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.
2010 ushered in do-goodism 2.0. The opportunities to check-in, check-out, or slack-out “for good” have never been greater. Voluntourism is on the rise, as people want to see and feel more of their vacation destination than a five-star resort may offer. But there are downsides, as I recently discovered at a cocktail party fundraiser.
The otherwise delightful woman to whom I was speaking was explaining how she and her husband had recently traveled to Cambodia with their kids in order to give the teenagers an understanding of poverty and their responsibility to help others less fortunate than themselves. I was interested.
When planning the trip, she explained, her kids had immediately dismissed Habitat for Humanity and other “traditional” groups because they wanted an authentic, personal experience. Prior to the trip, they’d gone online and researched places they could go and things they could do. They’d found a small village that was building a library and some houses and that needed materials and books. “Perfect,” she thought. Emails were exchanged, arrangements were made.
But, she then went on to explain, the trip had all but been ruined by the fact that when they arrived the locals took the books and materials they’d brought and proceeded to build the structures themselves. Her kids, who had planned what they wanted to do and how they would direct the building process, were sidelined by locals who took over and did all the work themselves. Her kids were invited to participate, but they weren’t allowed to lead “their” projects. The goal of the trip, she complained, had been for her kids to feel how they could make a difference and this experience hadn’t provided that at all. “Overall, it left a bad taste in their mouths for future volunteer work,” she concluded.
It was then that I yelled, “It’s not about you!”
In my head.
Aloud, I asked her politely, “Whose volunteer experience is this anyway?”
Nick Kristoff’s recent New York Times piece on Do It Yourself Aid raised similar feelings. While it is great to get out and feel like “I’ve made a difference,” shouldn’t the emphasis in that sentence be on “made a difference” and not “I?” When the primary purpose of volunteerism or aid work becomes our own experience of self-fulfillment, we’ve crossed a line. And unfortunately, sometimes the term social entrepreneur with its emphasis on one person, is synonymous with a “me” orientation that is antithetical to strategies that have been effective in creating lasting social change. Similarly, some social enterprises may be praised for taking a bold approach that makes perfect sense to donors, but which might not be highly prioritized by those receiving. Recent criticisms of TOMS Shoes and other “buy one, give one” programs raise important issues. If TOMS Shoes are being sourced and made locally, then that is sustainable change. If they are shipped in, then it’s mostly plain vanilla charity with excellent marketing. Almost by definition, these donor- or giver-centered approaches can leave out indigenous/local groups that are working to help themselves, but keep getting left out of others “solutions.”
So that begs the question, how much should one’s own need for achievement, media, or notoriety influence decisions about giving? Volunteering? When, as funders, do our demands for metrics and causality shift from necessary rigor and become instead attempts to assign egotistical ownership? When is our desire to develop a strategy that is “unlike other foundations” truly innovative, and when is it merely chest thumping?
For foundations, I think strategic philanthropy, as outlined by many of CEPs studies and reports, gives a great framework for allowing impact — not ego — to drive action. And personally? Well I love feeling that I’m making a difference, whether it is buying green products or volunteering or contributing to organizations I love. By doing these things I create a sense of community, connection, and empathy that benefits me as well as those on the other end of that support. The act of giving is mutually beneficial. But at the end of the day, it’s not only about me. Giving, volunteering, and the work done to support nonprofits becomes transformative when the goal is something much larger than just one person’s pride or fame or even self-actualization.
Do you have strategies for keeping your ego in check?
This piece was originally posted on the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog which can be found at http://www.effectivephilanthropy.org. I am a member of CEPs board of directors.