Tapping the Fanatical Surplus

I have a confession to make: I am a fan. I read fan fiction. I participate in Livejournal communities. I have actually written fan fiction on occasion. It’s been a great hobby in a life where I can’t have hobbies that involve material things, and fan fiction has saved me more than once from death by boredom on trips too long to carry as many books as I need.

It’s traditional to pretend to be ashamed of this hobby, but I’m not. It’s been crucial to my understanding of social media, community, and the way the world has shifted to a new participatory culture. I am proud to be a textual poacher. This level playing field has even changed the way I see international development. And sometimes fans do wonderful things.

Which is a long way of getting to this post by Laurenist. In it, she deconstructs a new charity started by Misha Collins, the actor who plays Castiel on Supernatural. Here’s how she begins:

Now, Misha is attempting to once again tap his social networking prowess (and large fanbase) to raise funds for a new charity, Random Acts. Not awesome. (Sadface.)

Don’t get me wrong. I like charities! I like Misha! I want Misha’s charity to be one that I like. Unfortunately, it seems the people behind it have good intentions, but as we in the international development blogger community know, “Good intentions are not enough.”

Let’s look at how Random Acts says it’s going to spend the money it raises:

  • 33% will be divided between the orphanages we support in Haiti
  • 15% will go to support victims of the horrific flooding in Pakistan
  • 51.99% will go to support random acts of kindness all around the world
  • .01% will be spent bribing public officials

She has two major criticisms: 1) Orphanages are a bad idea and 2) Supporting random acts of kindness is not an effective use of money. I agree with her on both points. Orphanages are a bad idea, almost always. Saundra can tell you why. And the whole random acts idea strikes me as kind of weak. A lot of feel-good; not much actual result.


Misha Collins actually responded to Laurenist’s post with a well-thought-out comment, and here’s what he had to say about the “random acts” portion of his charity: “Part of what made me want to do this project was seeing so many of my followers on Twitter putting so much energy and so many resources into fandom. I think all of that energy is great, but my thinking was, perhaps, if we could harness a fraction of those resources (both creative and fiscal), we could put some of this c-list idolatry to good use.”

He’s got a point. Fans are completely off the hook crazy. I know this because I am one. I once sent a postcard to David Hewlett that said “how are you so awesome?” I have seen every movie Josh Charles ever appeared in, and that takes some serious endurance. Small wonder Misha Collins wants to tap this fanatical surplus.

The thing is, fans are crazy because being a fan is fun. It’s not meaningful, Henry Jenkins aside. It’s not purposeful. It’s just fun. People don’t do fannish things because they want to be useful. They do it to entertain themselves. While a Misha Collins doing-serious-things charity probably wouldn’t capture fannish attention, maybe his doing-silly-things charity will. And while those silly kind things may not be terribly effective, they are not, as the comments on Laurenist’s post pointed out, worthless.

Misha Collins, in his own way, knows the community he’s dealing with: nutso fans. He’s designed a charity that will appeal to nutso fans and use their energy for good. So, this time, I have to say – more power to him. (Except for the orphanages.)


Photo credit: fanpop

Yep, that’s Misha Collins.

A meditation on used bras

a bunch of bras

In 1994 I was at a conference in Philadelphia. Since it was the 90s, I was planning to wear a pastel-floral jacket and a matching ivory skirt for the conference. When I got dressed, though, I discovered to my horror that you could SEE MY BRA THROUGH MY JACKET. (I was 19 and I’d never been to Russia; I was very modest.) Staring in the mirror at the damning outline of my bra, I was near tears. You’re not allowed to wear a t-shirt to a Model UN Conference and I hadn’t packed any other business clothes.

One of my roommates, a red-haired girl named Amy, noticed my situation, and offered to loan me her own beige bra. I had no other options beside sitting out a conference I was looking forward to (and had already paid for). I borrowed her bra. It didn’t fit quite right, and wearing it was icky. But it got me through the day.

I am telling you about my underwear because it’s an example of an appropriate donation (or in this case, micro-loan) of an in-kind good. Amy knew me personally, knew my situation in detail, and I had an expressed need for the item in question. We were from similar cultures, so she knew how to make the offer in a way that was comfortable for me. Her one-time loan sustained me until I could return to using my own resources (underwear drawer in my dorm room).

Those previous three paragraphs were a long way of getting to this point: used underwear is icky and donating it is hard to do in a non-icky way. In-kind donations in general are very hard to do well, and undergarments are a whole new level of challenge.

Maybe this group from Huffington Post has a fantastic plan for distributing used bras in an effective and culturally sensitive manner and the plan just didn’t get mentioned in the blog post. But before you donate anything to them – ask.

