I was Supposed to Get Life- Changing Aid but All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt

by Sasha Alyson

“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.

Shows World Vision website with photos of children who got free t-shirts

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)

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 why 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 sharply criticized by supporters who made a lot of important points which World Vision, despite decades of INGO experience, hadn’t thought about. Or perhaps they had, but hoped that others would not. A few examples:

  • 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.
  • 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.(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)

Despite the criticisms, World Vision continued the program until 2015, when the NFL chose a new recipient to handle the unwanted shirts. World Vision continues with similar giveaways, such as Toms Shoes. Why would World Vision continue an approach that is so widely criticized? There’s a reason. 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 don’t look 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)

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.

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.

Notes and Sources

Top photo is copyright 2009 by World Vision. We have used it for purposes of comment and criticism, under fair use provisions of copyright law.

1. “100,000 reasons to love the Super Bowl,” posted on the World Vision site on 7 February, 2011 by Lindsey Talerico-Hedren. The page is no longer on the World Vision site, so our link takes you to a page on our site, where we’ve reproduced all of the comments.

2. “Losing NFL Teams’ Merchandise Put To Good Use,” by Kym Gable, CBS Pittsburgh, 7 February, 2012

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.”

4. All comments are from the blog cited above.

5. A study of Toms Shoes giveaways found that they did have a small effect on the market.

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

7. “The NFL’s T-Shirt Donation To World Vision: Charity Or Closet Cleaning?” by Cathleen Falsina, Huffington Post.

The author: Sasha Alyson has been active in literacy work since 2006. He blogs regularly about how development projects frequently undermine the countries they claim to help.

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