How TOMS and Buy-One-Give-One Really Help Buy-One-Give-One Businesses Like TOMS Can Make Real Difference
Melissa Kushner is the founder and Executive Director of Goods for Good, a nonprofit organization matching surplus goods with the needs of orphans and vulnerable children. She works with TOMS to distribute their buy-one-give-one shoes to 40,000 children in Malawi, East Africa.
By popularizing the buy-one-give-one model, brands like TOMS (shoes and now eyeglasses) and Warby Parker (eyeglasses) have put themselves at the center of a debate within the foreign aid community. In fact, the broader topic of distributing goods in developing countries at all has become a juicy one, and for good reason: material support can do as much harm as it can good. But it doesn’t have to.
Some people flat-out oppose the practice, claiming that donations displace local enterprise and create dependence. While such claims are not unfounded, they are a bit myopic.
After eight years of learning how to best provide goods to those in need, I can safely say that shoes, fabric, school materials as well as other necessities like eyeglasses can have a lasting impact, even after they wear out.
Goods provision can be right and when it is, it has far-reaching benefits. For example: Goods for Good has witnessed a 25 percent increase in school attendance by providing students and teachers with re-purposed educational supplies and trained over 200 vulnerable people in the marketable skill of tailoring who in turn created over 24,000 school uniforms for orphans and vulnerable children, based on the gift of surplus fabric.
Goods donations are worthwhile when they:
- Meet an immediate need as well as have along term impact
- Are based on actual, observed needs
- Work in partnership with the community
- Support local initiatives
Good intentions are not enough; in fact, they achieve nothing on their own.
So how can companies like TOMS—or anyone trying to do good with goods—make a lasting difference? Here’s a short list of my most important lessons learned after nearly a decade of trying, testing and tweaking our methods at Goods for Good.
The Good Alone is Not Good Enough; It Must Be the Means to a Bigger End
Our research showed that many children in Malawi are not attending school because they can’t afford required uniforms.
By providing a uniform to a child, we are also enabling education. Each additional day, month and year spent in school has a lasting benefit. In fact, a South African study proved that one way to reduce pregnancies and delay early marriage—an endemic problem in Malawi as well—is to provide school uniforms to young girls.
Leverage the Good
Each uniform can do even more. By working with communities, Goods for Good observed that missing uniforms weren’t the only problem of course, the reason children couldn’t afford uniforms was because many parents had no income. Instead of providing finished uniforms directly to the children, we provided raw fabric to the community to fully leverage the good, allowing us to address both problems. Through their own initiative, local tailors organize vocational tailoring courses for guardians of schoolchildren and they create uniforms for younger orphans in the community.