Is Soles4Souls Misrepresenting its Program to Donors?

April 3, 2011; Source: The Tennessean | In his new book, “Almost Isn't Good Enough,” Soles4Souls CEO Wayne Elsey says he founded his charity with one simple goal in mind: Collect shoes and give them away. But critics of the Nashville, Tenn.-based charity say that the program is misrepresenting itself to donors, and others question whether sending used shoes overseas is a good idea in the first place.

According to The Tennessean, millions of pairs of used shoes are donated to Soles4Souls by churches, civic groups and individuals, but the shoes don't go directly to the impoverished people the charity says it is helping. Instead Soles4Souls ships most of the shoes to a for-profit wholesaler for a fee – about $2.89 million in 2009. The wholesalers then ship the shoes overseas where they enter the local markets.

For their part, Soles4Souls says they are engaged in a microenterprise program, which creates jobs for poor people. Todd McKee, general counsel and chief administrative officer of Soles4Souls, said the charity's attorneys and outside auditors reviewed the program and approved it, according to The Tennessean.

Others say that the practice does more harm than good by flooding markets with used shoes – Soles4Souls took in 3.7 million pairs of used shoes in 2010 – and driving shoemakers in poor countries out of business. Apparently the new shoes the group collects — about 5.4 million in 2010 – are not sold at market, but indeed given away through intermediary charities.

The difference between Soles4Souls and other shoe- and clothing-collecting charities like Goodwill and the Salvation Army, according to The Tennessean, is that those other groups specifically tell donors that their used goods will be sold and used to support their program. By contrast, Soles4Souls tells donors their used shoes will go to people who have none. "Soles4Souls Inc., the shoe charity that gives away free shoes to people in desperate need, is running out of shoes," a Sept. 9 press release read.

The thorough investigation by The Tennessean into the misleading practices of Soles4Souls also details several groups who have collected thousands of pairs of shoes thinking the shoes would go directly to people who needed them. Brian Williams who runs ThinkKindness.org, whose goal it is to collect 100,000 pairs of shoes with the help of kids, believed the shoes would be given directly to people in need. Williams said the donated shoes would be a tangible sign that kids can make a difference in the world.

But it turns out the lesson for the kids he works with isn’t so tangible. When he learned the shoes would not go directly to people who needed them he was surprised but said it was okay as long as poor people were making money from the microenterprise.

Saundra Schimmelpfennig, who blogs on overseas aid at the Chronicle of Philanthropy is critical of the practice on grounds other than any mischaracterization to donors, saying that the practice is more based on the needs of the giver than those of the recipient. “We are creating this culture of dumping stuff we don’t want on other people.” She says that in her opinion these kinds of donations help nonprofits boost their bottom lines on public financial reports.—Aaron Lester