The Ethics of Giving

So first I want to thank a friend of mine; I was looking for a hashtag to use on twitter for ethical business (it appears #ethical is what people are using) and a friend of mine pointed me to this page on Ethical Business. I thought it was great and from there found a link to an article on TOMS expanding into coffee.

TOMS, if you’re not familiar, is famous for having created the one-for-one model: for every pair of shoes they sell, they give away a pair of shoes.

Obviously, I think this is brilliant. Perfect karmic management; if you want something for yourself, give it away to other people.

But TOMS hit a snag:

While garnering media praise, TOMS has come under considerable criticism from the aid workers. Critics argue that giving away shoes is at best only a temporary fix to much deeper problems and at worst damaging to local businesses.

“TOMS Shoes is a good marketing tool, but it’s not good aid,” said former aid worker and blogger Saundra Schimmelpfennig.

So what’s going on here? Doesn’t the first law of seeds say that seeds are definite? How can something good come from something bad? In Christian terms, why do we say “the path to hell is paved with good intentions?”

As in all such sayings, there is a kernel of truth, I think. It is true that nothing bad can come from something good. But is that really what’s going on here?

For example, is it a good thing to give away shoes and undercut local businesses? Would that be a good seed? But that is, at least in part, one of the seeds that was planted. If I charge in and give away shoes, without considering the larger impact of what I’m doing, would you call that a good seed or a bad seed?

If I were to write it out as a syllogism, it might look something like:

Consider my act of giving,
It will produce only good results,

If I write “Because my intentions are good” I would answer “your reason is not established” (fails test #1). How good are your intentions if you never bothered to figure out the impact of what you’re doing? Wishful thinking does not necessarily translate into good intentions. If you really had good intentions, you would do the work and investigate the impact of what you’re doing.

Unfortunately, many times “doing the right thing” is not as simple as just giving something away. Again, in the Christian context, it’s better to teach someone to fish than to give them a fish.

So the exciting thing about this article is it appears TOMS has figured this out; for their next venture–coffee-rather than giving away free coffee, they’re partnered with an organization that can scale to provide water to people in need through sustainable investments.

I love it; I’m so excited for them. Giving is an art, and we all have to practice it to get better at it.

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3 Responses to The Ethics of Giving

  1. dharma108 says:

    Thank you for another great piece. But I have to object to what was said in criticisim of TOMS giving away shoes. There is absolutely no proof given in that article that TOMS program of giving away a pair of shoes for each pair sold, has hurt anyone in any way.

    All we get in that article is some vague reference to “aid workers” who vaguely are suggesting that giving away shoes causes some sort of vague harm to totally unidentified people.

    The two quotes that are given are just vague assertions with nothing to back-up those assertions:

    ” ‘TOMS Shoes is a good marketing tool, but it’s not good aid,’ said former aid worker and blogger Saundra Schimmelpfennig.”

    ” ‘[I]t has become clear as of late that while the company can certainly craft a stylish shoe, their proficiency in the aid realm is a bit lacking. Actually, to speak frankly, it’s downright detrimental,” blogged Lafayette College student John Favini for WhyDev.”

    There’s a whole lot of vagueness being passed-off as something to be taken seriously. But there are no serious facts given.

    That’s a serious problem.

    And I’m sorry but when did “aid workers” become experts on helping people ?

    Because there were no facts given, I went to TOMS website to find-out something about their shoe-giving program. I was amazed to discover that TOMS is giving away free shoes in 60 countries –

    – and they are giving free shoes to poor kids who literally do not have shoes. Having shoes helps to prevent diseases and also seems to help kids be able to attend schools – some schools require the kids to wear shoes in order to be in classes.

    I’m sorry but there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

    And we are not hearing from anyone in the actual countries where TOMS gives away free shoes. All we are hearing from are “aid workers” who are probably very privileged people from Western countries.

    And one of the people quoted in the article is a college student ! I’m sorry but when did college students become experts on anything ?

    According to the Wikipedia entry on TOMS, TOMS has already given away 10,000 free pairs of shoes to poor Argentinian children. That’s just one country that TOMS has given away free shoes in. Why are we not hearing from actual Argentinians as to how they feel about that ? Why are we not hearing from an actual Argentinian kid, how she or he felt about receiving a free pair of new shoes ?

    I suspect what’s happening here is that TOMS program of giving away free shoes is competing with the “aid programs” of “aid agencies”. TOMS may actually be having a greater positive impact on poor people than many “aid agencies”.

    And we can guess that “aid agencies” may feel a little threatened by a for-profit company encroaching on their turf. “Aid agencies” probably view themselves as being experts on “giving aid” – and TOMS program of giving away free shoes may be a direct challenge to their “expertise”.

    It’s a shame that the management of TOMS seems to have been influenced by the criticisms coming from “aid agencies”.

    Until the criticisms of “aid agencies” are backed-up with facts and numbers – this is just an example of Gossip. Perhaps even Malicious Gossip. The two quotes given from “aid workers” concerning TOMS are not nice – and are vague to the point of meaninglessness.

    But what also seems to be going on in this article, is that the wrong people were asked for their opinions.

    If you want to know whether what you are doing is helpful to someone – ask that person directly. “Aid workers” are not the intended beneficiaries of TOMS program of giving away free shoes to poor kids around the world. “Aid workers” are “middlemen”, at best – and perhaps direct competitors with TOMS.

    Finally, other people seem to be trying to define what TOMS is doing as “aid”. And “aid” has become a very organized, professional and bureaucratic enterprise these days. TOMS is a for-profit business that is also helping people around the world. TOMS is not an “aid agency”.

    So maybe TOMS should just declare that they are not in the “aid” business (let the “aid agencies” keep the term “aid” all to themselves) and just keep doing what they are doing – giving away free pairs of new shoes to poor kids.

    • ericbrinkman says:

      Dear Chuck,

      These are all good points. You’re right, claims by unidentified “aids workers” should be investigated and not necessarily take on face value. Then again, neither should claims made on TOMS website.

      As is so many things in this world, questions like these are more complicated than they seem on face value. If you’re really interested in these things, I would start with researching Charity Evaluators ( which make it their job to access the real impact of the giving of a charity. But basically aid workers often complain that charities that come in without proper training sometimes create more harm than good. The simple example I saw in the article was what is the impact on local shoe sellers? For example, if I make and sell shoes, what is the impact on me if someone comes in and starts giving away shoes for free?

      You’re right, that impact should be empirically-tested. But if TOMS did not do any such testing before coming in and giving away shoes in a local area, then they have committed the sin of omission or are, at least, subject to the law of unintended consequences. And I think this works out from a mental seeds perspective as well: if I was really concerned about trying to help others, I would consider the full impact of my giving and not just trust or hope that my naive wish to do good is going to work out.

      • Iggy Aztec says:

        The unintended consequences entailed in any action of giving are such that their ‘full impact’ is still nevertheless deeply-hidden, isn’t it? That said-and before omniscience dawns-some but few and still better epistemological rules-of-thumb might stand-in well for us until then.

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