Monday, April 11, 2011

thoughts in my head: not all nonprofits are made equal.

As my hiatus from my 30 Day Photo Challenge persists a little longer, I’ve been prompted with some tough questions and wonderful inspiration concerning the actual “work” I will be doing in Uganda this summer. And all of these questions find their root in the same idea: not all nonprofits were made equal.

My dear friend and mentor Thera wrote an incredible blog post today about a counter-movement to the One Day Without Shoes event called One Day Without Dignity. I highly encourage you to read it!

In her post she explains her qualms with the One Day Without Shoes event; mainly, that one-time drop-off gifts of charity (like shoes, clothing, or school supplies) are bad aid. The one-time hand out harms the local economy by making free what many local artisans, merchants, and businesspeople work very hard to make and depend on sales for their livelihood. It undermines much of local culture and also embodies a lot of really inconsiderate Western presumptions.

While many one-time gifts are made with the absolute best of intentions they more often than not cause strife and dependency among people who are perfectly capable of being resourceful in their own right. Thus her (and my) qualm with One Day Without Shoes: TOMS is a for-profit company. Thus, the Day Without Dignity campaign was launched by members of various NGOs around the world to talk about what makes a good NON-profit. 

However, after poking around on TOMS' website a little more, I did learn that they are more invested in the communities they do "shoe drops" in that I originally realized.There are 5 facets to the TOMS campaign that make their program more sustainable then others, and they are (in their own words from their website): 

1. Giving Partners must be able to repeat giving shoes as the children grow.
2. Shoes must aid their giving partner's existing goals for the health and education for children who otherwise would not have this opportunity.
3. Providing shoes may not have a negative impact on the local economy.
4. Giving Partners must be able to receive large shipments of shoes.
5. Giving Partners can only give shoes in conjunction with health and education efforts.  

So, yes, TOMS is a for-profit company. But they are making an enormous effort to be a sustainable, good influence where they "drop" shoes, which I immensely respect. 

This brings me to my second prompt of inspiration, Hank Green’s three-part vlog about his trip to Haiti with Again, I warmly recommend you to watch all three of these videos. His third has yet to be released but, based on what he said in the second vlog, I’m going to wager a guess about what it will concern: what makes such a wonderful nonprofit.

In his words, functions on a “new model of charity” in which the recipients of aid are encouraged to be independent, rather than dependent, concerning their need. This is because, which essentially builds wells in communities in need of clean water (something mentioned as a pretty explicit need in Thera’s marvelous blog post), works incredibly hard to make sure that within the community where the new well is built there is an infrastructure of sustainability in place both ecologically and socially within the community.

No charity or non-profit is perfect, because nothing is. But it is important for me as a volunteer and as a donor to be aware and conscientious of which charities and partnership organizations I choose to support. This is because I absolutely believe hand-outs are not the stuff of real change in communities of need.

This lesson I learned in an extremely visceral and hard manner, which I want to share with you if only so that I can explain from my own experiences why I know for my own that hand-out charities are not good.

When I was in Uganda when I was fourteen, my mother and I brought with us some gently used toys my brothers and I no longer wanted with the express intention of sharing them with the children of the communities we would visit. We had the absolute best of intentions, believe me. In my world, I treasured my toys growing up. They were a vessel by which my imagined stories became real. But I was fourteen and knew only my own world of growing up in the privileged USA.

It was a few days into the trip when the group was climbing off the bus in Gulu, Northern Uganda. A cluster of children had gathered around to watch and seeing them, my mom and I decided to give them some of the toys we’d brought.

This decision is one I think I will always regret and feel guilty for. The children started fighting for the toys and suddenly the bag was ripped from our hands as the oldest kids pushed the younger ones out of the way to take as many as possible. It was horrible to watch and I had no idea what to do.

They were just kids living in a really tough world, and I had wanted to share with them something that had brought me joy as a little one. But I did not think that hand outs mostly go to those who can get them, not necessarily those who have more need. I had made a lot of presumptions in my own saintly-ness for parting with these toys and in my eagerness I did not stop and think about how best to give the toys to those who needed them most. And these were just toys, not even food or water or clothing.

