Yoga mats as misguided charity

A few weeks ago, I spotted a pair of TOMS in Goodwill. Knowing the shoes run anywhere from around $50 to $100, it seemed like a cultural moment where the trendy shoes have made it into a second-hand store.

Of course, with any well-intended business, you can find TOMS critics. For instance, Foreign Policy recently examined unintended consequences of well-intended gestures, such as donating t-shirts or shoes to impoverished countries. The article and an accompanying slideshow poke at religious organizations’ efforts without really offering a nuanced solution. One of the article’s main critiques was aimed at the US food aid program.

Bottom line: Donations of cash are nearly always more effective. Even if there are good reasons to give stuff rather than money, in most cases the stuff can be bought locally. Economist Amartya Sen, for example, has conclusively shown that people rarely die of starvation or malnutrition because of a lack of food in the neighborhood or the country. Rather, it is because they can’t afford to buy the food that’s available. Yet, as Connie Veillette of the Center for Global Development reports, shipping U.S. food abroad in response to humanitarian disasters is so cumbersome it takes four to six months to get there after the crisis begins. Buying food locally, the U.S. Government Accountability Office has found, would be 25 percent cheaper and considerably faster, too.

In the comments section, William O’Keefe, senior director for advocacy for Catholic Relief Services, says that Kenny makes valid points but brushes a broad stroke.

To use the Clinton-era mistakes with rice in Haiti — well-documented and freely admitted by the former president — to dismiss the entire US food aid program is also misleading at best. That was a specific program that had specific problems with very little relation to, say, the large US food-assisted emergency relief programs that we at Catholic Relief Services are helping to run in countries like Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. At CRS and other humanitarian organizations, we are constantly monitoring the state of local markets and the effect of aid on local production. We also actively support agricultural development around the world to help people escape the poverty trap and end the need for food aid. This is a complicated and long term endeavor, and the approach varies by community. But until nations and communities are capable of feeding themselves, we are glad that the US aid program helps us feed so many hungry people.

Even though the main article barely touches on religion specifically, an accompanying slideshow touches on a few religious groups. In an attempt to illustrate ways that charities send unnecessary goods that could have unintended consequences, FP took on organizations like the popular TOMS, the company that sells loafer-looking shoes and sends a pair to someone in need.

The brand has become somewhat of a combination fashion statement and public advertisement for the plight of unshod feet in poorer countries. But Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a blogger with experience in non-profit management, criticized TOMS and related ventures as being “good marketing, but bad aid.” Schimmelpfennig argued that these programs do nothing more than contribute to poverty tourism and only serve to further undermine the productive capacity of the recipient countries.

It also included a photo of yoga mats, illustrating a yoga studio’s request that people donate old yoga mats for Haiti.

Critics questioned the gesture, but the owner of the studio later offered other uses for the mats, including bedding and makeshift shelters.

This is an example of how the slideshow kind of offers a pro and a con, but it doesn’t always attempt to look at both sides. For instance, it looks at a few religious groups.

Rows of hand puppets await being shipped off to countries as part of Puppets for Orphans evangelical Christian charity.

Perhaps one might argue that spending even $1 per puppet (judging from the website) is a waste of money, but the slideshow fails to flesh out how this might negatively impact an economy or something else. Here’s a similar line from the slideshow:

Clowns from World Vision, a global Christian charity, pose for a picture in the Balkans. World Vision has been sending clowns to visit children in war torn areas of the Balkans to help their recoverery from PTSD.

I’m not interested in defending either of these religious groups and am only interested in the questions journalists should pursue. Maybe this is obvious to the editors at FP, but why are clowns harmful to the children in the Balkans? Is the argument that it’s a waste of staff resources? Did a reporter contact World Vision to ask why they do this program?

It seems too easy to take, “Haiti Doesn’t Need Your Yoga Mat” and turn it into “Haiti Needs Your Money.” Perhaps talking with the organizations about where they allocate their resources would strengthen FP’s main point. Otherwise, “just give cash” seems too simplistic.

