Jason Sadler is an entrepreneur who has successfully used social media to generate fame, attention, and wealth for himself through his business called I Wear Your Shirt. Hoping to use his momentum on social media, Jason decided to form his own non-profit organization.
Jason’s non-profit was about providing free clothes to people in Africa. He called his organization “1 Million Shirts” with the goal of getting people to donate 1 million used shirts which he would then ship to needy families in Africa.
A lot of us donate our gently-used clothing to local good-will. And, when I’m overseas, I often find myself parting with some of my favorite shirts because I find people who could benefit from them more than I could. But, on the scale Jason was aiming to do, this could do more harm than good.
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Many individuals in poor communities are pulling themselves out of poverty by building a career by either selling shirts or making shirts in their villages. While it’s one thing to give away a backpack full of clothes, it’s completely different to kill a fledgling industry pulling people out of poverty.
I mention this story because, on paper, Jason was doing everything right. He had good intentions, he filed to incorporate as a registered non-profit, he had charities on-the-ground willing to implement his vision, and he had the large support of a passionate, young, online following.
What Jason lacked was a proper and deep understanding of the realities on-the-ground. He also sought charities which offered him the least resistance. I mention this because, to many of you, my current theme of trying to team up with charities who I often describe as “fortresses” (a term coined by charity expert Beth Kanter) seems to be taken by many as a distraction.
But it’s not.
In 2007, I was on-the-ground in one of Bangladesh’s worst natural disasters: Cyclone Sidr. I saw countless well-meaning charities and individuals rush in with aid only to have their aid flung on the sides of roads or (in the case of clothes) used as make-shift firewood so families could stay warm.
Even though I just came with a handful of blankets, I believe I was able to be more effective than some of the worst offenders because I had the opportunity to team up with a reputable charity (like Save the Children) which had the know-how on how to give aid and give aid effectively:
In 2009, with your support, I completed a clean water project in a remote village that had seen some of the worst horrors of Cyclone Sidr. The water produced by this project was tested clean and safe enough for anyone reading this to drink.
At the same time, I’ve seen aid organizations and charities “purify” water that was later proven to be unsafe for human consumption. I avoided this by doing my research on the ground and reaching out to charities that I felt were the real deal. And, combined with the fact I was on the ground as an independent party with a unique approach, we were able to do something special:
Similarly, I’ve had friends who have gone to Africa who have seen schools built with much fanfare – only to have those very schools become vacant buildings. The reason is because many charities that are in the business of aid are not always in the business of sustainable development.
I was mindful of this as I was helping to rebuild a school in rural Bangladesh. I had no clue about how to safely rebuild a school, which contractors were the best, and how to do so in a way that ensures the building stays intact and a place for students long after I was gone.
But, the charity that I decided to team up with did. And, not only that, they were familiar enough with the community that they were able to keep an eye out for suspicious activity. In one case, Save the Children protected me by stepping in when a mullah tried to pitch for funds for his madrassa (read the risk of supporting madrassas here).
The sad fact is I can never make enough vlogs, blog posts, or tweets to fully immerse you guys into the reality on the ground. All I can do is open but a tiny window. And, it is reality on-the-ground, which is why I am taking the steps that – to many of you – may seem like distractions.
I need charities to support this work. But I don’t just need any charity. I need to team up with charities which I feel are the real deal and are able to navigate the tricky and risky realities on the ground. And what I have learned is what is easy and what can generate the most popular support isn’t always right.
And, while I’m bound to make mistakes, I need to do my due diligence. Because, if I don’t, the risks will be far worse than 1 Million Shirts accidentally killing local economies. If I rush things, I could be providing unsafe water, building unsustainable schools, and possibly even becoming an accessory to terrorism.
At the same time, I believe that by doing things as just an individual solves deficits that big multinational charities have in regards to how we connect and help people. But this isn’t a criticism against them. Rather, this is my pitch to them that we can be more effective by pooling our efforts together.
But this takes time.
This is why more than your donations, more than you showing your support on YouTube and Twitter and Facebook, I need your patience, understanding, and support as I try and navigate these complex hurdles. I know this is a tough ask and maybe not everyone supporting this project today is interested in hanging around for the ride.
But, as one well respected blog read amongst charities and aid workers says, “Doing aid poorly is fun and easy. Doing aid well requires a lot of knowledge, time, and effort”. I’m not Jason Sadler – my project isn’t a hobby to some successful business. This is my life’s work… and how I work affects other lives. I need to put in the time & effort to make this work.
That means negotiating and talking with charities. It also means some of which I encounter will be fortresses, some of which I encounter will feel my approach count for strikes against me, and some which see the value of what I do and need to explore ways to make it work.
But this takes time. Please bear with me.