How does your leader affect your business—lessons from TOMS shoes

By Katy Snyder, JVA Consulting

Many nonprofits have very visible, charismatic leaders. In the wake of the Komen debacle, and the public scrutiny of leader Nancy G. Brinker’s personal life, it seems that increased scrutiny of charity leaders and their personal lives will become the new normal. A recent Chronicle of Philanthropy profile of TOMS shoes founder, Blake Mycoskie, delves into the personal life of the very visible founder and his One for One shoe campaign. Read on for some takeaways from the TOMS case, and to find out how to make sure your personal beliefs don’t interfere with your brand. 

The Chronicle story reveals some lesser-known facts about TOMS’ hip, young founder, including that he made several attempts to break into the limelight before starting TOMS—both as an Amazing Race contestant and representing Texas in a national “Most Eligible Bachelor” contest. These early brushes with fame may make it less surprising that Mycoskie has become the focal point of TOMS’ commercials in which he—tan, with perfectly disheveled curls—delivers TOMS shoes to needy kids.

The Chronicle piece also discusses the criticism of the TOMS’ One for One business model, through which of a pair of TOMS shoes are donated to a needy child each time someone buys a pair of TOMS. Critics have suggested that many of the children receiving donated TOMS shoes do not need the shoes (and/or have other needs that are more pressing), that the practice of donating shoes is unsustainable—kids will eventually outgrow the shoes—and that TOMS doesn’t consult the communities it works with to see if there are other needs that are more urgent than shoes.

Furthermore, the Chronicle reports, TOMS seems to favor religious-affiliated schools—in itself not a problem—but some video clips on TOMS’ website appear to have edited out the religious aspects of its giving practices. In a public relations flap, Mycoskie was forced to apologize after an appearance at the openly anti-gay-marriage Focus on the Family led many TOMS’ customers to complain.

So what can your nonprofit take away from TOMS?

Be upfront. What are the values of your organization? If your organization is religious, share that with your target audience and donors. There are numerous religious organizations that do great work. Donors and consumers want to know where their money is going, and it is your job to be transparent. While you might be worried that wearing religious values on your sleeve will scare away donors (or consumers, as is the case with TOMS), it is much more important to be clear with your donors and constituents about what your mission is. If there are religious components to your programs, make that clear. You will likely attract donors who share your beliefs, and you won’t experience the backlash that can come with concealing your beliefs (think Komen’s stance on Planned Parenthood).

Make sure your leadership doesn’t overshadow your organization. At the same time that an ED must keep a separation between his/her personality and the brand, the ED is also the public face of an organization. Problems can arise when a nonprofit’s brand becomes too wrapped up in the founder’s or ED’s image—if he or she is viewed in a negative light, it is almost impossible for a nonprofit to maintain a positive image or brand; conversely, if he or she is extremely well-liked and synonymous with the brand, an organization can lose supporters—who may be more loyal to the leader than to the nonprofit’s mission—when the leader leaves. As Jim Collins, author of Good to Great says, the best leaders don’t make the success of the company about themselves, and by doing so, they leave the company better positioned for success and longevity than they found it.

As for TOMS, although it is not a nonprofit, Mycoskie has, in essence, become the brand. He stars in its commercials, where he is shown wearing, and distributing, TOMS to kids around the world. If supporters decide they do not agree with his personal politics or how he distributes free shoes, his booming business could falter.

Research where you give and what you buy. The TOMS case (and Komen, as well) makes clear the need to research the causes and products we support. As nonprofit leaders, consumers and potential donors, it is our job to ensure that our dollars support causes we care about, and that our own organizations are as transparent as possible.

What do you think about TOMS and its giving practices? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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4 Responses to How does your leader affect your business—lessons from TOMS shoes

  1. My friend Jenny was wearing a pair of Tom’s shoes this past weekend. My immediate thought was, “yeah, those are cool.” I love the Tom’s shoes concept and believe that even if shoes aren’t sustainable because kids feet grow and shoes wear out, the shoes can be helpful to that person in need for awhile. I agree with much of what Katy wrote in this blog: there shold be greater transparency of values and the founder should focus less on himself and more on the need in communities. At the same time I will continue to be a Tom’s fan. My sister and I bought a pair for my mom one time. Someday I may buy a pair of my own.

  2. While I strongly support social enterprises (businesses with a social mission) – when it gets down to the basics I don’t think Tom’s Shoes is the best model (although I think it DEFINITELY has good intentions). Having worked in many developing countries, there are shoes EVERYWHERE in the markets – very cheap ones. Instead of shipping free shoes from the US (that were probably made in a sweatshop in China), why not support the local businesses selling shoes by purchasing them locally to distribute? A great article that I think sums it up: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/10/11/haiti_doesnt_need_your_old_tshirt. As Americans we feel really “good” about buying Tom’s Shoes or sending clothing to Africa- but instead let’s use the money we would have spent to address the root causes of poverty or support local businesses in developing countries that employ people—giving them the means to purchase their own shoes.

    • jvaconsulting says:

      Sarah, I totally agree. The Chronicle article mentioned in my blog also talks about a great model in Peru that uses local leatherworkers to make shoes for kids in need. So much more sustainable!

  3. On another note though, I think Blake is an amazing entrepreneur who has a great vision to use consumer power to change the world. THAT I can get behind – it just needs to be channeled differently! He has mobilized and raised awareness about poverty in a huge way.

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