Saturday, June 29, 2013

Generosity Redefined - Part 3 "What's wrong with TOMS?"

I've dreaded writing this post. I confess, I own a pair of TOMS. Most people I know own a pair of TOMS. Because of this, your response to this article might be defensive, or annoyed or to just write it off as hype. I beg you not to. If the church is going to actually make a significant impact on the lives of the poor, in a way that brings God glory and proclaims the gospel, we have to start taking things like this seriously. Good intentions are not enough, and they can actually do damage to a community. If you really want to educate yourself on how to do serve the poor well, check out I would also really encourage you to watch the Restore videos. In the mean time, consider this...

From The Harvard Crimson
Although TOMS likely has good intentions, its donation strategy may negatively impact the communities it seeks to support. Like the litany of organizations that donate shoes, clothes, and other items to developing countries, TOMS may be undermining the development of local businesses. And while making in-kind donations benefits consumers in the short run, stifling local industry and increasing unemployment in this way will intensify poverty in the long-term.

Another issue with organizations like TOMS is that donating shoes can be financially inefficient. Shoes are typically inexpensive in developing nations—in Mumbai, as in Port-au-Prince, one pair is sold for as little as $2. Shipping a used pair of shoes often costs more; for instance, Soles4Soles solicits donations of $3-$5 to ship a pair of shoes to Haiti. In addition to hurting local business, in-kind donations sometimes simply waste money. We could actually save money and simultaneously help stimulate local economies by just keeping our old shoes and instead buying new ones from community-based vendors.

It is critical that we consider these types of unintended consequences of charitable giving. By pinpointing these problems, we can determine more effective ways of helping communities in need. For instance, TOMS might do better to alter its business model. As one blogger suggests, “Instead of donating a pair of shoes for each pair purchased, take the cash equivalent of that donation (the production cost of the shoe plus the shipping/handling/storage/distribution costs) and instead sink that into local shoe manufacture.” Rather than providing imported handouts, TOMS could partner with local shoe producers to provide low-cost or free shoes to children in need. In doing so, it could support local entrepreneurship and still fulfill its mission of helping children who would otherwise go barefoot.

As consumers of “socially conscious” products, we need to be aware of the impact of our purchases. In a culture where giving back through consumption is increasingly popular, and where myriad companies market items that purportedly help those in need, we should be cautious and deliberate about how we choose to support international development. In some cases, what at first seems like a good business idea could turn out to be detrimental to the communities we hope to help. Even as something as innocuous as buying a pair of shoes could do more harm than good. In the long term, if we want to alleviate poverty and its associated problems—like the lack of shoes for children—individual consumers as well as organizations like TOMS would do better to support directly local businesses for economic growth. It is up to us to invest responsibly in social change.
Read the entire article at The Harvard Crimson.

In case you're wondering if this is just one person's perspective, check out these articles on TOMS from Forbes, Fast Company, Time,,, Made in USA Blog and

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Generosity Redefined - Part 2 "Charitable Consumerism"

Jesus said, "It is more blessed to give than receive", but why not do both at the same time?

I was attending a fundraising dinner for a wonderful orphanage, when the director unexpectedly asked me if I would close the evening in prayer. I immediately felt prompted by the Lord to give a challenge before I gave the benediction. Prior to the meal, the attendees took part in a "silent auction". If you're not familiar with these, it's a room full of donated items and services that the attendees have an opportunity to bid on. Generally, you walk around looking for something you might want, writing down a bid slightly higher than the last one on a piece of paper. Some of the most popular items are gift certificates to restaurants and rounds of golf. Listed with each item is the retail value, but of course you're hoping to get it for less than that. I mean, what's wrong with getting a good deal and helping orphans at the same time, right? As I walked up to the podium, David's words from 1 Chronicles 21:24 came to mind. "But King David replied, “No, I insist on paying the full price. I will not take for the Lord what is yours, or sacrifice an offering that costs me nothing.” David insisted that his sacrifice to the Lord be exactly that, a sacrifice. He refused to even allow someone to give it to him at a discount. Before I prayed, I challenged everyone to pay AT LEAST full price for their auction items, regardless of what they won them for. "I think we can all agree that this night is about helping orphans the most we can, not about getting a good deal on dinner or golf." After the event was over I was disheartened to hear that many of the people paying for their auction items seemed annoyed as they wrote out their checks for the full amount. The response I saw that evening provides a good picture of what the idea of charity has become in our country. 

The Jewish Talmud recognizes 8 levels of charity or Tzedakah
  1. Giving begrudgingly 
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
If this list were written today, I'm pretty sure that somewhere near the first level would be, "Giving to get something in return."

Virtually everywhere you go, whether it's TOMS shoes, the (Red) campaign, or Starbucks, "charitable consumerism" has permeated the marketplace. Hipster philosopher Slavoj Žižek was one of the first to write about this movement, which he defines as, "the deliberate ‘charitable’ decision made when buying a certain product, label or service due to the ethical implication made during such purchase." Perhaps Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, makes the sales pitch best when he says, "It's not just what you're buying, but what you're buying into." This added incentive seems to bring a certain sense of redemption to our consumeristic desires. Not only do we get to purchase something trendy, we're also helping people at the same time, and if that's not enough, when others see us wearing/using the product they are immediately aware of our benevolence and social consciousness. WIN! WIN! WIN! But is it really? At best, the per dollar impact is minimal. When you pay $2 for a bottle of Starbucks "socially responsible" Ethos Water, what you're "buying into" is a whopping .05 cent contribution toward humanitarian programs. As is most often the case, the emotional benefit to the consumer far exceeds the assistance given to the needy. At worst, as with TOMS shoes, there can actually be a negative impact. "What? Giving can have a negative impact?" Absolutely, and I'll be addressing that in Part 3. But most importantly, for followers of Jesus Christ, what I want to point out is that "charitable consumerism" is not at all the kind of sacrifice that the gospel compels us to.

