This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

This is Lesson 7 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

OK, so you’ve lunched with the head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from Giant Corporation X (GCX) a few times now. You’ve attended their annual meeting of women employees and presented to their human resources director and discussed what an employee engagement program might look like. You have a pretty good idea how much you can get from GCX in cash and in kind, and pulling this deal off will bump you up to your personal yearly revenue goal and make your CEO quite happy. GCX normally does Toys for Tots and Support the Troops kind of stuff and you are the one who’s finally gotten them interested in doing something for the kids “over there”.

The head of GCX’s CSR department comes up with a bright idea. Why don’t we send over some holiday gifts! They’ve read The Kristof. They know that girls need sanitary products to keep them in school and in addition, this is a perfect opportunity for GCX to break into the local BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market in 3 of their target countries. Maybe some branded tote bags filled with their sanitary products! Or perhaps some branded backpacks filled with a range of their low-end toiletries? Surely a win-win there. Not only will poor people get products to improve their hygiene (toothbrushes, soap, tooth paste) but they will also be exposed to GCX’s brand! Or perhaps a 1 for 1 campaign – for every blond plastic doll you buy, CGX will donate one to a poor girl and the gifter will get a jointly branded thank you letter back from the poor girl showing some gratitude. (GCX employees really don’t trust charities and this is a great way to both prove that the dolls are actually arriving into the hands of the impoverished girls and to make the gifters feel that warm glow of charity do-gooding.)

GCX will also send over their 3-member PR team and one lucky employee do-gooder (chosen through an employee sales contest or some other motivating internal initiative) to do some video and photo shoots for their monthly magazine, featuring your joint program to give gifts to the needy. It will be great PR. You’ll go to a “Development Lite” country (the Dominican Republic is always a good choice) for the trip —  small country with low crime rates, easy-to-reach extremely poor communities near the capital, beautiful hotels and nice beaches, and a quick flight from the US….

Sweet deal, and you are golden.

That is, until the program team gets wind of your success. Damn haters. They give you crap about the idea and you’re at a total loss as to why. Who could be so cold-hearted that they would refuse families hygiene products, or girls sanitary pads or children their Christmas gifts? And this arrangement is so clearly an entry level deal that can lead to so much more.

Well, let me tell you a secret – A handout is a handout is a handout.

And your program staff are pissed because they know that you will probably win out in the end. After all, your organization is struggling in this economy, and the branding and potential additional funds that this handout program can offer will be quite hard to ignore.

But we’ve known for a very long time that handouts are bad for development. They destroy community development work because they confirm the illusion that people from the outside will come in to give things away and resolve community problems. Read about halfway down in this article for one example of how Tom’s Shoes’ Buy-One-Give-One project has created a mythological idea that families don’t need to prioritize shoes for their children because outsiders will eventually come in and hand them out.

Handouts mean that people stop working to improve things for themselves, and they wait for someone to come in and do it for them. Handouts mean that communities don’t own their own development, and they are not finding sustainable solutions to their predicaments. Handouts don’t help, they hurt. Your colleagues in program are thinking long-term, not short-term, and they are trying to get communities to do the same.

Handouts not only spoil the hard work that your organization has been doing since the 1970s or 80s to move away from a method that set back communities around the world, but they ruin the chances of any other NGO, community based organization, government program or motivated local community member or group to get the community to move forward on its own.

Handouts don’t help people’s dignity and self-esteem, they reinforce the idea that people can’t help themselves.

Corporate handout programs might be a short-term gain for you and for recipients of the handouts, but they represent a long-term loss for community self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate goal of most development programs. Think about it. Is that what you really want to support?

In addition, handouts of products and openly pushing particular brands and products is ethically questionable. Especially if by accepting an agreement to work with GCX you are locked out of working with Giant Corporation Y (GCY) or with a local provider of the same products, or if your employees effectively become brand ambassadors for GCX or GCY, regardless of their products’ fit with the local context or the unfair competition that GCX or GCY might be giving to the local producers of such products.

Corporations are looking for short- medium- and long-term gain when they engage with non-profits. So why are non-profits often looking only at the short-term financial gain when they negotiate with corporations instead of thinking about the long-term impact that a corporate handout program can have on community development? Are corporations really that much smarter than non-profits? Come on, people.

Good development programs stopped doing handouts years ago and it’s been a long, slow struggle for communities to recover from them. Supporting handouts via a corporate partnership is no different than doing them via the normal budget.

So do successful and sustainable programs a favor. When you see the handout initiatives coming, redirect GCX and GCY to something else. Use your creativity to reorient their handout idea towards a different idea that will not set the work in the community back by 30 years.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.


About Shotgun Shack

INGO worker hailing from the crossroads of America, and so far from home in so many ways. I blog about life and the depths and ironies of INGO work. View all posts by Shotgun Shack

2 responses to “This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

  • Jane Reitsma

    Great post. Two things… 1) Is I think this is a good example of where corporations try to apply something that may be successful locally to a situation entirely different overseas. What works as charity at home has a totally different effect in a developing community elsewhere. 2) It reminds me of a recent conversation I had with a founder of an organization that makes washable menstrual pads in Uganda. I cannot tell you how disappointed she was to learn that a donation to a Canadian company for $30 paid for one menstrual pad kit to be made here and sent to Uganda. This $30 would pay 2 weeks salary for someone at the factory in Uganda and many locally made kits.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: