A few weeks ago, I posted a (rather harsh) article on my Facebook wall about “the worst” international aid ideas. It sparked a lively debate among my friends about good intentions vs. bad ideas in aid, preventing and discouraging failure, and social good business models.
TOMS Shoes is the most well-known example of bad aid with good intentions. I don’t have to go into the details about why because so many others have already raised great points. (If you are unfamiliar with the arguments, read those articles, then continue here.)
I want everyone to always be thinking about how to make the world a better place. So it’s great when someone comes up with a new social good initiative. But when you explore that idea, or maybe even pilot it, and learn that your idea isn’t having the kind of impact you were hoping for, it’s time to rethink the concept and pivot. As Sasha Dichter of Acumen Fund explains, the social sector should learn from Eric Ries–The Lean Startup author–and create a Build-Measure-Learn cycle to identify failures and pivot.
My main criticism of TOMS and organizations like TOMS, beyond the negative consequences of their business model, is that after all of the public criticisms of TOMS, it has made no effort to change or pivot. TOMS could be more transparent about its opaque supply chain or even move its operations to local communities, or shift its model away from giving shoes for free to using profits to support local jobs, training, or schools. TOMS has a strong brand name with a large customer base. Imagine if they used their name recognition and community to raise awareness and serve as an example for how similar organizations can also improve.
Ultimately, TOMS is not an example of bad aid for its faults, but because it hasn’t attempted to change its ways. Public criticism of social good organizations like TOMS aren’t discouraging social entrepreneurship or preventing people from trying a risky new approach to make the world a better place; rather, it’s encouraging more thoughtful, intentional aid initiatives that revisit their model when they aren’t achieving impact or are potentially doing more harm than good.
I really enjoyed the debate on my Facebook wall and I believe this is a very important discussion that needs a lot of voices and opinions involved, so feel free to share your thoughts here!
First: Nice to see an opinion piece from you.
The things that make you uncomfortable about this are probably some of the same things that made me ever-so-disappointed that, considering many of our colleagues haven’t been exposed to development and our work is, in a way, development field work, our orientation didn’t include a ‘Development 101’ session—not necessarily an extensive lecture or an in-depth coverage of economics theory but some introduction, for starters, to establish awareness about issues people who do field work for a living have run into and best practices in community development, opinions on the key debates re: development and aid, and ultimately sensitivity to the difference between doing work with good intentions and doing good work. Feel-good stories are inspiring—but also can be blinding.
Related: Look into the Warby Parker/Vision Spring partnership. Equally interesting and debatable model.
Thanks, Karolle! I definitely agree. I wish we had more training and theoretical discussions about these issues before diving in. What I like about Vision Spring/Warby Parker is that instead of just giving away glasses, they create jobs and provide training, which I see as more sustainable and empowering long term. Well, Warby Parker doesn’t do this themselves, but rather works through organizations like Vision Spring to do so. They don’t just give away their glasses one for one, unlike TOMS, as far as I understand.
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