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.