The problem with glamissional efforts

Charity v. Justice in the Buy-One-Get-One TOMs era

Something about me: I have a strong distrust of flashy campaigns for mission organizations. Back when I was in high school, our church youth group did the 30 Hour Famine by World Vision. Great idea, flashy logos, pre-packaged info packets for the youth minister. I mentioned it to my dad and he researched and saw that only a portion of every dollar raised actually gets to the hungry children.  While the organization has bettered the percentages since then, it was a wake-up call that flashy logos and marketing costs money, and my donations were paying for it rather than going to hungry third-world children. I call it glamissional efforts “glam-missional” whereby the flash of the giving is bigger than the actual help…and trendier too.

That was 13 years ago. Today, enter TOMs shoes. All the rage with my youth is TOMs shoes: you buy a pair of hipster-savvy shoes and another pair is given to needy third-world children. It’s called BOGO giving: Buy One Get One. In other words, if you buy something for yourself, it helps other people.

They do great works, donating millions of shoes and hiring locals to distribute the shoes (this will be important later). Shoes may not seem like much to some, but saving youth especially from soil-borne illnesses and infections. Clearly, TOMs shoes is doing great works and changing lives across the globe.

I don’t have a problem with the successes or with the people working at TOMs.

However, the problem I have with a setup like TOMs shoes is what Zizek calls cultural capitalism, defined ashow we may do good things within the structures of a bad system, while in fact contributing to it.”  In other words, it’s essentially “personal redemption for being a consumer” that makes buying things feel better. (h/t tumbledore)

In my own congregation in a rural town, we did a book study on Julie Clawson’s Everyday Justice book. It talked about the plight of coffee farmers who are severely underpaid for their crops, cocoa beans picked by slave children, and sweatshops that make clothes. Clawson challenged us that every time we buy one of those unethically grown-or-made products, we support this system of injustice. I challenged the 12-person study group to find fair trade coffee, chocolate, clothes in our town’s stores. They found some coffee (at Wal-Mart, oddly enough), but mostly they could find products that gave 1-5% to a particular charity, ie. Chocolate that gave 1% back to the Rain Forest.  That sounds like a good buy. But according to Clawson (and Admiral Ackbar)…it’s a trap :

The most frustrating thing is when I find an item for sale…which will donate 1 percent of its profits to some charity cause. This helps the buyers feel good about their purchase but distracts from the underlying justice issue. What we need instead is for public awareness of these issues to increase and for the demand for clothing made ethically (in all aspects) to increase. (Everyday Justice [Kindle location 1347])

TOMs shoes may give to the needy and help people in very real ways (hookworm is horrifying), but there are difficulties. While manifold, I see two ones as most important: effectiveness and creating dependency:

  1. Zac Mason crunches the numbers (charitably towards TOMs) and sees that TOMs shoes are not that great a deal when it comes to effectiveness of the dollar when compared to other needs:

    For $1,969 you could give 72 kids in Ethiopia a pair of shoes which will inevitably rip and degrade into rags within a few years – or you could send your money to a Peace Corps Volunteer or Oxfam or Water Aid to build one row of concrete latrines at a school which should last for decades. For the price of sending TOMS Shoes to a school of 1,000 kids for 2 years, you could build 13 latrines at 13 schools to benefit the health of tens of thousands if not a hundred thousand kids over the course of 25 years.

    Giving a child in Ethiopia a pair of shoes might very well be a moral thing to do, but when a development agency or NGO is pursuing some sort of public health agenda they have to do these kinds of calculations to determine which of many policy options available to them are worth the expenditure of finite financial resources. If you are going to donate your money to some sort of humanitarian cause, you should do the same kind of math to determine which charity you feel best deserves your money.

