#100kShirts: An open letter to World Vision USA


About a year ago, Jason Sandler decided he wanted to “help Africa” by sending t-shirts to kids. He started a website, made some videos, and got a mention in Mashable. The initiative was going swimmingly until the “aid bloggers” heard about it. The aid bloggers, a loosely defined group of industry professionals often disagreeing type, unanimously agreed how silly/stupid/ill-advised this initiative was and let Jason know. They said t-shirts were not an urgent need in African villages. They said the cost of shipping would waste hundreds of thousands of dollars. They said good development isn’t about handing things out, it’s about finding long-term community based solutions.

And at first, Jason, like anyone who gets criticism for wanting to help, became defensive. The debate grew tense and personal.

My first post on this site was an open letter to Jason. I wrote in a personal capacity about how my understanding of do-gooding has changed. I asked Jason to reconsider his plans, and proposed a few action steps forward. Jason received my letter and kindly replied. In time, Jason abandoned his plans to ship t-shirts and instead, gave non-profits a platform and a voice through his existing business and internet presence.

At the time of my first post I worked for World Vision USA. l’m humbled and thankful for my time there; the experience, knowledge, and especially for friendships with teammates and mentors. We parted on the best of terms and I remain a donor and advocate. Additionally, it should be said, this is not written from an insider perspective; I did not work with the GIK team and have no more knowledge of the process than what is publicly available online. I intend to write not as a former employee, but as a donor and peer to marketing friends at diverse NGOs.

With that history in mind, it’s a bit ironic to join the 1kshirts conversation. I write this in a personal capacity, but in the spirit of disclosure, I’m dating @RichendaG, who, when she’s not spending her romantic valentines days with me, is the social media manager at World Vision Australia. You should check out her blog. I don’t speak on her behalf.

So, my intention is not to attack or offend, and I hold World Vision USA and my former coworkers in the highest regards. WVUSA is a large organization and the product of years of history and thousands of individuals work; I hope this letter contributes to the conversation in a positive way.

Lastly, I appreciate WVUSA’s public statement to bloggers to continue to raise issues and challenge them to do better. It is the beauty of social media: authentic conversations, transparent debates, learning from others mistakes and successes. In that spirit I encourage World Vision to hyperlink to the blog entries and twitter handles you mention in your blogs–it’s proper etiquette in the blogosphere, and will allow readers to more easily follow the conversation.

An open letter to World Vision USA,
cc: @ArnieAdkison

First, thanks for the dialogue. Just as the conversations with Jason, thanks for the response, willingness to listen, and to hopefully continue to answer questions. Cheers too, to Arnie, for the quick response on his blog and for hearing out my question.

My question, which I don’t think has been responded to, is simple: Is handing out shirts and hats good development? and Does it contribute to “alleviating the root causes of poverty”? If so, how?

Or, in the official words, is this a “nuanced conditional strategic use of product in (an) appropriate context“?

I’ll be honest, I’ve never heard from anyone in development say that clothing distributions are an effective or strategic way to help alleviate poverty; never a professor in my International Development classes, nor their guest speakers, nor a country program manager, nor any author writing on development (Bryant Myers, Sen, Easterly, Sachs, Sider, etc).

@TexasinAfrica, assistant professor of political science at Morehouse College writes:

As an organization that claims to be in the business of sustainable development, WV is directly and clearly undermining its own goals, not to mention those of the donors who give in the expectation that their goods will contribute to poverty alleviation.

@MoreAltitude, who talks like a data-driven field worker writes:

Those of us in this industry have been to enough poor countries to know that very few people genuinely lack t-shirts, and even if they do, there are probably a lot more things they d rather you spend your time doing. Like spending the shipping and distribution funds of unwanted t-shirts on improving water and sanitation programs, or vaccinating children against childhood diseases- the sort of thing that actually kills kids.

Is there something folks are misunderstanding? Are this shirts being given out in a context that we don’t understand? In an emergency context perhaps? Without you expounding on why this case is an exception, the only logical understanding is that this initiative is not in line with the best and current understandings of sustainable development.

@ArnieAdkison, a World Vision employee who writes on a personal blog (not as a voice of WVUSA), responds to my question of “what does this teach donors about aid”,

“…Disciplining donors is an ongoing process; no one grows to maturity overnight. Our long-term goal should be to create a situation where donor corporations intentionally generate overruns of items needed in developing nations, as opposed to only giving what they can’t make money off of. But again, getting a donor to that level of maturity takes a process over time.”

This sounds like we’re putting the donors first. Isn’t World Vision’s long term goal to enable communities to a place where they are not depending on things from donor corporations? Furthermore, what, exactly, is World Vision trying to get the NFL to do? Manufacture Super Bowl bednets? It seems that if, after 15 years, World Vision has not been able to discipline the NFL into a partnership that contributes to World Vision’s development model, it’s a partnership that isn’t working.

“We can probably all agree that pre-producing a lot of material like this is in many sense wasteful. However, if the NFL is going to create these shirts, then what is the most redemptive way to respond currently? Is it to say that it’s not a perfect system, so we shouldn’t at all?”

