From time to time, my inbox is graced with a link someone came across and thought I’d be interested in checking out. More often than not, the sender is seeking my opinion on the contents of the link. I guess myself and the smartaid crew on Twitter have kind of gotten a reputation for not slacking on criticizing bad aid practices. Guess I am guilty as charged. When I read this piece on Mashable, I did a double-take before pulling out my tried and true aid-snark criticism.

But before I do that, let me first ask a question. What separates us from our money on our way to doing something charitable? Is it because we love the product or because we love the cause that the product’s proceeds support? I took part in criticizing TOMS’ ‘buy one, give one’ campaign earlier this year. I’ve generally not agreed with any initiative that falsely claims that giving things for free solves endemic problems. I think this is a fairly elementary understanding of good development.

So why am I pausing before I criticize Sevenly’s new t-shirt initiative? At first glance, I thought, ‘now here is something that I can get behind.’ But the more I think about it, the more I am torn about this little variation to the status quo.

Sevenly stretches its gimmicky name to it’s logical conclusion. It partners with a deserving non-profit organization. They design a shirt, and put in on sell for seven days. Seven dollars from each sale goes to support the partner organization. This is a little different twist from the TOMS Shoes BOGO model in that it is a strictly financial donation to a non-profit organization on the sale of a T-shirt (see also (Product) RED).

Again with my question: What separates us from our money? Surely you can find a T-shirt at your nearest Banana Republic or Old Navy for the same amount. It is also reasonable to assume that you can find a charity as the recipient of your hard-earned $24. Apparently, the problem is that we are doing more of the latter and very little of the former. Here’s why Sevenly was founded:

Co-founders Dale Partridge and Aaron Chavez were motivated to create the site after seeing the amount of worthy non-profits that shut down within their first year open. The problem isn’t apathy so much as a lack of following, funding and awareness.

Sevenly is attempting to address donor apathy by rolling charitable giving into consumer habits. As I write this, a ‘poverty-porn’-laced video from World Relief highlighting rape in Congo is playing on the home page. I am left asking myself exactly how giving $7 to World Relief is going to stop that little boy in the video from getting raped. At this question I am lifting my hands off the keyboard asking myself why I would be so heartless as to question World Relief’s efforts to stop(?) rape in Congo?* But really, how is selling a shirt going to stop the rape of over 1000 men, women, and children today? How much of that $7 is actually reaching the ground? Do you really really care when you hit the buy button?

Like TOMS, Sevenly has simply figured out a better way to sell shirts and make a profit, not a better way to help non-profits stay sustainably relevant. Which is another way of arranging a mutually-beneficial backscratching. The non-profits are just a beneficiary cog in the marketing machine. By targeting your heart strings, philanthropic e-commerce has found a new way to separate you from your hard-earned money and leave you that much more separated from the cause du jour. If this strategy had any merit at all as a philanthropic initiative, Sevenly should have reversed its share of the piece of the pie by giving away 2/3 and finding a way to operate on 1/3. Any initiative that leans heavy in favor of self-sustanability is just pulling your chain. I’d be impressed if the company designing and manufacturing the shirts for this week actually employed a subset of the recipients in the Congo. I highly doubt any of that is happening.

Sigh. So much for thinking there was something to like about Sevenly. Seems to me it is just a continuation of the status quo. Yes, yes
I know what you are going to say:

“At least it is better than nothing.”

That, my friend, does not make it right, now does it?

*For more nuanced analysis of the complexity in Congo (and to put into context why a $7 donation isn’t going to help rape victims), please start reading Dr. Laura Seay’s excellent ‘Texas in Africa‘ blog.

  1. Interesting take. A bit pessimistic. You would probably be shocked if you knew the insane amount of hours we put into organizing efforts to ensure that the money hits the ground. We are actually working on sending a videographer all around the world for each campaign to document the efforts. That being said, I assure you we are not a profit machine. I have not even taken a salary yet. But we do love people and our hearts are in the right place. Hope that helps you have a better view of Sevenly. Blessings to you my friend.

    • Thanks for the response Dale. I appreciate the clarification. My point wasn't to specifically slam Sevenly, i really wanted to explore this emerging new trend of cause-related marketing and its impact on those causes. It certainly a lot more nuanced than this blog posts is, but it is an emerging area in which best practices are still unwritten. Looking forward to seeing if Sevenly sets the standard in this space.

  2. “At least it is better than nothing.”

    "That, my friend, does not make it right, now does it?"

    Why not? It does if you take a utilitarian perspective.

    Futher, obviously a single $7 donation won't solve any societal problems, but I don't suppose sevenly is intending to close up shop after you make your lone donation.

  3. Actually we should question these tactics.They violate Facebook policy to promote their shirts. They pay these Facebook fan pages to post links and pictures of their shirts. Once Facebook finds out about this which I suspect they will the poor page owners will have their pages shut down. Hopefully Sevenly will be responsible enough to have a campaign to support these fan pages once they close down. Here they are. They are for hire http://www.facebook.com/christianfanpage http://www.facebook.com/dontgiveupongod

  4. Sevenly did not invent this type of cause related marketing to begin with. A company called http://www.selflesstee.com/ did about a year ago. They won the Pepsi refresh challenge and won 50,000 seed money to fund their project. Based on the comment above I see this Dale Partridge is not only stealing ideas but hijacking fan pages too.

  5. I dont suppose you counted the cost of living, beautiful young people who have passions, giving of their time, talents, education ( that was not cheap!) families, together along with hearts for serving the Lord. Everyone who buys a t-shirt knows they are giving a third when they give it. Do we as a consumer buy a T-shirt for every single cause NO. We simply are joyed to be able to be a part of a cause we already are passionate about and want to make an offering we can be sure of. Starting out at 33.3 for a young company should be commended. If I don't mind then there is at least 30,000 other that will agree! They could use our prayers and favor not cynicism.

  6. It is so sad to see someone tear down an organization trying to make a difference. I myself own quite a few of these shirts. What I can say is, they are TRYING to make a difference, while you my friend are spending your time critiquing others efforts to make a difference.
    I will pray for you.

    • Hi Amanda. Thank you so much for your prayers. I can never turn down a prayer. We all need them in these trying times. But I'll have to take you to task for saying that I only criticize. Perhaps you should get to know what it is I do before YOU criticize me. Throwing stones in glass houses are we now?

  7. I wouldn't necessarily say that Amanda is criticizing you, she is just merely saying instead of sitting on internet and posting about how this company is bad why don't you just let them TRY to make a difference even if its only a little. Let me ask you …..What are you doing to try to help? Also … Yeah so there are other ideas out there that are similar to this but hell why not have as much money as people can raise coming in to help these people that are less fortunate.

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