Bizzarely, I’ve been on the sidelines this time around as yet another episode of SWEDOW: tshirts unfolds in the aftermath of the Super Bowl half-time show bashing (what was that?). No, it is not Jason Sadler again (more on him later). This time, the respected chorus of smart aid critics are setting their targets on World Vision’s practice of donating the NFL‘s “misprinted” shirts to the world’s poor.

To recap, the NFL pre-prints merchandise — tee shirts, sweat shirts, caps, etc. – for the two teams competing in the super bowl. This is why you saw winning quarterback Aaron Rogers immediately don a tee shirt and cap studded with Green Bay Packers as Super Bowl champions branding. Had Pittsburg won, you would have seen the same thing on Ben Roethlisberger and team mates. I used to think that they pre-printed those shirts and caps just for the teams or just the players that were going to get camera-time. Turns out it was much bigger than that. I am not privy to the benefits of why this is done this way but I can offer a few guesses:

  1. The potential loss of sales from customers purchasing the gear after the game vs. customers having to wait weeks for stock to arrive at their nearest retailer are greater than the cost of printing & distributing both team’s gear after the winner is decided.
  2. NFL capitalizes on the immediate global attention on the Super Bowl to move as much product as possible. This after all is the last game of the season. No one will care about football if you wait a week to deliver Super Bowl winner merchandise. It’s all about moving product with precision marketing decisions.

This practice isn’t just just exercised at the Super Bowl, virtually every major sports championships in America does it. From the Final Four to the World Series. The question then, is what happens to the loser’s merchandise. Thanks to this World Vision blog post and the CNN clip above we now know. Their partnership with the NFL stretches back 15 years. So really this was an open secret way before the #1MillionShirts hashtag was created.

Plenty of informed analysis has provided a week’s worth of thought-provoking great reads on why this partnership is lucrative for World Vision. Saundra at the Good Intentions blog does a brilliant bit of analysis here coupled with a running list of all the blog posts related to the saga here. My favorite of the bunch was contributed by @morealtitude at the Wanderlust blog.

There’s a difference between want and need

In the CNN piece above, World Vision’s Corporate Relations Senior Director, Jeff Fields stated

“…this year we know that there good needs in Zambia, Romania, Armenia, and Nicaragua … Basically just strictly on need. We are working in areas where there’s generally no electric and unfortunately a lot of times no running water…”

Let’s remember that there’s a difference between want and need. What you want is not always what you need. What you need, may not always be what you want. Let me put it another way. I have a $50 office chair from Walmart, but what I really want is a $1000.00 Aeron chair. Size C. A villager might want and accept a free tee shirt, but what they really need is a host of socio-economic and infrastructure projects in the village that will allow them to make or buy their own shirt.

Wold Vision USA needs to do good, it has to. It is in its DNA. Do good or cease to exist as an organization. So why then this 15-year partnership to schlep discarded paraphernalia halfway across the world to poor communities that “unfortunately a lot of times have no running water?” Shouldn’t water be your priority? I’d like to know how many wells and water purification projects can be built just for the price of shipping the products around the world? What’s the opportunity cost? As many other commentaries on this issue have stated, shirts are not the priority in these communities’ needs. Duncan at the Water Wellness blog listed some of the more pressing concerns faced by communities in Northern Malawi. NFL tee shirts are nowhere on the list.

So why then this high profile gifts-in-kind practice that is central to World Vision’s $1 billion annual budget? It’s simple. Its about World Vision. If it was about the poor simply needing shirts, go down to the nearest local market and buy up all the shirts and hand them out. That will cost you a lot less than shipping one all the way from Pittsburg. Heck, for the price of shipping alone you could probably clothe the entire village. World Vision knows this, you don’t operate for almost 60 years by making stupid decisions. But I fail to imagine a situation where a tee shirt shipped halfway around the world saves lives when one could be sourced from right there within the community. It seems simple enough so why can’t World Vision, with it’s infinite wisdom from years of experience figure this out?

They have.

This is a case of two organizations playing a zero-sum game with the poor. World Vision pads its books and image. The NFL scores a profit at the expense of tax payers. And all the poor got was this damned NFL loser tee shirt. GiK are never about the recipients, it’s about sustaining the donor entity. If it was ever about the recipients, the right decisions would have resulted in the alleviation of the world’s most easily addressable, and pressing problems.

When Project Diaspora held the Villages in Action conference in Kikuube Village, we sourced the shirts and printing right there within the country, so I know there are printing presses and textile industries in poor countries. The villagers got shirts they wanted but didn’t need. Not one was refused, in fact we didn’t have enough. The vendor who sold us the shirts got business. The printery that delivered the finished product got income. Jason Sadler, who funded the VIA conference shirts, got to do good like he wanted to do all along.* It didn’t alleviate all of Uganda’s problems, but it went a long way to sustaining already existing infrastructures. Imagine if World Vision took a page from a once lampooned do-gooder and did the right thing with their scale and influence.

I don’t have any answers to the NFL’s marketing decisions. Clearly, there are  global unintended consequences to their pursuit for profits. World Vision should know better by now that this probably isn’t the best way to help the poor. That is, of course, assuming that it was ever about that in the first place. World Vision, please do us all a favor and stop marketing to us that it’s about the poor. Man up, you know that we know that you know it is about you.

*Jason Sadler has made really good on his want to do good. Starting in February, you can nominate any non profit of your choice to be promoted on his I Wear Your Shirt website for a day for free. I know who I won’t be nominating.

**Header image taken from World Vision article found here.

  1. Interesting article, I followed the original t-shirt debacle with total indecision about whether I was amused or annoyed – now I just find this sort of behavior annoying, one may assume Jason Sadler was simply uninformed, World Vision however have no excuse!

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