October 11, 2015

Helping Micro-businesses Through Donations

Recently, I had a pair of experiences that opened my eyes to a whole new set of opportunities for philanthropy as it relates to emerging markets. The first of these experiences took place a month ago when I was trying to clear out our garage after we renovated our home.

I called the President of our town baseball program and offered to donate a box of baseball equipment my younger son had outgrown, including metal bats, small-sized baseball gloves, and some other odds and ends. At the bottom of the box were two torn baseball gloves, one of which was what I used when I was growing up. To my surprise, he wanted everything, including the torn gloves. When I asked about the torn gloves, he informed me that the program shipped torn gloves to Polish micro-businesses that repaired and resold them.

After that, whenever I spoke to potential donees of used items, I asked whether there were similar opportunities with other items. The answer is yes. I spoke to Wayne Elsey, the founder and CEO of Soles4Souls, a non-profit based in the Nashville area, which collects old shoes and ships them to emerging markets to be refurbished and resold in those markets by micro-businesses. He told me that he ships a few million pairs of shoes a year, but that he is touching just a small part of the potential market opportunity for shoes.

In the past, my wife and I would have donated our shoes to a local thrift shop, but we learned that, with the exception of sports-related footwear like children’s-sized ice skates or bowling shoes, Americans do not like to buy and wear used footwear. As a result, much of what gets donated is not re-used and ends up getting discarded. U.S. footwear marketers also do not like to compete with marketers of used footwear.

However, in emerging markets in which the cost of new footwear is too high for the average consumer, refurbished footwear is a great option. The refurbishing and remarketing process creates revenue and profit opportunities for individuals and families, and the footwear fills a critical market need.

I am going to find out how many other market opportunities there are like this one to contribute used and unwanted items to micro-businesses that can refurbish or remanufacture items to be remarketed either here in America or in emerging markets.

We tend to believe that newer is better in all cases, but I know from my Pitney Bowes experience that some of our older equipment is more desirable for certain customers because it is more affordable, but, more importantly, because it has features and capabilities that we no longer provide in our standard products because an insufficient number of customers valued them. However, there are niche markets where these features and capabilities are highly-valued.

There are many good reasons to support efforts like the shipment of baseball gloves to Poland or the shipment of footwear to emerging markets. The efforts not only make consumer goods affordable for more people and provide business opportunities for individuals and businesses that refurbish them, but the re-use of these items conserves resources and avoids waste disposal. Over time, we become better stewards of nature’s resources.

I hope to do a lot more with this insight and match more donors to worthy donees. Anyone reading this who has information about potential opportunities should comment on this blog.