T-shirt with text "stop genocide in Sudan"

Dear Jason // The #1millionshirts Debate

Dear Jason (of #1millionshirts),

First, sincerely, I commend you for trying to make a difference. You’ve been the talk of the twittersphere lately, and while I don’t know you personally, I’ve spent hours contemplating the #1millionshirts conversation over the last few days. I envy your marketing and social media saavy, your web design skills (or designer friend), and your can do attitude. Most start-up 501c3’s never get the attention you’ve received in one day. I first heard of you from Mashable. Mashable. Impressive.

Though not as experienced in social media as you, I work one the marketing side of an international non-governmental organization. We’re committed to sustainable long-term development, although admittedly we don’t always get there.

As a way of further introduction, I’ll share a story about me and a t-shirt.

When I was a sophomore in college (circa 2006) I bought a t-shirt as part of a fundraiser for MSF. It had a silhouette of a woman printed on the front, holding her hand out, with a pained look on her face. Next to her was the phrase “STOP GENOCIDE IN SUDAN”.

T-shirt with text "stop genocide in Sudan"

The minimum suggested donation was $10, but to better support the organization one could give more (I gave $10).

Every time I wore the genocide shirt people would ask how I planned to stop the genocide in Sudan. Or who was fighting. Or where Sudan is.

I had no idea.

Now four years later, to be honest, I still can’t explain many of the facets and complexities of the genocide in Sudan. I still have nothing more to offer but prayers and the occasional seemingly insignificant donation. But for the last few years, I’ve been privileged to learn from some pretty incredible people: college professors who challenged me to let go of preconceived and racist ideas, friends who have shared books and guided this stubborn white kid from the suburbs to think more globally (specifically Naomi, Bwalya, Michael, Jeich and Randy. Thank you), and certainly not least the authors (and more recently bloggers) who have opened up a world of experience and knowledge.

Your education came faster. Whereas I simply read Easterly, he responded directly to you (…I’m not saying I envy the attention). Snarky or not, you’re in dialogue with some of the brightest minds in development. It looks like things are evolving from pointed criticism to constructive conversation. Historical moment in NPO history? Perhaps a stretch, but it’s been a great thing to witness.

I have no doubt that #1millionshirts was born from pure motives. Sending a shirt from America to a child in rural Kenya makes me smile: it’s a nice gift. Clearly, It’s not long term sustainable development, and it’s not supposed to be. It’s a gift, and it has the potential to make a child smile. So it’s not a stretch to see how you moved from making one child smile, to wanting to make one million children happy. But when you did that, you’ve introduced a massive logistics puzzle that involves shipping cargo, warehouses, trucks, drivers, and lots of money.

Shipping a bunch of shirts isn’t evil, it’s just not good development. It carries the obvious risk of consuming lots of time from the NGO’s you’ve partnered with, along with a myriad of other problems pointed out by other folks with much more experience than I.

I’m not sure why the 501c3’s didn’t point this out. My guess is they were excited by the possibility of a lot of good press and attention, and thought the cross-promotion could help spur new donors for them. Good development practices sometimes get lost in the excitement.

But I digress. The question you’re wrestling with is what to do now. As Chris from MobileActive writes, there are some pretty positive lessons to take away from all of this. And therein lies a huge opportunity. My hope is that you will put the project on hold and invest that time into learning about development and the aid industry. Read everything you can, meet with experienced thinkers and workers, spend some time in a “less-developed country” (or whatever the accepted term is these days).

And then… Become a voice for good development.  Speaker, blogger, social media persona, ect. The (t-shirt) rags to (best practices) riches story about a guy who wanted to help… and then got beat up by the internet trolls of development. Iron sharpens iron, and we’ll emerge better for it.

I’m serious; development advocates could use your help. There are more people that want to start their own non-profit than ever. “Helping Africa” is trendy, but without a knowledge of good development, there will be more negatives than positives. Good intentions are not enough.

