Shopping For A Cause

I was just reading an article online about cause marketing, or that things that big cause campaigns will do in partnership with major manufacturers to raise money for their cause. For example, the (RED) campaign that raises funds to help aids in Africa. If you live in North America and you’ve been shopping in a mall within the last 4 months you’ll probably have seen the ad campaign at places like GAP or places where you can buy an iPod or a red Razr cell phone.

Cause marketing is interesting. The idea of shopping to save the world totally hits on our need for “stuff” and our need to still feel like we’re doing some good in the world without actually having to lift a finger to do it. You’ll see this stuff everywhere, and for tons of different causes. The whole push of buying a product with a percentage of the proceeds going to the designated charity. I think it’s a good idea – if you already need the product you’re buying.

Buying something for the sake of raising money means that we’re actually consuming more that we really need to. Living in a place like Haiti where second hand clothing and other items come to die I’m thinking a lot more about how much we consume and use in our home. In the last 8 months we’ve gone through most of the house and given away boxes of household items and clothing that we don’t need. And we haven’t even missed any of it. Haiti doesn’t have a landfill system anywhere. Port au Prince has about 3 garbage trucks that go around the city and pick up the piles of garbage that have been swept up by people with wooden brooms. Then it’s trucked outside the city and dumped. After that it’ll get rummaged through for things like plastic bottles, then someone will light the pile on fire and hope for the best. Encouraging people to buy things they don’t really need so they can help places like Haiti with aids and water and malnutrition seems a bit silly to me.

Consider this. If you need to buy a new pair of sneakers, and you can buy them at a place like Walmart or something like that for about $40, or go to the GAP and by a $70 pair from their (RED) line so that a donation is made to the aids project, which is the better option? If you’re not buying the shoes to be hip and fashionable, then the best option is Walmart (or your favorite store) where you’re spending less money. But, you’re probably thinking, there’s no donation being made to a cause. You’re right. But, how much of the purchase price of the GAP shoes would actually be going to the cause you think you’re supporting? That’s the key. If they say that even 10% is going to the cause, that’s only $7 of the $30 that you paid over and above of the Walmart price. If a person is concerned about helping a cause they’re better off buying the less expensive item that they need and making a deliberate donation to the charity that they want to support, not trusting that a major corporation will do it for them . That way they know how much money, exactly, is being donated by them to the charity, not just assuming that a good amount is going there.

Coming from the behind the scenes perspective of a non-profit organization, there’s another thing to be careful of. Knowing not just how much from the purchase is being donated, but how much is going where it is said to be going. Saying that $1 from each purchase is going to breast cancer research can be deceptive. How much of the money collected is going back into the ad campaign, salaries, administration, etc? There are many wonderful non-profit organizations out there that are trying to do a lot of good in the world. Unfortunately the larger an organization gets, the more money it needs to run the organization and keep the momentum going to do the work. That means hiring more staff and paying more administration fees. Consider how much administration goes on behind the scenes of a World Vision child sponsorship program and how much might actually go towards feeding the child for a month.

Language is a big thing in any ad campaign. The words can and could are essential. I know because we use them too. The reason is this. If you use words like does and will you’re locked in. If people down the road ask what you did with the money, and it doesn’t line up with what you told them you were going to do it can cause major problems, like being sued. Using can and could lends a bit of freedom to how funds are used. Many large organizations use those words as a safety net so they can direct those funds to other parts of the organization and not get in trouble for it. If you’re ever curious about how a non-profit uses it’s funds after hearing or seeing can and could, just ask how much specifically of donations actually goes towards the cause they are promoting and how much goes into things like administration and salaries. If there’s a lot of back pedaling and such chances are that less is going where you’re led to believe it is than should be.

Now, I said that we use the same words, can and could. It’s true. And our reasoning is pretty much the same. But our ratios aren’t. One of the biggest ways that we fundraise is to encourage people to give so that we can install water filters in homes. We say that a donation can give a family clean water, and it does. But, there are other things within the organization that need to be in place so that we can make filters and get them to families. We need tools to manufacture them, vehicles to deliver them, some administration to track them and support the mission, we have to pay staff, and we need to promote the mission.

What I like about CWH, and was one of the main reasons that I even considered getting involved in the first place, is that funds are going to the right places. At the end of the year we know that our greatest expense has been our filter project, not administration or vehicles or salaries. The only paid staff of the mission are our Haitian staff and our bookkeeper because she has to keep everything in order so we can stay above board. All of our North American staff, past and present, have been or are volunteers, including Chris and I as mission directors. Our administration fees for one year are less than what most people pay to fuel their car. Promotion is done by volunteers who work at home in their free time using materials that have been carefully sourced out to get the best price. There are times where we can spend thousands of dollars on building projects, but they are always well thought out and are necessary to improve how efficiently the mission works which makes it possible in the long run for more people to get filters. Right now we’re considering installing a solar system that would cost about $10,000. That’s a lot of money. But we pay half of that in diesel to run our generator every year. And every time we buy a new bank of batteries it costs over $1500. The solar system would pay for itself in two years and mean that we weren’t blowing diesel exhaust into the air for more than 30 minutes a day, rather than 5-7 hours like we are now. And it gives us an opportunity to teach our staff about taking care of their world too. I’ve come to really appreciate air conditioning in a car because we don’t have it. In fact all of our vehicles have been around the block a time or two. They are functional, not pretty. Often seeing a white SUV here means that it’s either a UN vehicle or some other non-profit. I never used to think of what type of light bulbs that I bought before, but now that I live here and the mission has to pay for every diesel fuel fume that goes near the generator, it only makes sense to use fluorescent bulbs that save power.

These are all details, but I share them to make a point. If you are willing to financially support an organization doing a little research can help a lot of people in the long run. If you want your money to make the most impact then know where it’s going and how it’s being used. I really liked the article that I read this morning because it was encouraging people to be educated consumers. Go here to read it for yourself. The main point was that instead of buying something because it supports a cause, buy something because you need it. If it supports a cause then great. Doing otherwise just means more stuff that we don’t need living in our homes. If you don’t really need something, then consider writing a check to the organization directly. Chances are it’ll make more of a difference that way than it would coming from the purchase of a t-shirt.

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About Leslie

I'm Leslie. Wife. Mother. Missionary. In the day to day my husband and I are responsible for running Clean Water for Haiti, a humanitarian mission that builds and distributes water filters to Haitian families. Living in Haiti full time provides lots of stories, and as I tell my husband, our grandkids probably won't believe most of them. Maybe writing them down will give me some credibility.

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