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

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  • Mike Hickerson

    As a former employee of a nonprofit watchdog, I tend to agree with the “just send cash” advice, though I’m not sure how the World Vision clowns – presumably employees of WV or volunteers who are paying (or raising funds) for their travel – fit into the same story as donated goods. Another productive angle that the story could have pursued was how different charities use donated goods. Goodwill, for example: their donations processing centers provide jobs (and job training) for people with disabilities, while their stores are also often used as job training venues. In Goodwill’s case, the donated goods are really just a means to the end of providing job skills and fruitful employment.

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks, Mike. Good points. I’m guessing that people probably donate more when they see tangible goods. For instance, it seems like you’re somehow accomplishing something specific if you donate a goat to someone, as opposed to sending the same amount to an organization. It’s probably a good fundraising tool, but the author’s suggestion just seemed to gloss over some realistic issues.

  • Jerry

    First, I agree the [editorial] paints with a very overly broad brush as William O’Keefe said. That illustrates how comment sections to stories are very valuable because it allows people to offer hopefully valuable criticisms.

    But I have a much bigger criticism with the story: it ignores social entrepreneurs, specifically ones with a religious orientation. Since the piece focused on Haiti, I did a search on christian social entrepreneurship haiti which turned up many hits.

    So while they had a valid point: cash is often better than junk, they missed a big opportunity to look a full spectrum of ways to aid people and to write about what is the best form of aid when.

  • Mike Hickerson

    Sarah -
    Yes, great point about people donating more when they see concrete benefit. The danger is that, if the value of the donation isn’t transparent, it’s easy to think your donating a lot more than you really are. Those programs where you donate money towards purchasing a goat for a poor family are great. Programs that are tied to purchasing something for yourself or donating used items are more problematic, since the true benefit to the recipient might be a fraction of what you feel you gave. And since you feel like you already gave, you’re less likely to donate more. I’ve seen research that indicates that people who buy cause-related merchandise (like TOMS or Eco-friendly coffee) are less likely to donate cash directly because they feel they’ve already done their fair share.

  • Bob Smietana

    The piece really highlights the problem of the “donor experience” which is about making the donor feel good about giving. Donor experience sometimes trumps solutions that work.

  • sari

    The piece had a lot of apple/orange comparisons. For instance, it should have looked at the demographics of giving. Who gives and to whom? Age, ethnicity, religion and degree of religiosity all make a difference. My feeling is that cause-related merchandising appeals more to people, particularly younger people, who are not in the habit of giving cash, but a study would need to be done to see it that hypothesis is true. I also had the strong feeling that he felt that giving should be confined only to food, clothing and shelter–the material with no regard to soothing the spirit.

    The article failed to address donor perceptions. Charities’ effectiveness in less developed or war-torn countries, where a good percentage of the monies go for graft rather than to the needy, a particular problem in parts of Africa, and the misappropriation of funds or outright theft by heads of major charitable organizations (United Way scandals in the ’90′s or the well-publicized failure of many 911 charities) figure prominently in many people’s decision to give in-kind donations rather than cash. This is an enormous problem for legitimate charities.

    On the local level,as Bob Smietana suggests, charities actively seek to earn prospective donors’ trust by including the donors in the process. We give to a number of secular and religious charities. Almost without exception, each has a customer relations type person who does nothing but butter up “big” donors. In other cities, big meant at least four zeroes, but here $500 will get you all kinds of receptions, open houses, facility tours, even free reserved parking at the theatre. Out of town charities send magazines and brochures (or would if we hadn’t asked them to stop wasting the money we send them). We stopped giving to the local women’s shelter when they instituted a very expensive annual gala.

    Lastly, the journalist could have listed charity watchdog sites, like, to help cash donors make an informed and confident decision.

  • Ann Rodgers

    World Vision has a major international distribution center in Pittsburgh, and I talked to them a few months ago about their global priorities. While no one mentioned clowns, per se, they did stress that one of their major concerns is helping children traumatized by disaster, war and other calamities recover emotionally. That work is integrated into childcare centers where children can stay while their parents are off trying to figure out how to get their lives back together. I suspect that the clowns are somehow part of that process.

  • Ann Rodgers

    Here’s a link to my story on World Vision. It addresses the decisions that get made on cash vs. goods and also on charitable supply chain management:

  • Sarah Pulliam Bailey

    Thanks for sharing this link and these comments, Ann. Great background for thinking about these issues.

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