I agree on the wastefulness bit, but I wouldn’t reasonably expect anything differently than for a for-profit corporation to optimize profit. I disagree on your second point, that because there are t-shirts available to World Vision for free, the most redemptive or economically sound decision is to ship them around the world. @Bill_Westerly reminds us that free t-shirts cost money in the receiving, sorting, processing, storing, shipping, taxes and tariffs, fuel for trucking, and staff time and drivers, in the field, to hand out shirts. So is it? Probably not, but I don’t have the numbers. Publishing the cost analysis for this 15 year project could move that specific debate from speculation and into proper evaluation.

To that point, maybe a better thought is: If shirts are in such demand that World Vision is only able to fulfill five percent of all request from communities, AND World Vision sincerely believes that t-shirts are an integral part of alleviating the root causes of poverty and injustice, THEN shouldn’t that World Vision look to in-country initiatives (local t-shirt production) as an answer to the 18 million requested articles of clothing that are part of WV’s mission?

World Vision USA distributed 1 billion dollars of GIK in the last three years. That most likely means World Vision USA is the largest single distributor of donated goods in the world. This conversation, and WVUSA’s understanding of “nuanced conditional strategic use of product” is important not only because of the effects in the contexts you operate but also because the example it sets for other organizations (ie. faith-based organizations http://ahomeinhaiti.org, $1.5 million dollars of consumer grade camping tents sent to Haiti and http://www.soles4souls.org/ shipping shoes around the world)

Lastly, and most personally, Arnie writes:

“I’ve been able to call more attention to WV’s work here in North Texas over the past few days than we generated in the last 12 months. Should that be considered in the redemptive value of this?”

Alas, the branding.

I do appreciate the honesty in both Mr. Adkinson and World Vision’s response to admit that marketing forces are at play in this decision to accept and distribute the articles of clothing.

I do not believe World Vision being highlighted on national television for a shoddy project is redemptive. It’s damaging to our already misinformed society when a respectable organization highlights this as being a worthwhile project to help poor people. Cheap and inauthentic answers don’t inspire to people to call for justice.

  • World Vision, when you push products like TOM’s shoes (of whom WV is a partner and the largest distributor for) you lose credibility a prophetic voice against consumption.
  • When you touts hand outs, you lose credibility as an expert in development. 
  • When you defend bad practices, you call into question those who speak with the same voice.

Development is complex. Many of your donors understand this. Amazon understands this; if you liked “The Hole in our Gospel” you’ll like “When Helping Hurts”. You have the ability to be a clear voice to American’s about what poverty is and how we can best respond. Anything short of that is underestimating your donors.

It’s easy to get trapped in the day-to-day fundraising, and let that affect programs. I recently read an amazing article by World Vision Australia’s Jarrod McKenna (What would MLK Do? Christians and Climate Change) who quotes Martin Luther King:

Martin Luther King was asked by a reporter whether he was going to hurt the budget of his organisation by the stance he had taken on the issue of war: “Aren’t you hurting the civil rights movement and people who once respected you because you are involved in this controversial issue?” As he related to audiences later, Martin Luther King said that he looked at that reporter and, with deep understanding and no bitterness in his heart, said:

“I’m sorry sir, but you don’t know me. I’m not a consensus leader. I don’t determine what is right and wrong looking at the budget of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Nor do I determine what is right and wrong by taking a Gallup poll of the majority opinion.”

King would go onto say:

“Ultimately a genuine leader is not a searcher of consensus but a moulder of consensus. On some positions cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? But conscience asks the question, is it right? And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular but he must take it because conscience tells him it is right.”

World Vision; your community development model is so good, your WASH work is so good, your potential is so great, and (I agree with Kristoff) your delicate balance of faith in the countries you serve is to be commended. On this issue of handouts, I implore you to do better.

The aid community (and donors like me) look forward to your findings and response.

all the best,

(as always, if i’ve misquoted, misrepresented or misunderstood anyones words, please contact me through the form in this site or let me know in the comments below)

For further reading on this debate, check out the 40+ posts and press mentions here, and re-visit the Elephant in the Room, a well thought out follow up to the original t-shirt debate by Linda Raftree.

3 thoughts on “#100kShirts: An open letter to World Vision USA”

  1. Kyle, thanks for adding to the conversation. At the risk of sounding overly defensive, it should be noted that my quotes above are from my personal blog, and were never intended to be representing World Vision, only me. A fine line perhaps, but one that I definitely try to draw. I would also say (since you invited it above) that I was answering your question about teaching or misteaching donors, not your question of whether or not shirts were good aid, when I made the comments about educating/discipling donors.

    We will most likely never agree on all that Jesus (or just plain goodwill) calls us to do to partner with him in making the kingdom happen on earth as it is in heaven. May we all seek to do what is just and good.

    1. Thanks for your comment Arnie, I agree with you on all three.

      I should have been more clear about your speaking in a personal capacity and I’ll changing the post to reflect it, and also rephrase the second part to reflect your intention.

      I’m optimistic that there might be more to this story, and WV can answer some of the questions. Regardless, World Vision does incredible work, and I know they will use opportunities to highlight their many best practices and sustainable efforts.

  2. It strikes me that a whole can-of-worms has been opened on this one. What is the justification by WV for dealing in so much in-kind gifting? Even having thought about it for a while, I still am unable to see how it can be cost-effective.

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