That’s my bigger point: if you’re not clear on what a charity wants to do with your donation, ask for details. It’s not rude. It’s being a good donor. If their plan is well-thought-out, it will be easy for them to answer your questions. And if they aren’t ready for questions from donors, they are certainly not ready to run an effective aid project. (If you don’t know what questions to ask, The Charity Rater is one good way to find some.)


Photo credit: Melissa Maples

Say No to Old Clothes

used clothing stall

Some of you may have heard of a new campaign called One Million Shirts. They want to collect 1,000,000 used and new t-shirts and send them to Africa to help people with no clothes. They are also collecting money for the shipping costs. They’ve got some NGO partners, and they are starting to think about how best to distribute the t-shirts.

When I first heard of it, I thought it was an another well intentioned mess. The project is taking criticism for obvious reasons (if they’re not obvious, I’ll come back to them at the end of this post). The consistently brilliant Texas in Africa blog vouched for the good intentions of the founder, Jason Sadler, despite the terrible weakness of the idea. I decided I was going to stay out of the argument. Other, smarter people were saying everything I would have.

Then I saw the video. Now I don’t think it’s a well intentioned, poorly planned charity effort. Now I think it’s a marketing ploy from someone who is totally uninterested in helping others. When you actually want your project to have an impact, you listen to criticism. You put your ego aside and learn from what people have to say. You don’t cling to your original idea with wounded fury and attack the people questioning you.

I watched the video seven times, and transcribed it for you. My notes are in red:


Hey internet trolls, angry people on twitter, whatever you want to call yourselves.

Angry people on Twitter seems accurate. I don’t know about trolls. Trolls make trouble for the fun of it. Not everyone who disagrees with something is a troll.

You all have a problem with me? That’s fine. I’m very easy to get ahold of. 904 312 2712. Call me.

I am not calling. I am writing this blog post, because I think public discussion is important. And you put your idea out into the world. It seems unreasonable to then demand that all conversation about the idea take place in private. Also, I live in Tajikistan, where I do international development work. Calling you by phone would cost me a fortune, and my internet is too slow for a decent Skype call.

Be a man.

This is sexist. I for one cannot be a man, without major surgery and life changes, because I am female. Are you assuming that everyone who disagrees with you is male? Or that everyone in the world is male? Or, wait – I get where you’re going with this. You think the people who disagree with you are cowardly, and you want them to be straightforward and courageous. Fair enough. But associating bravery and candor exclusively with men is sexist. And yes, your sexism is relevant here. I don’t trust you to do a good job working with women and children if you think they 1) don’t exist or 2) are incapable of courage.

Don’t sit behind Twitter. 140 characters. You don’t even have the time to email me, and you’re going to talk to me on Twitter.

Twitter is a pretty common forum for public discourse. This comment seems roughly equivalent to comparing that someone is hiding behind email or a telephone. I do agree that 140 characters doesn’t lead to useful, detailed discussion. That’s why people are writing blog posts.

I don’t care. I don’t drink hatorade. I really don’t. I don’t care at all. My dog doesn’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care at all.

That is not exactly the response of someone who is interested in learning from criticism. This isn’t personal. Nobody has any problem with you. This is about fear that this project you have founded will hurt the people in Africa that it intends to help. You getting mad does not change that.

If you have a problem with 1 million shirts, you probably really don’t like the fact that I get paid to wear t-shirts for a living. So, go to iwearyourshirt.com if you really want me to ruin your day.

Either this is a massive logical fallacy or a blatant plug for your business. I will assume the best and address it as a logical fallacy. Nobody is opposed to this project because they hate t-shirts or people who wear them. We are worried that sending a big pile of used clothes to African countries will hurt the local textile industry and people who sell retail clothes.

Otherwise I’m going to keep trying to give kids and families who don’t have shirts in Africa clothing to wear. Because you guys all seem to think that everyone in Africa has clothing.

Not everyone in Africa has clothing you would approve of, or want to wear. But yes, I am willing to state that just about everyone in Africa has clothing. Certainly in the countries that you are planning to target: Kenya, Uganda, DRC, Ghana, Liberia, Mozambique, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Sudan, Swaziland, and South Africa. For one thing, Kenya and South Africa are among the strongest economies on the continent.

So apparently you know better than I do. I’ve only been talking to charities who go there often.

Most of the people arguing with you are experienced aid workers and international development professionals with long histories of working with Africa. I am not. I have backstopped Africa programs from DC, and I have a degree in global health, but that’s all I’ve got. J from Tales from the Hood is a different story. So is Texas in Africa. I can pretty much guarantee they have as much or more experience with Africa than the charities you’ve been talking to.

