Its hard, but essential, to question intentions in philanthropy

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a rather vicious cliche. Surely in our jaded world, where profitability rules most of our decisions, there is a place in philanthropy for good intentions? Surely.

When someone genuinely tries to do good, it feels miserly to knock their efforts. But its also unconscienable to keep quiet when there is so obviously a mismatch between good intentions and desired results.

The last few days have seen online buzz about TOMS Aid – and whether the plan to provide shoes to poor children in Africa is really a good idea. Poor old Tom – don’t think he had any idea what he started.

See, if we want to believe in good intentions then Tom means well – and I’m sure he does. Their creative team have come up with an apparent win-win: appeal to do-gooders who can both stimulate sales (buy a pair of shoes) and for every pair, Tom will donate a pair to a child in africa who desperately need shoes.

So, whose the loser and why pick holes in it … Tom gets more sales, barefoot kids get free shoes?

Looking a little past the intentions and to the results, its gets a little more complex.

Maybe those kids don’t really need shoes, or maybe they actually need something different that Tom could still provide.

Admittedly that different thing might not look so good on the PR scoop (photos of scores of smiling shod kids are great for marketing) , but … it might affect real developmental change (stimulating local economy to manufacture own shoes,create jobs, build community income) for people who really need it – if that’s what Tom – or anyone else – actually wants to do.

These are such nuanced questions that elicit vehement responses fro do-gooders. The intention of raising this debate is not to stop philanthropists or donators or volunteers from doing marvellous work.

Rather its an opportunity to explore how we can better use the INTENTION behind making the world a better place, to match up with the ACTUAL NEEDS of intended recipients.

Perhaps therein lies the start – using vocabulary like ‘donors’ and ‘recipients’ is immediately alienating. How about partners? Good start but then – how to make those words mean something – is where the hard part starts.

In truth, companies (except non- profits) have a bottom line imperative that needs to find its place in this debate. They can’t just give away profits and go under. So they need a sustainable business model that works for both partners. Perhaps that’s where Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Corporate Social Investment (CSI) get their usual slot.

Saundra has some ideas about how to approach a community to explore self-defined needs for development – if you really want to help.