Millions of People in Poverty Provided with Shoes

1 12 2010

In his book Saving the World at Work, Tim Sanders discusses the concept of the “Saver Soldier”. A Saver Soldier, according to Sanders, is “a highly motivated individual who leverages work as a platform to save the world”.

He gives several examples, among them the following story about a group of sales representatives from Timberland who had gathered in post-Katrina New Orleans for a sales conference. They went on a tour and performed some local community service. The story picks up from there:

At the end of the tour, the buses parked to allow the reps to get out and walk around the neighborhood. As they did, one rep noticed a makeshift community gathering spot constructed of tarps and rotted wood where a middle-aged man in a baseball cap was taking notes on a clipboard. The sales rep started a conversation with the man and soon discovered that he was a volunteer community organizer who had lived in the Ninth Ward pre-Katrina.

Moved by the moment, the rep asked the volunteer what the community center most needed.

“Shoes,” the volunteer replied, pointing to a chalkboard that listed shoes at the top of the Please Drop Off list. “Used ones, new ones–we need shoes.” He then explained that many of the community service volunteers were working in flip-flops and soleless  shoes in an area littered with rusty nails and splintered boards.

The Timberland employee immediately bent down, unlaced his boots, and handed them to the volunteer. He then walked barefoot back to the buses, where employees were loading up for the ride back to the hotel.

A coworker, who noticed the sales rep wasn’t wearing his boots, asked why. “That man there told me that they needed shoes,” the sales rep replied, pointing to the community center. “I gave him mine.”

The coworker stood up, left the bus, and gave the volunteer his shoes, too. The others watched, and acted: In the next ten minutes, the buses emptied out as all two hundred sales reps walked to the community center and donated their shoes or boots to the Ninth Ward, even though, for many of them, these Timberland boots were prized possessions.

The volunteer, overwhelmed, scrambled to keep pairs matched together, tucking laces into boots and organizing them by size. All he could muster was a repetitive “Thank you, thank you” to every Timberlander.

The trip back to the hotel was silent, as employees reflected on what they’d seen that day. A senior meeting planner later recalled, “It was the quietest twenty-minute bus ride I’ve ever been on.”

That first Saver Soldier experience began with the simple act of asking the question “what do you need?”. From the question came the answer, and the Saver opportunities were quick to drive to a different scale (from 1 pair of boots to 200 pairs) in as little as ten minutes.

The Saver Soldier mentality can do more than just add personal value to the Soldier and a few individual beneficiaries. It can also be an effective way to build brand equity in a company.

A related example is that of Toms Shoes. Toms recently gave away its one millionth pair of shoes to people living in poverty. In a recent NPR interview, founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie describes the philosophy of the company, and how it got its name. There is no Tom. Mycoskie explains:

Tom is a concept, not a person. It stands for shoes for tomorrow, because as the 34-year-old Texas native recalls, “We said for every pair of our shoes that’s purchased today, we’ll give away a pair tomorrow. It’s the tomorrow’s shoes project.”

Why shoes? Here are some reasons from the Toms Web site:

Many children in developing countries grow up barefoot. Whether at play, doing chores or going to school, these children are at risk:

  • A leading cause of disease in developing countries is soil-transmitted diseases, which can penetrate the skin through bare feet. Wearing shoes can help prevent these diseases, and the long-term physical and cognitive harm they cause.
  • Wearing shoes also prevents feet from getting cuts and sores. Not only are these injuries painful, they also are dangerous when wounds become infected.
  • Many times children can’t attend school barefoot because shoes are a required part of their uniform. If they don’t have shoes, they don’t go to school. If they don’t receive an education, they don’t have the opportunity to realize their potential.


OK, so sell a shoe, then give a shoe away. Sounds like a wonderful and noble idea. But, what if you’re a board member of Toms; how do you feel about the costs associated with giving away a million pairs of shoes? Well, that depends on how many shoes you would have sold had you not been giving away free shoes.

Toms Grey Flannel Men's Classics

I have to be honest; I’m certainly not the best judge of fashion, but there’s nothing I personally find particularly stylish or otherwise attractive about Toms shoes. It would not occur to me to walk by them in a department store and buy them. But, knowing that my $50 is going to provide someone deep in poverty acquire a pair of well-made shoes when otherwise they would have none? That’s a value proposition I can get behind.

And, of course, that’s exactly the point. Create commercial value in the company by way of creating value in the basic quality of life of people who need help. By buying a pair of Toms, each of us can be a Saver Soldier, and that can be a significant competitive differentiator. It provides Toms the ability to better compete, and sell lots more shoes. Win/win/win.

To get involved:

Saving the World at Work