Why TOMS Is the Next Kony2012

April 2, 2012

My wife came home last week, all in a huff.

She had been listening to NPR.  Like all indulgences, I urge moderation when listening to NPR.

Anyway, she told me all about the commentary she had listened to – about TOMS, as in the shoes.  The criticisms were scathing.

We have more charitable organizations reaching into more corners of the world than ever.  People are touching more lives in more ways than ever.  You might even call it a charity boom, like the dot-com boom a decade ago.  But we all witnessed the major meltdown of the Kony campaign.  It makes me wonder if the charity boom is headed for a major crash.

Read on, and decide for yourself.

My Problem with TOMS

I personally like TOMS.  I have a pair of their shoes.  My wife got me a pair of their new glasses for my recent birthday.  I like them because they look like JFK’s Ray-Bans, and their purchase pays for someone else’s glasses or eye surgery.  I saw TOMS founder, Blake Mycoskie at Catalyst last year.  He was inspiring.

I have two beefs with TOMS.  Their sizes run too large.  Both my wife and I had to return our first pair.  My wife is contemplating her second return in a row.  Shoe sizes are pretty standard, TOMS.

Second, and this sounds so super cliche, but they are becoming mainstream, but not in a good way.  A couple of years ago, if you wanted a pair of TOMS, you had to put up with wearing a pair of rather unfashionable, fairly uncomfortable shoes.  Today, their repertoire of shoes and their catalog look more like J.Crew.  There’s no way that a third-world woman is going to be given a pair of leopard print or sequined wedge shoes.  If you care enough to buy a pair of TOMS, you should have to buy the original, ugly version.

The NPR report took neither of these concerns to task.  Their concerns were more about TOMS being an evil corporation.

Evil TOMS

There were two main concerns brought up by NPR.  First, that they supposedly give shoes to people who already have shoes.  So TOMS uses Christians to promote their products, because Christians are easily manipulated, (a fact that Disney has known for decades), and then doesn’t really give shoes to people who need them.

The second concern was that giving out free shoes puts local shoemakers out of business, which sounds like complete tripe to me.  Geez, you try to do something good, and you just get a target on your back.  Meanwhile, all these bleeding hearts preach compassion, but all they can do is snipe at the person who’s actually trying.

Is Tom a Christian?

But wait a minute…Is TOMS really an evil corporation?

Maybe not evil.  But it’s not a Christian organization.  It’s a for-profit.  If Blake himself is a Christian, you’d have to dig deep to find much evidence.  His blog (which hasn’t been updated in over a year) makes no mention of Christianity in the topic bar.  He mentions Buddhism once.  He reportedly attends Mosaic, the multicultural church in L.A.  But everywhere he goes, Mycoskie is an evangelist for TOMS, not Jesus.  When he was attacked by gay advocates for participating in a Focus on the Family event, he claimed ignorance on Focus’ position on gay marriage.  Maybe it’s because he lives on a boat, but how many people in this country do not know Focus opposes gay marriage?

If you do your research, you’ll find more questions have started to bubble ups.  TOMS are manufactured in China.  After the debacle with Apple and Foxconn, all bets are off.  And is it really “one for one?”  A pair of consumer TOMS costs just a few bucks to make.  A pair of “give away” TOMS costs even less in material and labor.

The fact is, we don’t know a whole lot about TOMS, except the story that the company publicizes.  So maybe we Christians, who so eagerly embraced TOMS really have been tricked again.

Charity:Crash

The biggest lesson from Kony 2012 was that people don’t give much of a damn about good intentions.  Have all the good intentions you want, people will still rip you apart.

And now that people have seen how quickly a major charity can rise with a viral campaign, and then fall under savage internet criticism and the mental breakdown of its leader, the target on TOMS and Charity:Water and the rest just got a bit bigger.

What do you think?  Are we going to see a wave of charities and philanthropists crash under new scrutiny?  Should I put my TOMS back in the closet for now?  Or should we give the shaggy haired hippie the benefit of the doubt, and keep advertising our compassion on our feet?

32 responses to Why TOMS Is the Next Kony2012

  1. I think deep down nobody really believes that anybody would do good just for the sake of it. So they look for anything and everything they can to bring people down in order to prove themselves right.

  2. Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think scrutiny is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to charities.

    Most charitable organizations raise their funds by tweaking your emotions–appealing to your pity and sense of Christian charity and making you feel like a cad if you don’t send them money.

    Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it makes it far too easy for charlatans with only the appearance of good intentions to crop up and take advantage of people.

    I’m not saying that Toms is necessarily exploiting people. However, I do think that if a little extra scrutiny keeps fraudulent charities at bay in general, then I’m all for it.

    More information is always better than less, in my opinion.

    (This from someone whose two biggest donations this year were to her church and her local NPR station!)

  3. Blake is from my town (Arlington TX) and a good friend of mine is good friends with his dad (an Arlington doctor). My friend’s family has known Blake since he was a kid, and insists he really does have a heart of gold.

    For what it’s worth.

