Does "One for One" Work?

Does "One for One" Work?

A common giving model for social enterprises is the Buy One Give One or One for One system in which for every article sold a duplicate is donated to a person in need. Most people are familiar with Tom's Shoes but not as many may know that Warby Parker sells and distributes eyeglasses, Sir Richard’s sells and donates condoms, Roma Boots sells and gives away boots, Nouri Bar donates a meal for a hungry child for every nutritional bar it sells, KNO Clothing gives away clothes and donates to homeless shelters, Soapbox Soaps donates a month of water, a bar of soap, or a year of vitamins for each soap product it sells. You get the idea. 

But does this model really work? Like everything, it’s complicated, but having conducted extensive research on this model I was discouraged to find that it often does little in the way of helping. Here’s why:

Firstly, it can have a negative impact on local economies. Andreas Widmer, the director of entrepreneurship programs at Catholic University explains focusing on the shoe industry, “The unintended consequence is that, of course, there is a local cobbler who actually makes shoes and sells them… Why would you go buy something if you could get it for free? That wreaks havoc on a lot of businesses, especially small- and medium-sized ones.” With a market flooded with free products, like shoes, people earning an income in that industry, legitimately supporting the local economy, can find their jobs threatened.

An infographic of that says Buy One Give One

Second, the One for One model rarely solves a problem entirely or efficiently. Take Toms Shoes, for example, who donates a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair of shoes sold. They argue that shoes prevent illnesses, like hookworm, from being contracted while barefoot in unsanitary latrines. This is true, to an extent, but it’s not solving that issue in its entirety. A significantly larger and more sustainable impact would have been to build proper latrines for beneficiary children and their families. A single pit latrine can last a family of six five years. It would prevent the same illnesses as distributing shoes, would last longer, assist more people, and not have to be replaced as often.

It’s universally known that kids are hard on shoes, both because they outgrow them and/or wear them out. A free pair of Toms shoes lasts a child 3-6 months of typical use, but Toms replaces them every 12-24 months. So a child is in need of a pair of shoes more often than they have them. And what happens if the sandal shipment doesn’t arrive on time? Families become dependent on a product or service with little say over how or when it happens.

This ties into my third, and most important, argument that the One for One model supports a mindset or idea of dependency. The people being supported through these programs become beneficiaries, not stakeholders. There’s rarely consultation with them on their needs or significant adaptation if a program is not working for them. It perpetuates a stereotype that poor people are helpless—that they need us to help them—and that they are passive. The poor do not need us doing things for them – they need access and the opportunity to do things for themselves.

Rather than taking aid into an area, what about creating a new industry? Handouts will not bring people out of poverty, but jobs and solid infrastructure can. Sourcing products from developing countries has huge financial benefits for an area. Of course it can be challenging, but if a company’s goal really is to serve the needy, what better way to do it? Help people help themselves.

I do not want to discourage people and organizations from philanthropic endeavors, but of utmost importance is the need to be mindful and responsible in how and what we give. RoHo advocates for the careful evaluation of the impact and consequences of our giving efforts. We run into issues when we give solely with our hearts and not also with our heads. We cannot oversimplify these issues. It takes a concerted, intelligent, thoughtful effort to reduce poverty and make lasting change. The poor deserve the best we are in a position to give them. 

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