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”.
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.