My wonderful, amazing, brilliant girlfriend Richenda recently went to a conference called Ideation. There were many, many people there in the process of establishing non-profits. Hopefully those non-profits will follow the lead of speakers Scott Harrison and Eugene Cho and do great at portraying the people they partner with as… well… people. And hopefully new orgs will follow Charity Water and One Days Wage’s example in leaving the development work to organizations on the ground with indigenous staff, community trust, and goals of long-term sustainability. But many people launching NPOs don’t. They don’t know better. They are passionate, they move quickly, and their impact is minimal. Or none. Or worse.

There’s an African proverb that says “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

It’s not so hard to imagine a few years down the road, you, on stage at the Ideation conference, sharing lessons from this experience with a new class of motivated internet marketers who want to make a difference. @meowtree will live tweet, and @bill_easterly will be in the back row smiling.

Anyway, best of luck. If you’re ever in Seattle Melbourne, beers on me.

6 thoughts on “Dear Jason // The #1millionshirts Debate”

  1. Kyle, I have to disagree on one point.

    Shipping a bunch of T-Shirts to any country in Africa IS evil.

    It destroys livelihoods, It makes people poorer. It prolongs poverty.

    That is evil.

    Is it a big evil? Probably not. It's certainly nowhere near as evil as American agricultural policy. But hurting people by doing something that is know to hurt people, no matter what your intentions, is evil.


  2. Tim,
    Neither of this things are evil. Neither of them create poverty, they simply get in the way of fighting poverty. There's an abundance of corruption out there (perhaps even within Americas agricultural policy) that are evil. Don't make it sound like sending useless items to a country is comparable to embezzling money or rigging an election. There's a HUGE difference between stupid and evil.

    I have that same shirt from 4 years ago. I haven't touched it in years as it reminds me of how naive I was back then. I first became interested in East Africa after watching Invisible Children, and now I'm usually too embarrassed to tell people that. It's good to hear your story.

    On a side note, I've never understood the purpose of ODW. I have several friends who are all about it, but maybe you could explain it to me. I like charity:water, I give them money, I like several charities and I give them each money. Why would anyone give to ODW?

  3. My only wish is that more people were like you. More people took the time to sit back and see the light of something and try to help. I've never once said I wouldn't change my views, in fact I've asked for help on many occasions. I can get people to donate t-shirts, it's apart of my life. How can I help that process do something bigger? The t-shirts don't have to go to Africa, ever.

    I look forward to the call tomorrow to share ideas that my group has thought of and hopefully listen to people who want to help me help others. I fear there will always be cynics no matter what and that's unfortunate in any industry really.

    One question for you regarding Bill Easterly: Should a NYU Professor and renowned author have a fake twitter account that belittles and pokes fun at someone trying to make a difference? That just makes me scratch my head.

  4. Chris – cheers for your thoughtful and kind post.

    Jason – cheers for being open to change. That’s awesome, and really important for all of us who are trying to make a difference in the best way possible.

    As a development worker who has spent many years in developing countries (including Zambia) I admit that the 1millionshirts idea makes me cringe. It does. I can’t deny it. There are better ways to help and I’m sure with all the incredible passionate and talented people involved in this debate, a better way will emerge.

    Jason, I understand your frustration with how development debate plays out. It’s not pretty. I also clearly understand Alanna’s points on why communication about development is often so harsh. Sometimes I would agree it’s even necessary to be harsh (see Good Intentions are Not Enough’s blog about the need to be snarky).

    Please remember: while the Bill Easterly’s and Alanna Sheikh’s out there might not have your feelings in mind, they DO have the best interests of people in the developing world in mind. It’s not much of a consolation perhaps but, at the end of the day, it’s what really matters.

  5. My thoughts exactly! It’s too bad so few people have taken the same tack as you.

    What is amazing here is that Jason was on the phone call (and perhaps it is the snark that got him there), when there are so many in the wake of Haiti that should have been as well.

    It well be a turning point in American "charity".

    Everyone’s got a lot to learn here.

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