One for me, one for you

Research | August 13, 2012

When TOMS Shoes launched in 2006, thousands of people were instantly “saving the world.” Through TOMS’s “one-for-one” business model, one pair of shoes is given to a child in need in one of 40 countries around the world (including the US) each time someone buys a pair of their shoes. It’s quite the incentive for the charitably minded.

But six years on, countless people have called out the company for “bad aid.” The most significant criticism of TOMS centres around the idea of dependency, or as this blog puts it, the idea of “teaching someone to fish” rather than “giving them a fish.”

To give TOMS credit, they return to communities every year and replace the children’s shoes. But by doing so, they skew the local economy and prevent anyone in that region from making a living manufacturing shoes – the market is just so vastly reduced.

In contrast, another social enterprise, Oliberté, manufactures shoes in Africa with African-made materials and employs local workers, who then can afford to buy shoes for themselves and their children. What a source of pride that must be, much more satisfying than having to rely on a yearly shoe drop for your children.

Does the TOMS model become more clear when you listen founder Blake Mycoskie? He states that “Giving doesn’t just feel good, it’s a really good business strategy. When you incorporate giving into your business, your customers become your biggest marketers.”

Is his point then that it isn’t so much about giving effectively, but more about how you feel as the giver? Or is his point that the marketing effectiveness of being associated with charity is more important that the charitable effectiveness of it? Ultimately the goal for companies should be to optimize both the marketing and charitable impact of their giving. They are social enterprises after all – balancing social impact with profits.

Undoubtedly TOMS’ hearts are in the right place. But more often than not, it isn’t the lack of heart that lets us down as givers, rather it is the lack of engagement from our head. Good giving should be focused on the people you’re trying to help – and that doesn’t always make it as simple as giving them a pair of shoes.

– SM

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