This post was originally published as a guest blog on the Good Intentions web site.
The aid community has been having a healthy debate about whether gifts-in-kind (GIK) othertimes called SWEDOW (stuff we don’t want) donations are a good or bad thing. The most recent spark to the flame occurred in February 2011 when t-shirts declaring the Pittsburgh Steelers the 2010 Super Bowl Champs were donated by the NFL to World Vision International for distribution in Zambia, Romania, Nicaragua, and Romania. (follow @GoodIntents or @texasinafrica on Twitter, for the low-down)
Critics argue that these kinds of giveaways harm poor communities more than they help because they flood the markets with free goods which underprice clothing and thereby put local tailors, dressmakers or small clothing companies out of business.
But are all clothing donation programs created equal?
As an advisor to Ashoka, I was invited to meet Anshu Gupta at a coffee shop here in Singapore to learn more about this fellow’s work. He’s polite and a bit reserved until he starts talking about Goonj, the organization he founded in 1999. Goonj, which serves 21 states in India, receives donated clothing, largely from upper and middle class Indians, and then using hundreds of trained local volunteers, cleans and distributes that clothing to Indians too poor to afford even basic clothing.
But the process is far from simple. Middle class women in Mumbai donate jeans. Rural women in Tamilnadu don’t wear jeans. They wear saris. And they might not wear saris made of the same cloth that women from Delhi might donate. So Goonj volunteers have a highly developed cataloging system that allows them to identify, separate and group clothing according to where the recipients can actually use it. In addition, recipients engage in neighborhood-building work in exchange for clothing. Goonj’s community organizers have developed a variety of means of helping communities help themselves using this recycled resource as an incentive, commodity, and exchange.
Goonj sees its mission as giving people clothing to help them move toward self-esteem, skills building and self-sufficiency. So the right clothing exchanged for work or expertise in a respectful way, is critical to the model.
So I’m so impressed with Goonj and I’m asking myself how is this charitable clothing donation different than the process employed by some large aid organizations? Seems to me there are a few key points of what makes Goonj effective:
1) Locally driven.
2) Culturally respectful.
3) Organized around the needs of the recipients, not the needs of the donors.
4) Fueled by creative re-use. Their newest initiative is using clean, recycled cloth scraps to make locally produced sanitary pads for poor women. A real public health and sustainability breakthrough.
5) And it recognizes that poor communities are looking to build markets of exchange and value, not destroy them. Those who extend the life of resource are performing an important function in the community’s ecosystem, they are not passive recipients.
When I met him, Anshu was asking for assistance in further developing his business model, training other NGOs to replicate the Goonj program, and seeking experienced volunteers to document and write case studies about their work. He was actively seeking support and critique. I was stopped in my tracks by World Vision’s statement that it has never evaluated their gifts-in-kind programs because “they are gifts, not programs.” Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement that it’s still blowing my mind.
My point here is not to denigrate or bestow sainthood on any organization. World Vision is full of smart and dedicated people, so I have no doubt the organization will change and grow, as will Goonj.
But this discussion encourages us all to respond energetically to our charitable impulses, while also being open to learning when those impulses might need refining in order to be responsive to community needs. There is no shame in having an idea or program that needs improvement. The shame is in being too close-minded to make the improvements.
As we were parting Anshu summed it up perfectly when he said, the problem with most programs is that “we always give what we have, not what people need.”
Please share your ideas for how we might be able to change that.
This piece is my first post for the Center for Effective Philanthropy as a guest blogger. The Center for Effective Philanthropy (www.effectivephilanthropy.org) provides foundations with comparative data to enable higher performance. Over the years, CEPs surveys of grantees has changed the way the foundations I have worked at have operated. And CEP provides benchmarking that helped us compare ourselves to similar foundations and to our own performance over time. Despite my move to Singapore, I continue to sit on CEPs board. These blogs will be a few of my thoughts on philanthropy, NGOs, aid, Asia and effectiveness.
When I was fresh-faced and just starting to work in philanthropy at a woman-focused community foundation, I made lists. I would write down the problem or issue I wanted to tackle, then make a list of reasonable solutions. For example:
- Make it a crime
- Lock up the criminals
- Get women legal services for safety & to pay for the divorce
- Provide counseling for the kids
- Get mom a job
Then I would look at the money I had available (never enough) and divide it equally among each of the reasonable solutions. Confident I was doing all I could to address the problem of family violence, I talked earnestly with the board of directors about the importance of our “multi-faceted” approach. (now, that word looks quaint, but trust me you used it a lot in the 80s too).
Next, I would turn to the giant map of Los Angeles we’d hung on the wall and divided into what we called neighborhoods, but which were really more economic descriptors than geographic locations—South Central LA (Compton but not Ladera), Westside (Venice, but not Santa Monica), Hollywood (but not West Hollywood).
We would push pins into the places where we made grants—red for violence prevention, blue for economic development, green for arts, etc.—and we aimed to distribute those pins fairly and evenly from the San Bernardino mountains to the shining sea.
I did due diligence – financial assessments and site visits – on every organization that received a grant. We gave project but not general operating support. And we considered ourselves partners with the groups we funded.
And that’s how we did it.
This was what we called our strategy if someone had asked us that question, which really no one ever did. Far more frequently, what people wanted to know was “why should I give to a women’s foundation?”
Why I could talk about passionately:
– Because the status of women is a barometer of equality in any society
–Because if women flex our giving muscles to demand that solutions have a gender lens we will develop better solutions
– Because women are the backbone of financial decisions in most families and communities
– Because well-educated women give a lot more of their joint wealth to their husbands’ alma maters than they do their own
– Because sisters are doin’ it for ourselves.
The list went on and on.
At the core of the answers to “why?” was a belief that women didn’t want to be saved. Women wanted tools to make good decisions for themselves and their families. Women wanted the opportunity for hard work to result in something more than 63 cents on the dollar.
And that belief saved us from ourselves. It put us in partnership with the (mostly) women’s organizations we funded. Over the years, those partner nonprofits joined our grantmaking committee and our board of directors. They challenged our approach—why not general operating support? They challenged our funding partners—can Virginia Slims buy a table at an event? Uh, no. Their staff members wrote checks contributing their hard-earned dollars to the Women’s Foundation* because they felt like we were all part of the movement. And they helped us to understand how to prioritize “solutions” by telling us which ones mattered most in which communities, which ones were dead wrong in others, and how to add ones we’d never thought of ourselves.
We practiced an early form, I think, of what Peggy Saika recently called “democratic philanthropy.” Now not every foundation is willing or able to be as fully participatory, but it makes a huge difference if you can be. I learned, in those early years, that folks did not take kindly to the notion that their communities or their lives were problems to be solved. By starting from a place where we stated our “why” values and listened to theirs, we found we were in alignment. And that alignment allowed us to be on the same side of the table in determining “how.” And even working through massive disagreements on “how.” But that’s what partnerships are about.
In short, we found that good strategy starts with listening. And not just sporadic listening, but listening that is built into the processes of our grantmaking. If we understand how our grantees see the world, it makes us smarter, better partners.
* I am pleased to say that the Women’s Foundation of California has come a long way since my early days of strategy development at the Los Angeles Women’s Foundation 24 years ago. The Women’s Foundation of California is one of the most thoughtful, grassroots and policy oriented foundations I know and I owe them so much for helping me learn what I know about philanthropy and social change.