A Better BOGO: Are Books a More Effective Charity Than Shoes? Another BOGO Biz, Better World Books has a Plan to Donate to Africa

Posted by Alex Goldmark

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From the start, Xavier Helgesen built his used book dealership on the idea that helping the world helps profit. That's why he named it Better World Books. Now, in addition to donating a portion of revenue to literacy charities, his company is joining the buy-one-give-one trend pioneered by hip shoe company TOMS: for every book purchased on Better World's website, the company will donate a book to a nonprofit partner. 

"We’ve shown—and continue to show—just how successful a company can be when it leverages environmental and social impact,” Helgesen said. 

But every time a new company offers a BOGO deal, aid workers clamor about the ill effects of giving items instead of cash: it displaces local enterprise making the same products and costs the recipients more to use or transport than it's worth. Defenders of the system reply that tying need abroad with everyday actions seeds longer-term giving and funnels money to good causes that wouldn't otherwise make it there. And proponents of BOGO books argue that they're better than shoes. 

Often the first critique of BOGO operations is that the donations are marketing, not aid, but Better World Books has been committed to social causes from the start—it just passed the $10 million mark on total donations to charity—so they don't need to move into the buy-one-get-one territory to earn cred with conscious consumers.

Better World predicts that they will be able to donate between 125,000 and 200,000 books each month. And not only will those books go to good owners, they'll escape the landfill, adding environmental benefits. That will make only a small dent in the two billion pounds of books Americans toss out each year, according to the EPA, but the program promises to expand along with Better World's business.

Since 2003, Better World has grown from a campus start-up designed to divert old textbooks from the trash into a $55 million-a-year business processing 600,000 books a week. They come from college book drives, street-side drop boxes, library cast-offs, and bulk-weight thrift store purchases. The firm efficiently triages the river of dog-eared paperbacks and marked-up math books, tagging each with their source—so that money made on library books goes back to the donor library for instance—then shopping out the sales across 25 online marketplaces. 

A major inefficiency in the whole plan? Dan Brown.

"We’ve got The Da Vinci Code coming out of our ears," John Ujda, vice president of marketing for Better World, told GOOD. The warehouse is just too full with certain kinds of books, and has to donate or recycle them. 

"There’s probably three different classes," Ujda said of the overstock books likely to be the ones donated in the new BOGO plan. "One would be former best-sellers; the other class is children's books; and college textbooks that are three to four or more editions out of date. What we find is that when we try to sell a textbook online, students are willing to go three or four editions out of date," but no more. 

Aid workers say social businesses can't just choose to donate based on what they have on hand. When TOMS announced they were expanding their BOGO philosophy to sunglasses, J., the anonymous aid worker-cum-blogger at Tales From the Hood started an ironic protest under the Twitter hashtag #BOGOTDS. It stands for "buy one get one that doesn't suck," an idea that caught on with the aid community and instantly produced lists of needs in the Third World far more pressing than espadrilles: runways in remote places; sanitation infrastructure; qualified, committed teachers.

J. is against just about any BOGO idea, he said. "Ideally you start with what the need is and then choose the solution rather than the other way around. And with any kind of BOGO scheme, the overwhelming tendency is to start with the solution, (a surplus of something), and then look for someplace that wants it. Getting a mountain of used, donated anything for 'Africa' is relatively easy. Getting the kinds of books that are specifically needed can take real effort."

Better World is working with a trio of nonprofit partners who they say will help solve that problem. And most of the books will stay within the U.S.

"Last I checked, calculus hasn’t changed. So someone in Africa can still benefit from” an old textbook, Ujda said. "Feed the Children will get the lion's share [of donations] [...] it sends out care packages to underserved families with health supplies and children's books [in the U.S]." Books for Africa will get the textbooks for educational institutions in several African countries, while a British charity will handle U.K. BOGO donations. 

The biggest worry with in-kind donations is that they could displace local production, undermining permanent economic development.  

"Essentially, BOGOs are not appropriate internationally unless the products that are given are purchased locally," Saundra Schimmelpfennig, the aid and charity consultant behind the anti-BOGO campaign A Day Without Dignity, said. "This helps them support—not undermine—the local businesses trying to sell the same product. If those textbooks are not sold locally, then solutions should be sought on how to help institutions source them locally."

Better World plans to do their part by selling books, not building new publishers overseas. But the company hopes this move to expand its social impact will help business and continue their work raising money for literacy charities. 

"It’s core to our being and our strategy” to do good, Ujda said. "The reason people are willing to share their books with us is because they know we will do the right thing and it will help to fund these literacy programs.”

But BOGO is a tougher philanthropic model to manage than simply donating cash to charities, so Better World will need to work harder to ensure its charity efforts continue to do more good than harm.

Photo via Better World Books