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The debate about the TOMS “buy one, give one” model is not new. In sum, TOMS promises that for every pair of shoes it solds, it will give away another pair of shoes to a child in need. So what’s wrong with this? Critics suggest that donating shoes in this way fails to address one of the most important root causes of poverty: a lack of access to fair-paying, sustainable employment” and moreover, undermines local markets.


Today, it appears that TOMS might actually be listening to and responding to this criticism. TOMS recently announced that beginning in January 2014, they will begin to employ 100 Haitians and build a ‘responsible, sustainable’ shoe industry in Haiti, further pledging that, by the end of 2015, TOMS would produce a minimum of one-third of all its giving shoes in places where the shoes are distributed to needy individuals.

These are issues that I grapple with on a daily basis, working for a social business that seeks to sell – at low, affordable prices – many of the same products that other NGOS, mission groups, and international corporations are donating in many of the same communities where we work. It’s a particularly challenging struggle in my region of Sololá, home to countless full-time NGOs and even more one-time volunteer groups, alternative breaks, and “voluntourism” programs, all of whom are drawn to the natural beauty of Lake Atitlan (which, I will admit, is pretty indescribable).

Yesterday, I went to visit the Swan Tinamit internet café and youth learning center in Nahuala,  which also doubles as a point of sale for SolCom by selling our water filters, replacement candelas, solar lamps, and eyeglasses to the surrounding community. During our meeting, I was somewhat distressed to hear that a filters donation project had passed through Nahuala just a few weeks before, donating a large amount of filters similar to those that we sell for 395Q (about $50). But the rest of the conversation was much more heartening. My contact told me that he recognized these donation projects at a threat, noting that the people who receive donate filters versus paying for filters themselves feel much less ownership over the filters themselves, and moreover, that they generally have no idea where to buy their replacement candelas (the ceramic, silver, and carbon “candle” that filters the water) after their year lifespan ends. But he also told me that the recognized this as an opportunity for his store, as he hopes to continue increasing publicity and promotion over the past year, specifically for candelas, so that his fellow community members know where to go to purchase their replacements once the year as passed. So, donations don’t have to be completely problematic – there’s always a flip-side, and a way to turn challenges into opportunities (see what I did there, coworkers?) 🙂

Take our eye exams, for example. While we charge for our glasses, our eye exams are free – meaning our biggest competition at the moment are the traveling eye clinics which have been popping up all around the country, offering computerized eye exams for 10-15 quetzales ($1-2). Do people value eye exams more if they’re paying for them, rather than receiving them for free? Does it make a difference that the clinics offer exams with a computerized machine, whereas we conduct our exams using a simple paper eye test (which yield completely identical results)? The huge benefit of our model is that our exams are portable and thus easy to transport to even the most remote communities, and beyond that, offering free exams is a fantastic way to promote and publicize our campaigns. But these aren’t questions we’re ignoring and competition analysis is an inherent part of our work, whether it’s eyeglasses or water filters or stoves.

None of this is to say that our work is perfect – far from it. But as we continue to draw lessons and seek out new collaborations with other organizations – with models both similar and different to our own – we will continue to improve and hone the work that we are doing, to maximize our impact and our reach.