order to raise money. Not only does this mean that the NGO may be less effective in their work as they spend much time on revenue generation, but it also means their products and services may be of a lower quality than those of organizations who are not distracted by humanitarian mission (meaning the products NGOs produce may be less desirable to a consumer).

    Personally, I think the best way for an NGO to be effective is to form a partnership with a wealthy for-profit organization that is looking to improve its image or give back to the community in some way. The for-profit can focus on revenue generation (which is more stable and sustainable) while the NGO can focus on its true mission. The problem is that there are so many NGOs (because there are so many needs) and not enough wealthy partners. That problem won’t get solved until there is a cultural shift in the mentality of leaders of wealthy organizations. I think that shift is slowly happening (at least in the US), but there’s a long way to go yet.

    As far as the individual level goes, I would say that anything helps, because there’s so much need. I think most people who buy products from an NGO recognize the humanitarian value they are providing by doing so. So hopefully people will donate and purchase products all with the aim of helping out an NGO in need. I think an even bigger role for individuals to play is to pressure those in charge of their companies to support non-profits.

    Love reading your blog. Look forward to hearing more!

    • That is a great point, Chris! The trick then is to find businesses that do truly want to help and can make a good partnership with your organization. Know of any that would want to partner with Special Hope Network?? 😉

  • suburbanlife says:

    You raise some important issues here. I have been involved in raising funds locally for a charitable organization that helps grandmothers and children affected by the AIDS epidemic in Africa. As I see it, our activities, while raising needed funds, are merely an attempt to plug with our fingers a tide which threatens to inundate. The causes of such a tide are complex – responding to effects only tends to blind us to the root problems which have caused the difficulty in the first place and more importantly busies us too much to make effective structural changes in our collective behaviours and beliefs. Purchasing a trinket made by women in Africa may momentarily make me feel as if my purchase might provide money for installation of a water-purifying system in a village, however having thus acted so “charitably” I may no longer feel obliged to give the situation further thought or attention, and merely carry on my life blithely as if having discharged personal responsibility now frees me from any further concern. Momentarily feeling good seems to absolve one from living and acting in a sensible and sustainable manner.

    • Yes! I think you hit the nail on the head. I don’t want products marketed to people to feel like they did a “little good” and then ignore the greater problem and need that is poverty.

  • Nicole W says:

    I really like this post! I wonder if there is any distinction to be made between different organizations though, or different kinds of spending?

    I really try to buy many of the things we need as local handmade or fair trade, not as my ” charity giving” but because of sourcing of the alternative products available. ie – I really wanted a small overnight/duffle bag to avoid hauling a suitcase on weekend trips. I put off buying a discount one knowing that those probably come from sweatshops. I finally found one at a fair trade event and we were willing to pay twice as much for it, knowing that the people who made it were making a living. In the same way, if I need something for our home or a gift I go to Ten Thousand Villages rather than Target. We are not huge consumers by American standards (still so by world standards, and that is a work in progress for us), but we do spend more than we need to on some items because of social justice issues. (Also, as an artist, I dream of a world when we can all just buy what we need from each other.) However, if the whole point is to show off your shoes or spend your charity budget on things you get in return, that’s where I have a problem. For me it is one part of a ideal lifestyle that embodies the gospel through overall generosity. Or, put it this way (even though I don’t like TOMS), I have a clothing budget and a giving budget and I would like both of those to reflect my values. My often-feeble attempts at generosity impact my consumer budget, but my consumerism does not sneak into my direct giving budget.

    Good conversation!

    • Yes, fair trade is another side of the coin. I know that I have often chosen the big store route to quickly, easily, and cheaply get what I want. But you’re right in that we do vote with our money and show our values. Small trade stores aren’t always available in Lusaka (we have a few large name stores run by Walmart and Woolworths) but you inspired me to re-evaluate how I shop and make good decisions when I can!

  • mrhugo2013 says:

    Very interesting point! I suppose its worth while if it’s actually improving peoples lives and contributing positively to development but it’s a great shame that western consumerism is the main channel of input. I think it’s just the reality of the world we live in today unfortunately. I hope things change for the better.

  • […] I loved hearing your unique perspectives and enjoyed the dialogue about the topic. Check it out HERE if you missed […]

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