The global charity Soles4Souls marked 2011 with growing pains resulting from an evolving mission. The Old Hickory-based non-profit that started six years ago as a crisis relief organization has taken a turn into micro-enterprise.
More than a few eyebrows raised when a USA Today story revealed many of the shoes collected at schools and churches end up being sold in the Third World.
Founder Wayne Elsey says the original mission of giving away as many pairs as possible can do more harm than good. It’s a theory backed up by some economists.
“I can go into a developing nation tomorrow and dump a million pair of shoes in a heart beat. But what does it do? Does that teach them anything? Is it a sustainable model? No. If anything, I’m hurting local commerce.”
As of late, Haiti has become more of a micro-enterprise experiment. Elsey says a distributor pays Soles4Souls to get the shoes then trains locals to clean them up and sell or trade the footwear. Haitians get their first bag of 50 pairs for free, and pay a small amount when they’re ready to restock. Elsey sees it as an even higher purpose than clothing the poor.
“If I put 10 Haitians in a row today and asked them what do they need, they’d tell you a job. I’m giving them jobs.”
Elsey says Soles4Souls still gives away many of its donated shoes, even in the countries where it helps locals sell footwear. But the micro-enterprise model is expanding, moving for the first time into Europe with a new project for orphans in Moldova.