The daunting donation dilemma

Charities like TOMS come under public scrutiny when it comes to mixing business and philanthropy

Started in 2006, TOMS can be found at many retail locations including Heel Boy, Aritzia and Urban Outfitters. As of 2010, they have sold over one million pairs of shoes.
Started in 2006, TOMS can be found at many retail locations including Heel Boy, Aritzia and Urban Outfitters. As of 2010, they have sold over one million pairs of shoes.

There are over two million TOMS shoes in the world, around half of which are said to be on the feet of children in developing countries.

Founded in 2006, TOMS’ One for One Movement seeks to match every shoe purchased by donating one to a child in need. As noble as it might be, TOMS’ intentions often come under question.

It’s difficult to track where donated money goes when it comes to mixing business with social justice, according to School of Business professor Steven Salterio.

“It’s perfectly valid if people want to believe [TOMS] but essentially they have to take it on faith that they’re doing what they say they’re doing,” he said.

Salterio is also the founding director of the Voluntary Sector Reporting Awards. Started five years ago, it gives awards to Ontario charities based on transparency to the public.

According to Salterio, TOMS shoes lacks this transparency. Provided on their website is their most recent Giving Report dated fall 2010. It doesn’t list the financial statements or risk of operation reports Salterio is accustomed to seeing from other charities.

He said there’s no assurance of TOMS’ credibility.

“They don’t give you enough information to … attempt to see if there are recipients of their aid,” he said. “They keep saying they work on giving shoes away through other organizations.

“When you start mixing models together and you claim you’re in business for profit and you’re also a charity, I think [consumers] have to take some sense of skepticism with them.”

According to TOMS spokesperson Lizzy Schofding, the company is in constant communication with their Giving Partners ­— local groups that facilitate TOMS shoe donations.

“They provide us with detailed information regarding the needs of the communities we support so that we can provide the right kind of shoes for the climate, terrain, etc,” she told the Journal via email. “We are constantly changing and improving the way we give from the feedback our Giving Partners provide.”

According to global development studies professor Marcus Taylor, while large charities like TOMS continue to grow, local governments might be left out of the picture.

“You kind of get this situation that can occur with NGOs and aid agencies moving in … with the donations moving through them rather than through the local governments who might be more accountable to the local population,” he said.

Large-scale charities and NGOs are more accountable to the donors in the West, Taylor said. With that in mind, some charities become more focused on delivering immediate results.

“The NGO and aid industry in general often needs to say to donors, ‘You gave us this much money and we delivered this outcome in two years,’ ” he said. “Sometimes that’s great and fine but other times development processes [are] longer term and are more obscure in their impact.”

According to Taylor, there are concerns that small-scale grassroots charities are becoming overshadowed by what some call the corporatization of charity.

“There have certainly been concerns that the aid industry is getting increasingly corporatized and increasingly dependent on donors big and small,” he said.

Taylor said to combat this, it’s important to continue supporting smaller charities, a practice that may be encouraged by the feel-good emotion that people derive from donating.

It’s a feeling that psychologists identify as a “warm glow.”

According to Daniel Krupp, a postdoctoral fellow in the department of psychology, the reasons for donating can go beyond that.

“One of the questions we ask is whether or not donating to charity makes you a more eligible, more interesting partner to choose,” he said.

Here, a “partner” can be anyone from a romantic interest to just a friend.

“One possibility is that being generous is a signal of how many resources you have,” he said. “The other possibility is that it signals how good of a partner you’ll be.

He uses the example of donating 10 dollars to a charity. In one situation, you get nothing back. In the other situation, you will receive a bracelet, showing you have donated.

“People will go for that bracelet,” Krupp said. “People aren’t doing this consciously.”

While this doesn’t diminish the integrity of the charity, he said advertisers can use this to their advantage.

So what of TOMS shoes and their ever-increasing popularity?

According to Krupp, their rise to fame is due in part to the social impression they help maintain.

“It’s … possible that one of the reasons why it’s a fashion statement is because it started off as … a charitable thing,” he said, “You were cool because you were wearing cool shoes that were also good for other people.

Nina Butz is one of the co-chairs of Queen’s Oxfam, a campus branch of the charity which focuses on eradicating worldwide poverty.

She supports Oxfam because of their work with report-based projects. It’s a practice where the charity provides the public with progress reports on their initiatives in the developing world.

“People don’t like to donate if they don’t know where their money is going,” Butz, ArtSci ’14, said. “You can call that selfish … but at the end of the day it’s really going to make your [non-governmental organization] a lot more effective if you can trace where you money is going.”

Butz said she admires the message that TOMS is attempting to portray.

“It’s like a walking advertisement for social justice,” she said. “Even if it is just a ploy, [it’s] a marketing scheme that touches people’s hearts a little bit.”

Competing Campaigns

According to Statistics Canada, there are over 86,000 charities in the country. Here are some of the most popular charity campaigns of the past few decades:


Started in 2004 as a movement to raise funds and awareness for mens’ health issues, Movember encourages men to grow mustaches in November, with Canadian donations going toward Prostate Cancer Canada.


The Wear Yellow Live Strong campaign and its familiar bracelets were created in 2004 by the Lance Armstrong Foundation. Since its launch, the charity has raised over $470 million towards the fight against cancer and support of its survivors.


Trick-or-Treat for UNICEF has existed since 1955 in Canada and since 1950 worldwide. It aims to support children in developing countries by providing funds for education, medicine and emergency relief, among other resources. Over 2,000 schools participate across the country during Halloween.


In July 2005, over three billion people watched 10 concerts in nine countries. The aim was to catch the G8’s attention in a call for global action against poverty. A worldwide petition was filled with over 30 million names, ending with G8’s agreement to boost aid by $50 billion.

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