So just want to let you guys know 904 312 2712. I’m happy to talk to anyone who wants to talk like a man maybe step up and actually speak to somebody, not just sit behind a computer. I don’t do that. I step up and get things done. So have a great day, I wish you all the best.

I’m still a woman. Still interested in public discourse, not closed doors wrangling. And I still live in Tajikistan. You have a good day too.


For more information on why donations of used clothing can hurt Africans, see the following resources:

1)      The T-shirt Travels – a documentary on used t-shirts in Africa

2)      Dead White People’s Clothes

3)      Oxfam Report on secondhand clothing in Africa

Photo credit: Kim_TD

A story about donated shoes

brown high heel boots
There is a woman who works for a friend of mine. I’ll call her Gulia since half the women in this country go by Gulia, so it’s safely anonymous. Every winter, all winter long, Gulia wears the same pair of battered brown ankle boots. They are too small for her, and they have no insulation. We know this because Gulia complains about her boots every day, all winter long. Her feet get cold, and her toes hurt.

My friend is a good person and a caring employer. She pays Gulia well enough that she could buy herself a pair of boots, but Gulia never does. She also gives Gulia boots.

She has given Gulia knee-high black boots to go with a dress. She has given her insulated fuzzy boots to fight the cold. She has given her cheery yellow rain boots to splash through the puddles that cover the roads here. Gulia does not wear these boots. When my friend asks about these boots, Gulia thanks her warmly for her generosity and insists that she wears the boots all the time, just not to work. We are quite sure that Gulia is lying about this.

Now, Gulia likes me. She is supporting her parents on her salary, and she likes that I am doing the same for my parents. She is ethnically Uzbek, and I speak Uzbek, so we can chat in her mother tongue. We get along. My friend asked me to try and find out what exactly was going on with the boots.

So, the other day I asked. And Gulia actually told me what was going on with the boots.

The answer? She’s short, and she’s a mom. Because she’s a mom, when she has cash she can spare, she doesn’t spend it on boots for herself. She spends it on her kids. Because she’s short, she only wears shoes with heels. And since my friend has been trying to give her practical, durable boots, she’s been buying flats. The ankle boots may hurt, but they have heels. Gulia can’t face life without the extra two inches. She’d rather have pinched toes and cold feet.

My friend’s gift boots are sitting at home in Gulia’s closet, waiting for Gulia to get so old she can’t wear heels any more, except for the fuzzy pair, which her mother now wears in cold weather.

The moral? There are several, I think. 1) Gulia wants other things, like school supplies for her kids, more than she wants new boots, so maybe we should stop giving her boots. 2) People want what they want, whether or not it makes sense to me. 3) And donated shoes need to actually meet people’s needs, as people themselves see them.

(This story is mostly true. I have changed some elements to make it totally anonymous.)

(photo credit: KayVee.Inc)
Chosen because I suspect those are Gulia’s dream boots.

Three bad ideas for helping Haiti

plane over Haiti

In the rush to engage on Haiti, a lot of well-meaning groups are jumping in to help. Some are brand new, and some have never worked on a disaster like this before. Most of these groups are going to be useless. Some will actually do harm to themselves or others. A tiny minority will have a positive impact. I wish those odds were better, but they’re not.

I’ve seen three bad ideas for helping in Haiti floating around recently. I don’t want to single anyone out for criticism – after all, everyone is trying to do good here. But in this case, the culture of nice may be letting bad programs hurt people. I need to say something.

Bad idea #1 – 50,000 Shoes The idea is to donate 50,000 shoes in 50 days for Haiti. They are asking for a $5 donation for each pair of shoes. The problem with this idea is that it’s based on an assumption – that lots and lots of shoes are what Haitians need right now. What if they need clothes? Or food? Or water purifiers? Should they sell their new shoes and use the money to buy those things? Has anyone done an assessment to find out if shoes are needed? To decide what kind of shoes are needed?

The shoes could end up wasted and useless, absorbing people’s donations without providing any benefit. They could clog supply lines that also bring in desperately needed medicines. They could keep the local shoe suppliers from rebounding after the earthquake, and if badly chosen for the Haitian climate they can give people disgusting fungus.

This is almost a good idea. The time-delimited fundraising with easy to remember numbers will drive people to donate, and they’ve got celebrity endorsements that are raising their profile.

How it could be a good idea – call it $500,000 in 50 days instead of 50,000 shoes. That would double their fundraising goal (since they are trying to provide $250,000 of shoes) but I think they could pull it off, considering their level of media attention. Then they could make a high profile donation, including a ceremony with one of those oversize checks on poster board to Partners in Health.