  4. I guess I live on a boat. I never heard of TOMS. I thought it was an abbreviation for Time of the Month.

    The whole non-profit thing is a sales pitch. Read Jay Conrad Levinson’s Guerrilla Marketing for details. For the most part giving money to causes is a way to make money. And it works well for for-profit corporations too.

    Marketing trends such as “Go Green” for instance, are only ploys which will eventually be replaced by a better way to shake dollars free from consumers. Farm Aid is over, no one remembers the song list for the concert to benefit that tsunami victims or the appeal to support Haiti after the earthquake.

    Compassion is a buzz word for now. It will become something else in the future. If Christians really wanted to be Christian they would learn how to love in a way that the world could not reproduce by their own strength.

    Oh, and I hate NPR. 😉

    • Damn. I thought TOMS was as universal among Christians as Chick Fil a. But I am apparently wrong. It’s funny you mention going green because I vomit in my mouth whenever I hear that phrase, but maybe “compassion” is the marketing buzzword specifically designed to dupe me.

      • I am from the northeast and we don’t have Chick Fil a and McDonald’s is open 24/7. The closet to widespread Christian culture we have here is Catholicism. There’s a church in every town.

  5. I’ve never really cared for TOMS – I think it’s a rather expensive way to send crappy shoes to someone you don’t know and to get some terribly overpriced shoes of your own. But that’s just me – I’ve been wearing the same tennis-shoes for 4-5 years now.

  6. Idon’t know TOMS from Shinola, but if they are shoes, ugly and uncomfortable, and you wear them, then you have been duped no matter what the company does or does not do with its profits.

  7. Hmm. I think I need to look up Konys2012. Bad, was it?

  8. Whenever people help other people in any way, we are thankful for that. Even in spite of less than stellar motives (I have never met a pure motive yet).

    That Christians are duped into believing that ‘our doing’, however, is the main focus of Christianity, then they fall into a trap. A trap that can lead to focus on ‘themselves’. And that can lead to pride…or despair.

    So do your good works,our neighbors really need them. Just realize, soberly, that they are (for righteousness sake) tainted, and also nailed to the cross with Jesus on that Good Friday.

    Thanks.

  9. I wanted to address the fact that your brought up the point that TOMS is a for-profit company. I personally have no problem with a company like TOMS making a profit off from their product, as long as they are doing what they claim. I am going to buy shoes no matter what, I might as well buy shoes from a company that is going to use their profit to do good. A friend of mine started a similar clothing company that helps fight homelessness in the United States. Each time you make a purchase, someone who is experiencing homelessness gets an article of clothing and a donation is made to an organization that is helping fight homelessness. What I love about what my friend and his business partner do is that they are the ones delivering the free clothing and they post photos of their “drop nights.” You can check them out here https://www.facebook.com/knoclothing or here http://knoclothing.com/

  10. Interesting post.

    I don’t doubt the good intentions of many who do charitable work–Kony 2012 and TOMS among them. But good intentions aren’t enough. We have to be educated and knowledgeable enough to ensure that our efforts at charity are doing more good than harm.

    NPR’s second concern about TOMS–that they’re putting local people out of business–is the main reason I haven’t bought shoes from them. I’ve read reports on this, and I think it is a very valid and real concern. By giving away free shoes (whatever the motives), they’re teaching the locals that they don’t need to worry about buying shoes or trying to support themselves–if they just wait for it, rich Americans will come in and give them what they need. As a result, they no longer buy shoes (even if they have the money), and so those who make or sell things locally go out of business, and the entire economy suffers. It’s a completely unsustainable model–it requires continual input from the givers to keep things going. Whereas ministries that come in and work side-by-side with local people to try to teach them skills so that they can provide for themselves result in stronger economies, healthier communities, and ultimately, more dignity for those on the receiving end.

    Sorry for the long rant about a topic that was kind of a side-point to your original question–but it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. I think this generation of Christians is passionate about making a real and lasting change in the world, about addressing the physical and spiritual poverty we see in so much of the world. I don’t think that’s going away–we just need to find the right ways of giving. So some charities might collapse under scrutiny, but I think others will rise in their place–others which, hopefully, will find solid, tangible ways of making positive differences.

  11. Free giveaways actually do put businesses out of work. It isn’t “tripe.” We recently heard one of our church’s missionaries (to Sudan) explain that some towns in South Sudan receive so much free used clothing, mostly from the U.S., that the local dressmakers can’t compete. Instead of employing locals and providing for their families, they end up dependent on handouts.

    Charity is helpful in the short term, but TOMS would do better to invest in supporting local businesses, so people can help themselves.

    • Amen! I guess it all comes down to the help we provide. Is it help if we provide something the recipient hasn’t asked for or doesn’t need? I don’t think so. Help needs to be defined and determined by the recipient rather than by the giver. Otherwise it is merely helping the giver with no benefit whatsoever to the recipient nor her culture/society/system.

