First Person

SXSW 2011: Is giving back as simple as a pair of shoes?

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 “Giving is a good business strategy. And there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Blake Mycoskie at last week’s South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Conference in Austin, TX.

As one of the keynote speakers at the conference—which drew thousands of influential, tech-savvy types from all over the world—Mycoskie knew what he was talking about. The founder of Toms Shoes, he used word of mouth, not advertising, to turn a tiny company based out of his California apartment into a multi-million-dollar business. And he did it using the simple model of “one for one”: For each pair of shoes sold, the company donates a pair to a child in need.

Listening from the back row of a cavernous auditorium in the Austin Convention Center, I couldn’t help but feel moved when Mycoskie talked about his visits to poor communities in South America, which inspired him to do something to help. I, too, have found my life transformed by traveling to places far outside my comfort zone. Most of all, I liked how he had found a way to make addressing poverty into something stylish, catchy, and easy to understand.

Still, I couldn’t figure out what Mycoskie meant when he called giving a “good business strategy.” Was he speaking as an idealist or a pragmatic entrepreneur?  Did he really believe that a for-profit company could make as much difference as a charity? Or was he just stating a blunt truth: namely, people like to buy things that make them feel good about themselves?

Take the idea of the “one for one” shoe donations. It sounded appealing enough, until I started to think about it from the perspective of our work at Oxfam, and our focus on long-term solutions to poverty. As Mycoskie himself reflected, what happens when the kids grow out of their donated shoes and no one comes back to give them another pair? Wouldn’t it be better to give poor communities the equipment to manufacture shoes themselves, thereby increasing their incomes and making them less dependent on help from outside? What about putting this energy toward fixing the bigger problems that cause kids to be poor and without shoes in the first place?

When Mycoskie promised a next step for Toms to be unveiled later this year—making them not just a shoe company but a “one for one” company—I was glad he too was thinking of the bigger picture. And I hoped he could pull it off.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned while working at Oxfam, it’s that real, lasting social change is messy and complicated. It doesn’t fit neatly into a sales pitch or a slogan. It takes hard work, patience, understanding, and time.

And even in this socially conscious, interconnected world, that might still be a hard thing to sell. Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+