Bad idea #2 – Flight to Crisis Volunteer doctors and nurses are banding together to charter a flight to Haiti and help with medical care. It’s brave, it’s scrappy, and it shows amazing initiative. It’s also a horrible idea. The people don’t seem to have any plan from bringing in their own supplies and haven’t set up a place to stay in Haiti. They don’t have a hospital to work out of or any background in responding to this kind of disaster. This is exactly the kind of misguided effort I was afraid we’d see, because Haiti is close enough to the US to make it possible. For more information on why this is such a bad idea, read this account of another group of health care providers that chartered a plane.

[Edited to add: please see comments below for a response from Flight to Crisis. They are better organized than their Idealist.org page makes them look.]

How it could be a good idea – in about three months, when rebuilding gets serious and Haitians have time to think, this group could choose a Haitian hospital to partner with. They could fundraise to help it rebuild, and donate supplies and equipment. They could visit the hospital quarterly to train the providers there as needed, and make sure that the equipment is in good shape and well maintained.

Bad Idea #3 – The Global Volunteer Network Haiti Project This project, which volunteers pay to support, is seeking people to volunteer for the following projects: working with children, teaching, health/medical efforts, building and construction, counseling, and business development. They say that volunteer trips can run from one week long to six months. This list seems designed to please volunteers, not meet the needs of people in Haiti. You already know that I am not a supporter of trips where you pay to volunteer.

This, however, is even worse than usual. This isn’t just useless feel-goodery for rich people. This will hurt people in Haiti. Traumatized children should not be making emotional attachments to volunteers who will be gone in six months. Volunteer labor for building and construction will keep Haitians from getting paid jobs to do the work themselves. And no outsider volunteer has any business providing counseling; counseling needs a background in local culture and context that a visitor won’t have.

How it could be a good idea – It’s almost impossible to rescue this one, but short-term volunteers could offer brief, targeted English or French classes to Haitians who needed them. They could cover technical topics that local teachers might not be able to offer. Not in a week. There really isn’t anything useful you can do in a week. But two months might work. It really wouldn’t qualify as disaster response – or rebuilding – but it would at least be useful.

For more information on how to help in Haiti, take a look at my Aid Watch post.

Photo credit: simminch

Me, in other locations

I’m writing less often for Blood & Milk because I am writing in other places now. Some recent stuff that might interest you:

The Lancet is Off-Base About Aid Agencies – at UN Dispatch

Nobody Wants Your Old Shoes – How Not to Help Haiti – at Aid Watch

Teaching Americans What Haiti Needs
– The New York Times (I didn’t write that one, I’m just quoted)

Should We Be Vacationing in Haiti Right Now? – at UN Dispatch

Haiti – Some Thoughts and Some Links

Rescuers in Haiti

Right now, the immediate emergency stage is already over, barring severe earthquake aftershocks. Tales From the Hood has some great posts up on Haiti and disaster relief. One excellent point:

The first phase of an emergency response is carried out by ordinary citizens in their own neighborhoods. Now, a day after the earthquake, the most nimble international aid agencies are just getting “feet dry” on Hispanola…All of those agencies will make dramatic statements about their life-saving relief work. But remember: At this moment people are being dug out and pulled alive from the rubble by their neighbors, husbands, mothers, and cousins…

I have a post at UN Dispatch on the health impact of an earthquake. Here’s the fast version – after the initial injuries are over, you need clean water, good toilets, and decent housing as fast as possible to prevent typhoid, dengue, and malaria.

Tales From the Hood, Aid Watch, and Good Intentions are Not Enough all have suggestions for who to give to for Haiti. My own suggestion is this – the single most important thing you can do when choosing where to donate is to pick an organization with a history in Haiti. That will make all the different in the speed and quality of their work.

I gave my own Haiti donations to two groups: Partners in Health (PiH), and Architecture for Humanity. PiH, founded by Paul Farmer, has an excellent reputation and a long history in Haiti. It’s also big enough to absorb as many donations as it gets. Architecture for Humanity has longstanding ties to Haiti, and strong relationships in country. They will be focused on the rebuilding effort, which is very important. Experience with the Tsunami showed that it’s easy to waste funds on building new structures that are culturally and environmentally wrong. I trust Architecture for Humanity to help make sure that Haiti builds back better.

Edited to add one more thing – Haiti doesn’t need donated goods right now. It’s difficult and expensive to ship donated stuff, and most donations will not be appropriate for Haiti. Now is the time to give cash.

Photo credit: American Red Cross