When I first heard the idea I cringed. I was trolling through my daily digest of social media and I caught a link to a story about some guy wanting to send 1 million t-shirts to Africa. I checked out the site and found it belonged to Jason Stadler, founder of iwearyourshirt.com. Jason makes money by getting companies to buy ad space on his chest with their T-shirt. Each day a company pays him a certain amount of money and he has a cute little mathematical formula that allows every succeeding day to cost more than the preceding day until December 31 ends up costing a bundle for the t-shirt wearing extravaganza. People aren’t just paying for bicep billboards, they’re really paying for Jason’s skill at leveraging social media.
With 21,000-plus followers on Twitter, and nearly 4,500 “friends,” on Facebook, not to mention visits to his website, Jason has quite a following in the world. It still doesn’t beat the 1.1 million subscribers to the Wall Street Journal, but hey, how many people gloss over newspaper ads these days? But I bet you read every one of those tweets and FB updates don’t you? Anyway, companies jumped at the chance to have a targeted, stationary audience, albeit built by one man (now two with his buddy Evan), at the cost of a Starbucks coffee on the low end or the tune of a high-priced vacuum cleaner on the high end. And since America is the land of excess they sent the poor boy who only had one chest dozens, sometimes hundreds of T-shirts. So like a thoughtful guy he thought, “What the heck am I going to do with all these T-shirts?”
Why Does Africa Need 1Million T-shirts?
Why he didn’t just think of shipping them to his local homeless shelter I’ll never know (maybe he did) but he decided to box the T-shirt’s and send them to Africa. I decided to read Jason’s materials BEFORE I wrote this blog. I really wanted to know what motivated him and what made him think people in Africa were worth only a T-shirt. (That’s a loaded statement but you get my meaning.) It turns out someone ASKED HIM! Apparently, from what I could tell, someone asked Jason for his t-shirts and like any social media guru he thought, “If they want mine why not my friends?” And I can only assume that’s why 1MillionT-shirts were born. Still I was concerned. (I mean Jason is applying for 501c(3) status and I mean there are already 1.4 million charities in the U.S. do we really need another one????)
As a person who has worked in international development aid through Christian ministries for the last six years and supporter of global giving for the last decade my hackles are always raised when some well-meaning but totally clueless bloke wants to “saving the starving children in Africa.”
Aid to developing countries over the years has taken on an imperialistic tone that is unsavory to the folks who receive it. After traveling to developing countries on five continents in six years I’ve learned a lot about good intentions and where they can lead. I remember talking to shop owners in Burkina Faso, telling them how I saw this little boy way out in the bush, near his thatch hut house proudly wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with famous rapper Nelly on it. I thought it was funny. They thought it was devastating to their local economy. Because so many cheap clothing goods flow into countries like Burkina Faso from global aid, the merchants who try to make a living can’t. Why buy a shirt from them when you can just get one for free off a World Vision truck? So each time I stepped out of my hotel in Burkina I was assaulted by young men selling phone cards because that’s the only commodity the Chinese or aid groups hadn’t taken over.
Who Decides Whether 1Million T-shirts Makes a Difference?
Instead of writing a blog calling Jason stupid I did a novel concept – I commented on his Facebook post about the t-shirt idea, telling him about t-shirt merchants that I met who decried cheap goods flooding into their markets and asked him to consider working with local African merchants in this project. He chimed back, “Great idea. Hadn’t thought of that…” Unless he was blowing smoke, it seemed like he was willing to listen. I think he was sincere. I saw on his blog post today that “Changes Were on the Horizon…” Which is great!
But two days later I read a barrage of blogs on how bad Jason is as a person for being so misguided on aid to Africa.
The fact that the aid community sliced Jason online tells me more about the aid community than Jason. Sometimes in development we can get so insular that we develop a sort of contempt for the very people who we beg from each day. And yes, call it want you want, but we do beg. We beg for money, for time, for attention … we are the true marketers as we get people to buy into products that they don’t really need to buy into. And we’re good at it. But we’re not the only ones that can do it. So cut Jason some slack. (In some cases, Jason didn’t make his case too appealing by responding crassly to legitimate criticism but hey, we can’t all be Mother Teresa.)
Can 1Million T-shirts Change the World?
To me those aid workers who publicly called out Jason did Africa and all those in need a disservice. Here’s what they could have done instead:
1. Come up with a Top 10 List on what makes good aid to developing countries and asked Jason to help promote it.
2. Offer Jason alternatives like selling virtual t-shirts and donating the money to well-heeled charities.
3. Hooked up with Jason through social media to promote campaigns they were doing that are considered “good aid.”
4. Commend Jason for his willingness to help and but offer him advice instead of just criticism.
5. Conduct their own social media campaign to raise awareness of “good aid,” using Jason as an example of how good people can join the fight but
maybe offering better ways to do it.
6. Focus on Jason’s process rather than his product. Write about how social media can help deliver good aid in the right hands.
7. Offer Jason alternative “good aid,” projects.
8. Even if you peg Jason’s project as a “bad aid,” project solicit good aid examples from your existing network and inject them into Jason social media sphere.
9. Treat someone as you would like to be treated.
10. Realize we in development haven’t gotten the message out about what makes ‘good aid,’ otherwise Jason’s idea would have never taken whole.
Bottom line don’t blame Jason for what you think is a bad idea. Blame ourselves for not educating the public on what exactly is needed in the world of development. Blame ourselves for ignoring or being slow to accept social media’s power. Jason’s idea could be the best thing to happen to the development world. It’s got more people talking about aid than we’ve seen in a long time. Don’t poison the conversation. Enrich it.
Oh and if you don’t think that a t-shirt can be a powerful aid tool I invite you to read a story I did on a Rwandan teenager whose blue T-shirt sheltered him during the horrible Rwandan genocide. His T-shirt and the work of Compassion International, definitely made a difference. Read the story here. Hear Pascal talk about his experience with Compassion and how it changed his life. (I used to work for Compassion and I still support them. The story I’m referring to here was written after I interviewed Pascal but was never published until now. You can see a shorter version of the story that was published here.)