  2. Actions like these, while commendable, create dependency not independence. Like women suckled to Nestle’s formula, any free aid eliminates or reduces demand for the product given. With the exception of Ethiopia (per a more-than-cursory web search), TOMs does not buy their shoes from local vendors. So they are made, assembled, and shipped from overseas…and only distributed by “local partners.” I wonder what the shoe vendors in those countries feel about having free shoes everywhere? It is an example of creating dependency on free shoes rather than empowering local merchants.

All that said, it’s not like the competition is much better. The alternatives are much more expensive (Sawas are twice as expensive as TOMs and twice as less-trendy, but they are locally-made shoes).

The dilemma with TOMs shoes is an example of the conflict between charity and justice. TOMs shoes is a charity, digging wells and latrines is justice. Charity takes care of a person’s immediate needs and required repeated actions. Justice takes care of long-term systemic problems and is slow-moving but helps more people. Both are required actions as part of Jesus’ command to “Love Thy Neighbor” but both require reflection on the fruits of such efforts.

However, there are other organizations to support. Instead of charity feeding for a day, it is closer to justice changing the structures of hunger.

  1. Heifer Project International, while in the same boat as World Vision for only a portion of proceeds go to the needy, teaches independence not dependence by showing farmers how to plant, people how to care for livestock, and so on.
  2. Micro-loan distributors (like get money directly to the people who need it not for a handout but to start their own business or empowerment effort. Such efforts create, again, independency not dependency.
  3. Organizations where 100% of your donation goes to the needy. If you are United Methodist, donating to an Advance cause (like was advertised for Japan and Haiti recently) results in 100% of the gift reaching the needy.

So, am I gonna stop my youth from wearing Tom shoes or lecture them? Not at all, I’m no hater and I want to encourage my youth to reach out to others. But I will (and do) talk to them about the difference between a charity gift that makes you feel better, and a justice gift that honors both the recipient and yourself and changes the reason “why” people are shoeless or hungry.

And it may not be flashy.

But that’s okay.

In the words of Zac Mason (quoted above):

I’m not saying that you should not give to charity – all I’m saying is that before you give whimsically to just any humanitarian-sounding cause, first take into consideration that it is possible that your unconditional generosity might just distort incentives to such a perverse extreme that any good that they might have achieve in the short run might be negated by the greater harm that they might cause in the long run.

Get informed about the effects of Buy-One-Get-One efforts. Ask yourself the real motivations you have behind the purchase. And find out from people on the ground as to the effects of a charity, not just the # of people helped.


Articles referencedA Tryst with Toms | Something to Think About | Does TOM cause more harm than good? | TOMs Shoes: Good Marketing, Bad Aid | TOMs shoes are not the right fit.

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  1. says

    Nice work. I have two pairs of TOMS (and love them both), but you make an excellent point. I used to volunteer at a food bank and discovered that the canned food drives that every church and school do during the holidays do very little toward eliminating hunger in a community. You are better off donating $10 directly to the food bank than bringing in $10 worth of canned foods from your pantry, because the food bank is run by professionals who know how to make that $10 go a really long way. Holiday food drives also overlook the fact that food insecurity is a major problem all 12 months of the year, not just in November and December. And, as you point out, the food bank itself is largely a charity that doesn’t address the underlying factors that cause hunger (though many food banks don’t shy away from questions of justice).

    I think that Blake Mycoskie and the other folks at TOMS mean well and make a sincere effort to ensure that their shoes are produced and delivered in a manner that isn’t exploitative. (And I’ll continue to support them.) Perhaps, as the company grows, TOMS will get more involved in doing the messy work of justice. But, as much as I admire young people with passion and vision, you’re right that established NGOs and non-profits are more effective when it comes to meeting needs and fighting injustice.

  2. says

    All too often we do mission because it makes us feel better, not because of what it does for other people. And, it’s a whole lot easier to just go buy a pair of shoes than it is to find a better way to a give or, even better, physically do something for those who need help. Recently, we took our youth group to WinterJam, a big CCM concert event. As is the practice, they had a charity they were sponsoring, Holt International, an international adoption agency. Only, they weren’t asking people to actually adopt a little brown baby, they just wanted you to write a check and sponsor one of them. Unfortunately, one of the reasons they were asking that is because that’s what most people are willing to do: write a check. It’s easy, requires little actual commitment and, here’s the kicker, makes you feel like you’re doing really doing something. While that’s true, you are doing something, you gotta ask yourself “Am I doing enough?” If the answer is anything other than “Probably not”, you might want to take another look at things.
    Btw, another place where all the money you give gets to the people who need it is UMCOR (United Methodist Committee on Relief)

  3. says

    Charity or Justice? Jeremy you have pointed out a deep ethical issue we have to be aware of as do-good Methodists. It’s true that we get more pleasure from helping others than we get from receiving or buying something, so it is very important that you point out this marketing strategy. Do No Harm, Do Good, practice the means of Grace. Great application of ethics to our culture Jeremy!

  4. Lance Houghtling says

    I have a few thousand dollars in a savings account dedicated to charity. Though this isn’t necessarily the subject of your post, I have hesitated to give it because I know I will get on their list/mail serves and I will get inundated with junk mail of all types. Plus, I don’t want my money to go to that junk. So, how would one give while staying out of the marketing budget? (and this even includes local churches).

    • Eric says

      At an unnamed Rescue Mission in Boston, when we accept a new contribution, we do indeed by default add folks to our mailing list. Most people want to receive some kind of updates after all. Alas, we send…well, more mail than folks probably want to receive, it’s true. But, we also remove that name upon request, or limit communications to 1 or more per year. We NEVER sell or rent names to anyone else. Hopefully the organization you choose to support has similar policies. But most people will be quite clear about their practices if you ask prior to donating.

  5. Lisa Beth White says

    UMCOR and Advance Specials are only able to allocate 100% of the donations to the cause donor designate (like Haiti or Japan earthquake relief, or latrines, wells, etc) because of the One Great Hour of Sharing special offering. Sunday April 3rd is One Great Hour of Sharing, to support the administrative costs of these programs.

    You bring up some great points about charity and justice. Have you read “Missions and Money” by Jonathan Bonk? He does good analysis of the power imbalance in current mission structures.

    One of the key terms in use in contemporary missiology is “partnership”. Being a partner requires listening, as you rightly point out. However, if you take an American short term mission team to, say, Mexico, and come back with a report on how your listening sessions went instead of a list of projects completed (how many rooms painted, how many walls built, how many wells dug) you will be criticized heavily. The measuring stick for most short term mission teams is a completed work list, not listening. Some churches like to think that they are “building relationships” by returning to the same mission site year after year, but even these “relationships” could do with some reflection to examine the partnership for inequitable power structures and/or dependency.

  6. Tyler says

    Yea if you are looking to donate money to an organization to help children across the world then TOMS isn’t your best choice… BUT if you are looking to buy a new pair of shoes TOMS is an excellent choice (or If you are going to buy a new pair of shoes anyway, you might as well get a pair and help some kids in need at the same time.

  7. Bruce says

    Very good article– let me just say a word about Direct Trade Coffee verses free trade. There is a co-op of coffee farmers in Guatemala who are working with a small group of folks, including a coffee roaster named Les Stoneham. Les is roasting coffee directly shipped from this group of farmers. These farmers are getting to bypass a mega-conglomerate. Churches are going down to help further the cause, and strong ties are being made between Christians in the US and Guatemala. This system is micro-scopic– but this system is allowing farmers to get a much better price on their beans than the so-called “fair-trade”.

  8. Eric says

    Josh is spot on re: food bank. And Lisa Beth’s first point deserves expanding. Many, many organizations will claim to have zero or near-zero administrative and/or development costs. But they always come from somewhere. In the case of UMCOR, there is built-in marketing within churches, and other avenues to receive administrative costs (mission shares also?) Some NGOs will setup separate foundations that fund their main 501(c)3, just to lower the administrative and development costs on their 990s.