  12. Add me to the apparently small group of people who haven’t heard of TOMS.
    I have some mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, when people complain about someone who is doing something to help others, it reminds me of my kids when they are audacious enough to complain when they get cookies instead of ice cream. Stop whining! No one has completely altruistic motives, not even Christians.
    On the other hand, yes, there should be accountability of those who claim to be spending our money to help others that they are really helping others. In addition, constructive critism can be useful in making a good thing even better. I pray that the guy who is running TOMS is wise enough to discern between the whining and good ideas embedded in critism.
    Here is another thought: should Christians only support purely Christian organizations or should we also be able to give money to philanthropic organizations in keeping with our interests? For example, The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders and Heifer International seem to be theologically neutral, as does TOMS. Yet, they are doing good in some way, which is exactly what God expects us to do. Just something to consider.

  13. Whoa, stepping on a land mine here. (or planting, not sure yet)
    I am a year-round volunteer with an international relief ministry. It is a top rated ministry, according to Charity Navigators. It has a very high level of accountability both to donors and watchdogs. Being involved in this ministry causes me to scrutinize other ministries as well.
    I prefer to give directly to the ministry when I give. That way I recieve a tax credit. (Yep, ulterior motive.)
    One of my pet peeves is giving my donation to other business or worse yet, other ministries so that THEY get the tax credit. My biggest gripe is Christian musicians who ask you to donate to a ministry that they ‘create’, rather than encouraging you to support one that already exsists. There is always a start-up cost, and administrative fees that cut into the donation. It spreads the money that is donated that much thinner, making it that much less effective.
    I agree with the movement of supporting the local communities, and training those who don’t have skills to learn how to be self sufficient. (Teach a man to fish…) I don’t think we can exclude helping people. Right now in Sudan people are starving to death. Not because of a lack of local merchants, but because the government is bombing villages, and the people are on the run, living in caves. Not a lot of merchants in mountains, or in refugee camps. The real bummer is that aid is being banned. And I don’t think TOMS goes there. Even if it did, they can’t eat shoes.

  14. i think, and i’ll probably get negative comments for this, but i think, that everyone needs to stop caring so much about what other people are doing and what their true intentions are. remember, it’s not what other people do and how we think and feel about them that is going to get us into heaven; it’s what YOU do. so the next time you see a homeless person and refuse to give them money because you’re already judging that they will use that money for drugs, remember that’s not your problem. you should give them the money anyway, because you don’t know their struggles. it’s what YOU do that matters more than anything. there is only one judge and HE’s the only one who know’s what’s in everyone’s hearts.

  15. Here is another question: Isn’t it pretty typical of people doing something amazing and then something boneheaded? It didn’t start with the guy that did the Kony2012 video, Mel Gibson (“The Passion” followed by various drunken rants and “The Beaver”), or even Ulysses S. Grant (highly effective general, awful president). Noah saved his family and every species of animal because he was obedient to God and built the ark in preparation for the flood, then went on a bender once he was able to grow some grapes. Abraham lies twice about his relationship to Sarah after God takes care of him and promises to give him a son. My faith is strong enough to carry me through a “big” bit of suffering, like my husband losing his job three years ago, but have little temper tantrums when I have to sit through every red light between my house and my son’s karate class.

    I think one of implied beliefs that comes through the media is that when someone does something boneheaded, the person’s current mess invalidates his or her good contributions. And yet, God doesn’t take away Noah’s credited righteousness because of his bender or Abraham’s credited righteousness because he lies. God is faithful even when we are faithless, to His glory forevermore. This is a message that, as Christians, we really need to counteract with God’s gospel of grace and forgiveness.

    • That’s a great comment, and while making a valid point, you made me laugh by including “The Beaver” in your short list of Mel Gibson’s transgressions.

  16. I think any time there’s a hint of Christianity involved, you’re going to see critics come out to play. We have a bad rep, rightfully earned, and grossly over exaggerated. Some churches have played a part in this, collecting and spending more money in a week than most Americans make in a year. So when a Christian (or his organization) starts collection money to help the poor and unfortunate, people are skeptical. I’m interested to see if Sketcher’s gets attacked for copying the idea with their Bobs.

    Is it fair? Doesn’t matter. Jesus alluded that it would happen, and He said it’s a blessing. Matthew 5:10 says, “God blesses those who are persecuted for doing right, for the Kingdom of Heaven is theirs.”

    No matter what becomes of the public perception of TOMS, I’ll keep buying them. If I’m going to spend money on shoes, I feel better knowing that someone else is getting a pair.

  17. We live 100% on donations. We are missionaries in Paraguay. I see virtually every style of Toms coming through here as Chinese imports and can buy them locally for pennies on the dollar and at the same time support the local merchants too. You want to help someone get a pair of shoes get in touch with someone in that country and make a donation. Shipping costs to Paraguay are so outrageous that there is no way Toms can keep pace with the “same” shoe being brought in already. Help the neighborhood merchant, help the needy, help the relief people on the ground and get the tax credit for yourself.

  18. Honest to god, what an horrible piece. ” Too maintstream”? Your out of your mind mate