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"It really is life-changing for them to receive that."
—The corporate affairs officer for World Vision, of children in Africa who got a new t-shirt with the name of the losing Super Bowl team.

World Vision's Giveaways

Here's a problem that needed solving: Before the Super Bowl, a company buys rights to sell t-shirts with the winner's name. They manufacture 100,000 shirts, ready to go on sale as soon as the game ends. Since they don't know who will win, they also print 100,000 t-shirts with the name of the future loser. Those aren't a big seller.

Year after year, the NFL donated the losing team shirts to World Vision, a Christian INGO, which in turn distributed them in poor countries. In 2011 the charity proudly announced on their blog that "this year's unused Super Bowl merchandise will make its way to Zambia, Armenia, Nicaragua, and Romania in the months to come. On average, this equates to about 100 pallets annually — $2 million worth of product — or about 100,000 articles of clothing that, instead of being destroyed, will help children and adults in need."(1)

"It was really cool for me personally to see kids on a soccer field in Zambia wearing Super Bowl shirts," said a World Vision representative.

World Vision used the story to generate glowing reports in mass media looking for a quick feel-good story. Their corporate affairs officer gushed to a reporter, "Many of these kids have never seen something brand new.... It really is life-changing for them to receive that."(2)

Jim Fischerkeller of World Vision told a reporter that "It was really cool for me personally to see kids on a soccer field in Zambia wearing Super Bowl shirts," though he didn't explain why this was so cool, nor making him feel cool was at all relevant. (3)

Capitalizing on the good karma, World Vision posted an exuberant blog titled "100,000 reasons to love the Super Bowl" which opens with unabashed gushing: "Certainly, there is nothing quite like American football that can split a nation by team, and then bring us back together for one unforgettable championship game. But that’s not the only reason to love the power of the Super Bowl. Any production that bids 30-second ads at around $3 million each is worth tuning into — if not for the spectacular cinematography, then at least for a hardy laugh or two." It also compliments the cheeseburger sliders.

They were quickly, and no doubt unexpectedly, hit with sharp criticism from readers and supporters who made a lot of important points which World Vision, despite decades of INGO experience, either hadn't thought about, or perhaps they had, and they hoped that others would not. A few examples:

"Efforts like this from an agency that gets so much press, as World Vision does, only entrench damaging aid practices which, instead of working to eliminate poverty, etc..., in turn entrench poverty, etc..." – a response to the World Vision blog.

  • I'm really disappointed that an international and well known organization such as World Vision would do such a questionable project.... By doing this project not only are you following questionable practices but you're encouraging others to as well.
  • It might be good publicity, but it's bad aid, bad development, etc.
  • Although it seems generous at first glance to send t-shirts to people deemed 'needy', it is actually a 'bad aid' practice that causes more harm than good. This excellent PBS video provides insight to devastating consequences of the donated clothing industry to the very people Worldvision is attempting to help. Please watch: "T-Shirt Travels" http://j.mp/eOTXly
  • Poor Africans are supposed to be grateful for these rejects? If it's not good enough at home it's not good enough for others either. Wish for your brother/ sister what you wish for yourself is what Prophet Jesus PBUH taught.
  • This would be much more redemptive had the NFL (or World Vision) hired (at decent wages) the people in these countries where the clothes will be dumped to produce the originals for both teams. That way, jobs, which is really what poor people in these countries need, would be enhanced rather than destroyed.
  • World Vision ought to know better. Unless WV is knowingly engaging in this practice simply to boost Charity Navigator ratings and get some media hits, which is even worse.
  • This move by World Vision is similar to a much larger problem within the international development field — that is the "dumping" of excess U.S. agricultural products in developing countries that provides cash for programs to international non-profits to do "good work." My understanding is that organizations like CARE actually stopped taking excess US grains to re-sell because it is bad development practice. However, the government didn't miss a beat because organizations like WV picked up the slack and added more to their program growth. (4)

World Vision responded, referring to their long experience, and explaining that "we deliberately distribute the Super Bowl gear to several different communities in at least four different countries to ensure that we don’t flood their local markets with more supplies than the market can handle and that our distributions don’t have an adverse affect on local suppliers."(5)

Why would World Vision continue a program that was so widely criticized? Follow the money: It helps them raise more money, by making their overhead look lower.

Despite the criticisms, World Vision continued the program until 2015, when the NFL chose a new recipient to handle the unwanted shirts. Why would World Vision continue a program that was so widely criticized? There's a reason, and we can find it with a technique that usually works: Let's follow the money.

Charities need to show low overhead. That's what donors like to see, that's what charity rating agencies look at most. Giving away t-shirts counts as part of their program. World Vision indicated that they would value these shirts at $20 each, quite an aggressive valuation. As a tax write-off, the IRS might jump on that. But here they are not trying to trick the tax system, they merely need to satisfy donors who are not looking so carefully: 100,000 shirts at $20 each means they "spent" $2 million on program. If donors give them $500,000 in cash, they can spend all of that on salaries, travel, and overhead in the U.S., and still say that 80% of their receipts — that is, $2 million (as t-shirts) of $2.5 million received (cash plus the supposed value of the t-shirts) — went for their charity work.(6)

Poor countries got another monkey wrench thrown into their economies. But at least, says World Vision, it was a small monkey wrench.

These "Gifts in Kind" (GIK) are such a big part of the operation for many charities that they cannot stop doing them, even in the face of criticism. Apart from government grants, GIK make up about a third of World Vision's income.(7) Without GIK, their overhead would seem to abruptly shoot up. They state that their free t-shirts do not hurt the local economy, but they've got a strong financial incentive to decide that everything's just fine.

In the end, World Vision made itself look thrifty. The Super Bowl got a little more coverage. Poor countries got another monkey wrench thrown into their economies. But at least, according to World Vision, it was a small monkey wrench.(8)

Notes and Sources

1. "100,000 reasons to love the Super Bowl," posted on the World Vision site on 7 February, 2011 by Lindsey Talerico-Hedren. (back)

2. "Losing NFL Teams' Merchandise Put To Good Use," by Kym Gable, CBS Pittsburgh, 7 February, 2012 (back)

3. "The winners that never were: Denver Super Bowl 2014 'Champions' t-shirts are being shipped off to Africa," Mail Online, 3 June, 2014. The brief, glowing story included six photos with captions such as "The NFL is sending all of the unsold printed clothing from this years Superbowl at which the Denver Broncos lost to the Seattle Seahawks, to needy people in Africa." (back)

4. All comments are from the blog cited above, which was still posted as of November 2015. We cannot say whether World Vision left it up to stimulate discussion, or because taking down the page might have been criticized as a cover-up; either explanation is plausible. (back)

5. The point seems to be that there weren't enough t-shirts to really hurt local markets. But logically, if free goods hurt the local economy, then fewer free goods will hurt less than a lot, but they'll still hurt. A study of Toms Shoes giveaways found that they did have a small affect on the market. (back)

6. The master of this type of accounting is AmeriCares, which focuses on "Gifts in Kind" and thus claims to keep overhead under 1%. (back)

7. "The NFL's T-Shirt Donation To World Vision: Charity Or Closet Cleaning?" by Cathleen Falsina, Huffington Post. (back)

8. The World Vision t-shirt giveaway came to our attention through Richard Stupart's entertaining and insightful blog "7 Worst International Aid Ideas." (back)