    While we’re big fans of UMCOR and its work, we support them not only because of their “low” administrative costs, but because we support the work of first responders meeting desperate people’s emergency needs quickly. To be honest, how much of UMCOR’s budget is gathered in OGHOS? Do they use that money efficiently? Hopefully UMC is transparent about those costs somewhere, but at this point, I don’t really know. But I’m still going to put Heifer Intl near the top of my support chain, regardless of their 25% administrative and development cost percentage, according to their 2010 form 990, because we love the work they do. Our biggest challenge, as you point out, is to go beyond writing the check and to join Heifer in the field somewhere. I’m quite sure we’ll do this, and hopefully our children will too.

    So when thinking about shoes, there are at least 3 perspectives here. From the standpoint of buying shoes, TOMs are pretty expensive for what you get, just like the breast cancer awareness postage stamps are an expensive way to mail a letter. From a strictly charity or justice standpoint (elements of both are present), yes, there are certainly more efficient/more charitable/more just means to make life better for others. TOMs live in this sort of alternate place of being for-profit and capitalist (which deserves its own critiques), but tangibly charitable in consistent, measured means. Do you then advocate keeping the capitalist part of the business in its box and the NGO part in its box, allowing each to do their jobs most efficiently? Or is the merger of the two ideas, while perhaps imperfect, a welcome addition to an industry historically plagued with ethical issues?

    The truth is out there.

  9. says

    Thanks for sharing your reflections. Your logic is on the right path, but I challenge you to go further. Much of what you list under justice options are disabling programs with better disguises. I’d love to have a conversation with you sometime about it.


    Taylor Denyer
    United Methodist Pastor, Development Specialist and Co-Founder of Friendly Planet Missiology

  10. says

    Thanks for this. Viv Grigg talked to us about this at Asbury Seminary describing how “free” goods in impoverished communities put local merchants out of business whom had actually brought prices down since people didn’t have to travel to get the goods. Once “free” was gone, the people had to travel and pay more for goods and the merchant had no capital to start again…

  11. says

    WOW~ thank you for making this brave point~ I’m reminded of the Chinese proverb “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”

  12. Ethan says

    The point is: people get shoes. Self-gratification aside, this project is opening youth’s minds to the idea of giving. If this isn’t a step in the right direction (with respect to fighting the apathy of today’s teens), then I don’t know what is.

  13. says

    The argument makes some excellent points, but it veers, perhaps, a bit too closely to the “hey, why are you doing that good work, there’s better work over here” quasi-fallacy.

    Perhaps some consideration could also be given to this view (not as rebuttal, but as augmentation):

    “Ask not what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive… then go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
    Howard Thurman

  14. Cg says

    micro lending is incredibly problematic, and often causes more damage, to both third world countries, and especially the women they target. please do more research (it is abundant and distressing) before you suggest such alternatives.

  15. AL says

    It is true that money given directly to a non-profit may be more beneficial than giving a pair of shoes but as Tyler said, if you are going to buy a new pair of shoes than you might as well buy a pair of TOMS. The truth is that the general public does not research which charity to give to, assuming that they give at all. TOMS Shoes has set a simple (business) model that makes it easy for consumers to follow because in the end, it is the consumer that they are catering to. Their model allows the average person to participate in giving. TOMS is raising awareness in the non-youth group kid that have not, before their pair of TOMS, been exposed to the needs of the developing world, whether this awareness ends at their purchase of shoes or it sparks a future revolution, it is not a bad thing.

    • says

      I think the point is that if you truly want to help people, then buy a second-hand pair of shoes and donate what you would have spent on a TOMs pair to a charity that makes a more effective use of the money. In that way, you refuse to participate in consumeristic “help” models (that Clawson critiques) and do “more” good (more being relative to your values).


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