Dear My Goodness,
I used to be a runner, but now my sports doctor says running is too hard on my knees. I could still use the shoes for walking, but I've managed to accumulate several pairs. Some of them are pretty ratty but still useable. Is there a good charity out there that gets shoes to people who really need them?
—Sandy in Eugene, Ore.
"We get shoes to give shoes" is the very simple message of Soles4Souls. They'd be happy to get your extra running shoes, even battered ones, though they prefer "gently worn," defined as shoes you would still wear. You do the packing and pay for the shipping to one of their warehouse locations.
Soles4Souls is happy to provide guidance and support for organizing a group shoe drive through a school or church. You might want to partner with the University of Oregon track team. On second thought, maybe with the chess team, whose shoes are probably worn more gently.
Wayne Elsey, a former shoe company executive who founded Soles4Souls five years ago, estimates they've given away 10 million pairs of shoes so far to people in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, Europe, and the United States.
He's well-connected in the industry. More than half the shoes Soles4Souls gives come from manufacturers and retailers. They are usually shoes that don't sell or have minor defects that don't make them nonfunctional.
But he and his 30 or so administrative colleagues appreciate the emotional connection that comes with individual giving. Elsey figures there are 1.5 billion pairs lying unworn in closets across America. Driven by the unfairness of some people having too many shoes while others have none, he's pushing himself and his small staff to best their current rate of handing out one pair of shoes every seven seconds.
The impoverished populations around the world who go barefoot are exposed to trauma, diseases, and infections. In some countries, children aren't allowed to go to school if they don't have shoes. Having decent shoes, Elsey stresses, confers hope and dignity.
Who could question the benefit of getting shoes to people who need them desperately?
Yet simple gifts are not completely simple. Shoes4Souls faces two knotty issues that raise questions for quite a few humanitarian groups. Both issues concern money. The first is the idea of donating stuff rather than writing a check. For donations of things like clothes, blankets, food, housewares, and shoes, the charitable agency has to spend money and employee time on collection, sorting, storage, and shipping. Well-meaning donors who wish to feel warmly about giving something of their own rather than cold cash may sometimes send items that are inappropriate. Relief workers in Thailand after the 2004 tsunami opened some boxes from the United States to find gloves and wooly hats.
The charity's preference is clear. When you first enter the Soles4Souls site and click on "donate," you are asked to give money to support getting the shoes to needy recipients. If you enter "donate shoes" in the search line, you find past stories about the charity rather than instructions. It's only at "shipping information" that you find the guidance you need to help you unload those running shoes. The charity's Las Vegas warehouse is nearest your home in Oregon, but its Alabama warehouse is preferred. At the warehouse, the donated shoes are bundled and shrink-wrapped so that pairs stay mated. Then they go into a nearly house-size container sorted by shoe type and size. Half are distributed in America and half overseas, via partnerships with in-country charitable groups.
The second money issue Soles4Souls grapples with, as do many other nonprofits, is finding the right level for the chief executive's salary. Elsey, according to Soles4Soul's 2009 tax return, makes $500,000 a year. By comparison, the CEO of the American Red Cross makes $467,252 administering a $3 billion organization with 30,000 employees.
In a phone interview Elsey said he's worth it for his professionalism, expertise, and motivation. "We came from nothing five years ago," he said, "now it's an $80 million business." The Soles4Souls director of communications Christian Carmichael said, "We understand it's a sensitive area. But this is his creation, solely the result of his leadership." "It's not a sensitive issue at all," Elsey said. "I've given up my prime earning years to do this. I made four times that as a business executive." (He's 45.)
Soles4Souls began in emotion—the pang Elsey felt when he saw a picture of a single shoe washed up on the beach after the Asian tsunami. At first he got friends in the shoe business to donate directly. Now the group has distributed shoes in 125 countries.
There's no question about Elsey's skills at drumming up enthusiasm. The first major benefit for Soles4Souls was at the World Shoe Association trade show in Las Vegas and featured Jerry Lee Lewis, who, among other displays of rock virtuosity, played the piano with his feet. The group also works with singer and poet Michael Franti, who decided to go shoeless 10 years ago—his goal is to collect and donate 100,000 pairs of shoes. This month, he begins a nine-city barefoot concert series. Fans can donate footwear at the concerts, saving packaging and postage.
Elsey's charity also encourages churches to stage Barefoot Sundays, moving congregants to give in the religious spirit. "To see children take the shoes off their feet and walk up to lay them by the altar is unbelievably moving," Elsey says. "They walk out barefoot, realizing that this is the way many, many people live."