Yes, I was young and yes, I really didn’t know any better. If I had been older and wiser I would have asked the leaders of a community in varying capacities about who in their town had children with some serious need. I would have then asked them to discretely deliver the toys, or, better yet, I would have given the toys to an organization with a long-term relationship with a community that perhaps had serious needs already satisfied, so toys would have been a nice treat for ill children. is by no means the first or only organization to figure out how the best of intentions can wring the worst of outcomes. There’s a little saying my mother always told me “If you give someone a fish, you’ve fed them for a meal- but if you teach someone to fish, you’ve fed them for a lifetime. However, they must be willing to learn how to fish.”

This is a model that has existed for a long, long time. But when charities send out shoes at the first sign of bare feet without first asking if these shoes are wanted, needed, or going to go to the right place that promotes giving fish and not the willingness to learn or the ability to fish. Yes, that’s a gross overstatement and by no means am I saying people who have received TOMS shoes don’t have innovation or a desire to learn or grow, nor am I calling TOMS a terrible company with the worst of intentions. I am saying that the model of the "charity" needs to progress, quickly, into a model of partnership. I am saying we need to recognize TOMS is a for-profit company with some really wonderful intentions to promote positive growth.

Obviously I like TOMS, having participated in the One Day Without Shoes event and owning two pair. So call me a hypocrite. Or, call me an educated consumer.

I love my TOMS because they’re cute and comfy shoes and both pairs were loving gifts by my Aunt and Uncle and father, respectively. I treasure them because, as I might have mentioned, I’m damn lucky to have as many shoes and love in my life as I do. And I like that they are trying, as a company for profit, to use their profit for providing shoes. But I also support fully organizations like MCC,, and Habitat for Humanity that were created to make lasting and educated change.

And now, for the third source difficult inspiration for this post: a dinner conversation. Last night at a lovely, lovely dinner in Cape Cod (a post on that to come) a friend of my friend’s asked me what I was doing this summer. When I replied with my plans to live in Uganda for two and a half months, she asked a little sharply “Is this a Bible thing?”

And in that question flooded a thousand thoughts. My anger at groups that function not only as hand-outs, but self-congratulating hand-out charities that do so in the name of a religion. My further frustration that I, who identify as a Christian but one who also reads the Upanishads of Hinduism and the writings of the Buddha and would die for the acceptance of people of all sexual orientations and believes in the validity of all faiths, am immediately judged to be someone who also promotes such convert-the-heathens-with-self-loving-grins charity. And perhaps most of the internal dilemma of what in heaven, hell, and earth I am going to do with this inescapable call to Africa in “the real world.”

So I picked the more tangible reply with “Well, sort of. I’m working with the Diocese of the Church of Uganda, but it’s not a convert-the-heathens deal.” I went on to explain that I want to live my life as a servant and a learner, that I am a pilgrim going home and it’s a complicated growing-up thing, and that above all I am going to LEARN and not to teach.

What do I know, anyway?

I can recite passages from Harry Potter. I know more about women’s aviation history than anyone in their right mind should. But the real stuff? I’m wandering in a big forest of knowledge and desperately trying to take every second in and praying to God I do something with my life that will make my Mom and Dad proud. I want to love and learn as much as possible. And God knows that’s enough for me right now.

So that’s why I am going to Uganda, and that’s why I think we all need to carefully think about what change we want to promote. I love my TOMS, I loved participating in the One Day event, and that doesn’t change. We’re all broken, and I think most of us just want to make the world a little happier each day, self-congratulating hand-out charities included. Let’s take these good intentions, though, and apply them in a model of non-profits that functions as a partnership, not a charity. Yeah, it’s going to be a whole lot harder. But change is hard. 

current jam: tchaikovsky's serenade for strings
best thing in my life right now: SPRINGTIME!
days until departure: 55


  1. Hey girl! Just a thought- TOMS could do very well to promote themselves as a sustainable for-profit organization. People have qualms about the fact that they aren't a non-profit, but it's going on the assumption that because it's a capitalist enterprise, it's automatically going to be corrupt. It's kind of in the same strain as things like fair trade chocolate and fair trade coffee. Still a business arrangement that is sustainable, but still profitable :)

  2. Lizzie, your posts keep making me think about such things and I love you for it. Your mission is a noble one! I have so much more to learn, and experience is obviously the best way to do so; your anecdote about being 14 and not understanding... I get it. We're desensitized here, using our minds to dwell on our ways of life, rather than enabling ourselves to see the lifestyles of others. :/
    Seriously, I'm superexcited about what you'll have to say during/after Uganda this summer!
    -Aly (your ever-faithful internet stalker :D)