Should we question Sevenly’s “philanthropic e-commerce” business model?
From time to time, my inbox is graced with a link someone came across and thought I’d be interested in checking out. More often than not, the sender is seeking my opinion on the contents of the link. I guess myself and the smartaid crew on Twitter have kind of gotten a reputation for not slacking on criticizing bad aid practices. Guess I am guilty as charged. When I read this piece on Mashable, I did a double-take before pulling out my tried and true aid-snark criticism.
But before I do that, let me first ask a question. What separates us from our money on our way to doing something charitable? Is it because we love the product or because we love the cause that the product’s proceeds support? I took part in criticizing TOMS’ ‘buy one, give one’ campaign earlier this year. I’ve generally not agreed with any initiative that falsely claims that giving things for free solves endemic problems. I think this is a fairly elementary understanding of good development.
So why am I pausing before I criticize Sevenly’s new t-shirt initiative? At first glance, I thought, ‘now here is something that I can get behind.’ But the more I think about it, the more I am torn about this little variation to the status quo.
Sevenly stretches its gimmicky name to it’s logical conclusion. It partners with a deserving non-profit organization. They design a shirt, and put in on sell for seven days. Seven dollars from each sale goes to support the partner organization. This is a little different twist from the TOMS Shoes BOGO model in that it is a strictly financial donation to a non-profit organization on the sale of a T-shirt (see also (Product) RED).
Again with my question: What separates us from our money? Surely you can find a T-shirt at your nearest Banana Republic or Old Navy for the same amount. It is also reasonable to assume that you can find a charity as the recipient of your hard-earned $24. Apparently, the problem is that we are doing more of the latter and very little of the former. Here’s why Sevenly was founded:
Co-founders Dale Partridge and Aaron Chavez were motivated to create the site after seeing the amount of worthy non-profits that shut down within their first year open. The problem isn’t apathy so much as a lack of following, funding and awareness.
Sevenly is attempting to address donor apathy by rolling charitable giving into consumer habits. As I write this, a ‘poverty-porn’-laced video from World Relief highlighting rape in Congo is playing on the home page. I am left asking myself exactly how giving $7 to World Relief is going to stop that little boy in the video from getting raped. At this question I am lifting my hands off the keyboard asking myself why I would be so heartless as to question World Relief’s efforts to stop(?) rape in Congo?* But really, how is selling a shirt going to stop the rape of over 1000 men, women, and children today? How much of that $7 is actually reaching the ground? Do you really really care when you hit the buy button?
Like TOMS, Sevenly has simply figured out a better way to sell shirts and make a profit, not a better way to help non-profits stay sustainably relevant. Which is another way of arranging a mutually-beneficial backscratching. The non-profits are just a beneficiary cog in the marketing machine. By targeting your heart strings, philanthropic e-commerce has found a new way to separate you from your hard-earned money and leave you that much more separated from the cause du jour. If this strategy had any merit at all as a philanthropic initiative, Sevenly should have reversed its share of the piece of the pie by giving away 2/3 and finding a way to operate on 1/3. Any initiative that leans heavy in favor of self-sustanability is just pulling your chain. I’d be impressed if the company designing and manufacturing the shirts for this week actually employed a subset of the recipients in the Congo. I highly doubt any of that is happening.
Sigh. So much for thinking there was something to like about Sevenly. Seems to me it is just a continuation of the status quo. Yes, yes
I know what you are going to say:
“At least it is better than nothing.”
That, my friend, does not make it right, now does it?
*For more nuanced analysis of the complexity in Congo (and to put into context why a $7 donation isn’t going to help rape victims), please start reading Dr. Laura Seay’s excellent ‘Texas in Africa‘ blog.
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