There is nothing fun about fund-raising. Whoever came up with that word has never begged rich people for money. It doesn’t matter how saintly the cause, standing on a stage and auctioning off every object and celebrity you can scrape together is a nightmare. This is not to accuse the philanthropic community of stinginess, as generous donors are quite literally the only force keeping most small organizations alive. But it is pointless and torturous to repeatedly tap the same tree and expect to find sap.
There is a tendency when a well-intentioned fund-raiser senses a dry well to yank violently at heartstrings, describing in detail the gruesome effects of chemical weapons on infants as the assembled guests slump guiltily over their herb-roasted lamb chops. Another common tactic is to shame the guests by pointing out their annual income and comparing it to the price of one year of education for an entire Cambodian village.
I am intimately familiar with these types of events as I spent ten years of my life hosting them. I started at 18, raising $50,000 in one night for Doctors Without Borders by working like a dog for six months to get $150,000 worth of food, booze, chairs, valet services, projectors, and many other “overhead” necessities donated. I quickly understood the game. You beg, shame, plead, hustle, and then scramble to collect every penny you can.
Aside from the obvious effects of this method (donor fatigue, resentment, apathy), there is a more dangerous result, one that forced me to completely reevaluate my philanthropic strategy. By guilting the rich into caring for the poor, we create a divide that prevents any real progress toward a more fair and just world. We are perpetuating the notion that the problem, be it elephant poaching or genital mutilation, is far away, and we can absolve ourselves of any responsibility by signing checks—more zeros equals more absolution.
What if we could lessen this chasm by encouraging people to feel a constant and engaging connection to giving, as opposed to an occasional atonement for their privilege?
A few years ago, I somehow found myself within earshot of Bono. (I promise this did not involve any trespassing or wiretapping.) He said the wisest words I’d ever heard about philanthropy: “We must all remember the importance of not being earnest.” Leave it to Bono (and Oscar Wilde) to turn common sense into poetry. This simple statement immediately became my mantra.
To me, it meant that if we allow donors to enjoy the experience of giving, they will continue to give. So I became determined to find a new way of raising cash so desperately needed by NGOs all over the world, by tapping into an activity nearly everyone enjoys: shopping.
Americans spend over half a billion dollars a day on clothing. Take a moment to pick your jaw up off the floor, dust it off, and read that statistic again. We love to spend our hard-earned dollars on clothes. And why not? Fashion is our way of defining ourselves amongst the herd. But what if we could redirect some of that cash flow back into society’s most desperate sectors? By empowering the consumer to give back while she splurges on a dress, we can send the message that philanthropy is not only for the $10,000-a-plate crowd.
There is an undeniable movement toward mindful manufacturing, sourcing, and spending in almost all areas of business, fashion being perhaps the most revolutionary. The industry that for so long represented superficiality and short-sighted commerce is now a key component of the microfinance movement and a leader in the quest to end both poverty and environmental ruin.
Master & Muse and the newly created Toms Marketplace are just a few companies allowing consumers to shop consciously without sacrificing quality. They are figuring out ways to turn capitalism—the machine that has traditionally pillaged the earth and its poor—into a tool to serve and connect. By doing so, they tap into existing wealth and redistribute it instead of begging for scraps and guilty handouts.
This is the idea that led me to a project I cofounded with my partner-in-good, Barbara Burchfield, an interior designer and fashion junkie whom I got to know in Haiti. Babs was running Artists for Peace and Justice, founded in 2009 by Paul Haggis, an organization dedicated to supporting local education projects in the poorest parts of the country. She and I became friends as we darted around Port-au-Prince, bouncing and sliding in the back of a pickup truck, loving every moment—except for the mind-numbing fund-raising element of running an organization. Soon we came up with Conscious, an online shoppable magazine where people can learn about and participate in the movement to use dollars more consciously.
When Babs and I began the site, it was critical that we featured only things we would take an interest in—regardless of their philanthropic component. Gone are the days when people will buy some crafty beaded wallet as a symbol of their good deed for the month, only to let it sit hidden in a drawer ever after. We now live in a time when one of the best-selling dresses at Anthropologie also funds a girls’ school in Calcutta, India. This is just one of the collaborations Conscious Commerce has fostered, and it’s only possible because of a swell of public awareness about how we shop.
This coincides with a rising standard for all our spending, from food to cosmetics. In the past, global economic growth led to greater distance between the consumer and the manufacturer, making much of what we eat, wear, use, and put on our skin as mysterious as a gift from Santa. But now we expect organic, GMO-free produce in our (non-plastic) shopping bags. We want to know what farm our chicken came from, where our textiles were printed, and what in God’s name the ingredients in our deodorant mean for our immune systems. We are trying desperately to take back control of what we consume.
The ultimate goal of our project is to transform the role of capitalism in our society and allow for wealth to recycle back into the system of production, instead of being funneled into the pockets of the one percent. It should be a given that our economy feeds itself, from top to bottom. What will help make this possible is the commitment of designers, manufacturers, and distributors to create goods that benefit the world, whether or not the consumer is even aware that they’re buying something socially conscious.
In this time of both great wealth and extreme crisis, it’s time to use one to fix the other. We vote with our dollars every day, and every day is a chance to help.