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Charity Giving and Questions About Soles4Souls

April 16, 2012

On Friday I saw a Facebook post from Jim Watson (our Mayor) for soles4souls – Ottawa is taking part in their million shoe challenge, and City Hall is a drop spot.

I like the idea of taking the shoes I don’t need and giving them to someone who can use them. It sounds simple, a direct transfer, but as always I wanted more information before I sent in my shoes. (This is why I don’t donate at the door). The name has a vaguely religious connotation, and I’m curious to see what I’m being asked to support and what they really do.

So I Googled. And first hit upon Mayor Watson’s Youtube video asking Ottawa for 200K pairs of shoes, as part of our ‘spring cleaning’. He has even declared April ‘Soles4Souls’ month.

My take-away, upon seeing this video is that this organization will be collecting the shoes, sorting them, and shipping some to our community and some to adults and children in need around the world. How many of our shoes stay here? How many stay in Canada? In North America? How do they determine which shoes go where? Their page indicates that last year in the Okanagan 60,000 pairs were collected, with only 7,000 staying in the area. The rest were ‘primarily’ shipped to Haiti.

Upon further reading of the same page they weren’t all donated in Haiti, but rather used for ‘microenterprise’, in other words, sold. This lead me to this USA today report from 2011, which indicates that the new shoes, received from companies that get a tax break, are donated, but it appears the rest (including our ‘gently used’ ones) are destined to be sold. Remember those shoes that went to Haiti? This report indicates that a total of 1.3 million pairs were shipped (or allocated for (?)) there when you include the US branch of the organization. And of that, they have accounted for 20,000 being handed out. Are the other 1.28 million being sold? In Haiti? For $10/pair? Their 2010 annual report (PDF) does not clear this matter up for me either.

Their mission page on soles4souls.org makes no mention of this micro-enterprise, neither does the ‘About’ page, speaking only of ‘distributing’ shoes. There is however a navigation link to ‘Micro-enterprise’.

The USA Today article also brings up interesting points concerning the micro-enterprises and the support they receive. Soles4Souls makes no mention of training on their Micro-enterprise page, focussing solely on delivering inventory. (They do however mention ‘basic business principles’ and ‘business training’ in this post.) How is this training overseen? What are the success/failure rates? What does an entrepreneur do with the shoes they cannot sell? How are they supported? How are the sellers selected? Are they working with any people who have a proven track record of setting these sorts of partnerships up in the countries they are working in?

I’ll accept that ‘consignment fees’  cover the costs of shipping and sorting (supporting 25 people in Alabama), however their math seems a little bit off. Their website claims that someone selling shoes in Tanzania is making $300 a month (equivalent of selling 37.5 pairs of shoes a month, given that $2 from every pair is returned to S4S or their middlemen). $300 is apparently 3 times the average monthly income. Sounds great on the face of it, but then consider that they’re selling those $10 shoes to people who make $100 a month. In Canadian terms, using the average income after tax, for lone parent families figure of http://www.statcan.gc.ca/tables-tableaux/sum-som/l01/cst01/famil21a-eng.htm that would equate to $454 for a pair of shoes. Is this the going market rate for shoes in that area? Or are these micro-enterprises in for a tough haul?

Next I wanted to see what others, including governments and charity rating organizations thought of them:
They claim to be a registered Canadian charity (screen cap below), however a search of the CCRA Charities Listings website offers no returns for that name, and they do not publish their Registered Charity number on their website. Also, their request for donations goes to their American site. They are listed with the IRS, but Canadians do not benefit from this.

This page might change, but as of right now, they claim to be a registered charity.

Charity Navigator does not list them, nor does Charity Watch. I’m not sure if this is due to the fact that they look for in kind donations rather than cash and I also understand that this is only one facet of assessing a charity, I was just curious to see if they were listed. They are not BBB accredited and did not supply requested information (they are under no obligation to do so, but have been asked.)

Next I wanted to know what sort of religious affiliations they held. Did they have a faith-based component to their organization? I first came across this piece:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

‘Soles4Souls’ Helps Poor Walk a Better Path, posted with vodpod

Note that the interviewer mentions that it’s a ministry several times and it’s neither acknowledged or disputed. They also focus on church drives, but I do understand it’s the CBN. So…inconclusive.

And there is their logo:
which appears to me to be a shoe print with a halo. Take that as you will.
They address the question directly in this interview in Transformed magazine, and state that people may infer a religious meaning, and they do not dispute it, but they claim to be neutral, ‘Switzerland’ and you don’t have to be a believer in order to receive shoes. Fair enough, but a bit more insight into their distribution channels would be nice.

Here is their Canadian plea and it is not readily apparent to me how many of these shoes will be donated locally, in country or globally. It is also not apparent how many will be earmarked for sale, and that is just not transparent enough for me. I posted a link to the USA Today article on both Jim Watson’s facebook page as well as that of the organizer, and neither has replied to my questions there about how the Canadian shoes will be distributed. An email exchange with the organization did not satisfy my concerns either, so I will not be donating to them at this time.

The Community Information Centre of Ottawa provides a listing of the hundreds of organizations providing local outreach. At the present time I feel more comfortable contacting organizations (after investigation of course) on this list for my in-kind donations. If not something like Dress for Success Ottawa  (did you know they were operating here now?) perhaps Chrysalis House or another women’s shelter listed in Shelternet.ca (thanks to my sis for both the CICO and Shelternet links).

How do you decide what charities you support?

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10 Comments leave one →
  1. April 16, 2012 4:22 pm

    Wow, this was an amazing, eye-opening piece. I usually donate without giving much thought as to what is going where. I am so impressed with your research and your conclusions. I will definitely be thinking more deeply about charitable donations I make in the future. Thanks!

    • April 16, 2012 11:15 pm

      Thanks very much Lynn, I honestly started looking to see what their religious affiliation was and just got more disappointed as I read.

  2. April 16, 2012 4:37 pm

    I never donate at the door either – I take their literature and do research. Or I think I’m going to do research and then I don’t do research – so yes, I’m very impressed with your follow-through. I’ve always tried to donate to organizations that I’m confident will use my money wisely (unless they’re selling chocolate, then I usually don’t look all that closely at the brochure, I just pay for the chocolate and scuttle off with it into the nearest corner). This organization does NOT meet my criteria for donation.

    • April 16, 2012 11:18 pm

      I love the idea of doing something so simple. But it doesn’t sound like they have a good handle on doing it well yet.

  3. April 16, 2012 6:12 pm

    This is a fantastic post!! So few people actually research how their donations are used or how credible the organization is. Tsk Tsk Jim Watson…much more deserving local charities that could benefit from the publicity

    • April 16, 2012 11:19 pm

      I was excited at first thinking of the number of local agencies that could be helped by this, but grew more disappointed as I read on.

  4. April 16, 2012 11:06 pm

    I appreciate all the work that you did on this. After going through all the links that you post, I share your concerns. I wonder how much the Mayor’s office looked into them before endorsing them?!

    Aside – their webpage now says they are a charity, but it is not official til fall 2012, which makes them not a charity in my books.

    • April 16, 2012 11:21 pm

      It seems quite a few people are behind this, and I’ll admit the idea is appealing, I just don’t think they’re conveying their true goal very well. (talking about ‘distribution’ vs ‘giving’ and ‘earmarking for sale’)

      And thanks for the update on their web page.

  5. April 17, 2012 8:25 am

    Great work! WoW!

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