Romans 12:1 tells us that the only reasonable response to Christ's ultimate sacrifice on the cross is to wholly offer ourselves for His purposes, with nothing held back or expected in return. Shouldn't our charitable giving reflect this as well? You see, as believers, our giving is not just meant to help people, it's meant to bring God glory and be a tangible picture of the gospel we proclaim.
"This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"  2 Corinthians 9:12-15
If salvation by grace through faith in Christ is God's free gift to us, the ultimate charity, how then should we give?
Now I'm not saying to never buy products that have a charitable connection. There are some products that actually provide work, finances and dignity for people who directly benefit from your purchase. What I am saying is twofold: 1) Don't ever assume that your purchase is making a significant impact. Do your research. If you really believe in the cause, give and give generously. and 2) Check your heart in these matters. Is giving a sacrificial, strategic discipline for you, or do you just do it whenever something catches your eye and is trendy or mutually beneficial? The next time you want to contribute toward cause offering you a shirt, or coffee or anything in return, why not consider politely telling them to keep the product? In doing so, you'll multiply the value of your donation while providing a picture of the free gift of the gospel. After all, isn't that what it's all about?

Read more from Slavoj Žižek here:
Buying Charity

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Generosity Redefined - Part 1 "The Mermaid Mentality"

One of the most clever ways to keep people from doing something important is to convince them that they've already done it. An easy  way to do this is to simply and subtly change the meaning of a word. One of the most obvious to me is "Christian", but that discussion will have to wait for another blog post.

I believe that we are in desperate need of redefining generosity. We live in a culture so dominated by consumerism, comfort and personal happiness that almost ANY act of giving is considered generous. With the help of social media, there is no shame in marketing this "generous" act for public recognition. What really gives this movement legs is a prevalent desire in today's culture to be a part of something meaningful. The emerging generation has a great attraction towards charity, social justice issues and generally anything that appears to help others. This has created a seemingly contradictory value system, where in spite of their self centered consumerism, they also want to be a part of things that matter. The marketplace has not missed out on this unusual opportunity. "Consumer Charity" is a prevailing trend in marketing: "buying this product will not only make you happy, but it will help someone else". Sounds like a great deal on the surface, right? A real "win/win" situation! I want to dig deeper into Consumer Charity but I'm going to save that for part 2 of this post. Suffice it to say that both inside and outside the church, giving towards social action has never been more in vogue and I believe the prevailing brand has little to do with what Jesus described as generosity. 

Remember this story from Luke 21:1-4?
As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said,“this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
I was recently watching a benefit concert for the tornado victims in Oklahoma. Benefit concerts always amuse me, as the amount of money raised (if any after expenses) is usually a fraction of what the corporate sponsors and those performing could afford to give themselves if they just wrote a check and didn't show up. At this particular event it was announced that Starbucks is giving $250,000 toward the efforts in Moore. This good news was shared several times during the broadcast, highlighted by a video featuring Starbucks employees working in Oklahoma all wearing very prominent matching green Starbucks t-shirts.  "Did they really just say 250k?" I was shocked by the number. Recently I read of one NBA player, Kevin Durant, giving $1,000,000. What was not well publicized is that Durant's donation was later matched by the Oklahoma Thunder Organization, then also by the NBA players union for a total $3,000,000. Although I knew Starbucks' donation was comparatively smaller, I just had to run the numbers to see exactly what 250k means to the green mermaid. In 2012 the company's gross profits were over 13 billion dollars. Yes, that's billion. If, like me, you're not used to working in those numbers, a billion is a thousand million. Their daily profits surpassed 30 million. In the one hour program that promoted their 250k donation, the company generated at least 1.5 million dollars. In contrast, Durant makes a measly 17 million a year. His donation was over 5% of his gross salary. Another interesting fact is that in 2006 Starbucks gave 5 million dollars towards education in... wait for it... CHINA. This also happens to be their #1 growth market. Interesting... (read more here).

My point is not to simply bash Starbucks. They are a secular company and can do whatever they wish with their money, and to be fair they're more giving than most. My greater desire is for us to be aware of the ideas we're being sold and to consider how you and I might have embraced this false generosity ourselves. According to Jesus, for something to be a truly generous act it must be sacrificial. Biblical generosity has to cost us something in a way that we can feel. I don't know that anyone has summed up what this means in our modern culture better than C.S. Lewis:
"I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say that they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charities expenditure excludes them."
Isn't that a crazy idea? Our giving might actually limit our luxuries! What can't you afford to do because you want to be more generous? At an average of $4 a latte, Starbucks might be a good place to start. What's interesting is that when we live in such a way, it doesn't just change the lives of others, it also changes us. False generosity doesn't just deprive the needy, it also deprives the giver. When we don't give sacrificially we miss out on a greater measure of heart change and personal transformation, some of which will only come through the path of generosity. Jesus said, "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also." He also said, "Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." I want to encourage you today to consider how you might embrace giving in a way that is truly generous and truly transformational. The kind of generosity Jesus talked about. The kind you can feel. Don't be afraid to dream big about your giving. Have some faith! However He guides you to give, He will provide for all your needs. Pray about how you might invest more of your treasure in the things that matter to Jesus, that your heart might be found delighting in Him.