Why BOGO doesn’t have to be a no-no

(Published by Robbie Barkell on 16th August, 2010)

There has been a spike in criticism of the ‘buy one, give one’ (BOGO) model that a number of Western NGOs use to encourage charitable giving. This has been prompted by an article from R Todd Johnson, in which he argues that philanthropy is killing Africa and that ‘BOGO should be no-go’. Alive & Kicking offers a BOGO option in our online shop, and we agree with the majority of Todd’s argument, but this need not be contradictory. This piece outlines the problems with traditional BOGO models, and explains how Alive & Kicking does it differently.

The problems with BOGO

‘Buy one give one’ schemes encourage individual donors to pay for an item to be donated in a developing country at the same time as buying an identical item to keep. As Shawn Forde points out, the appeal of this approach is that it is an effective tool to stimulate charitable giving, able to engage individuals who wouldn’t otherwise donate. But how beneficial are these gifts to the recipient and what do they do to the local economy?

Giving out products for free in developing nations can have a negative effect on local business. It harms local producers who make similar items, and local retailers who would have sold them. Furthermore, giving away something for nothing is also blamed for creating a dependency culture which is adverse for entrepreneurship and innovation.

As BOGO products are usually bought and produced outside the country of donation, they are rarely designed for the specific context in which they are donated and are often ill suited to it. One such example are the synthetic footballs found across Africa that have been imported by multinational NGOs or corporate philanthropy projects to distribute to local children. One problem with this well-meaning intervention is that synthetic balls are not suited to the playing conditions found in disadvantaged areas in sub-Saharan Africa. Whether its sharp rocks on dry pitches, or acacia thorns growing nearby, the majority of these balls do not last more than a game or two. Other examples of unsuitable imports include second-hand products not fit for purpose.

BOGO 2.0?

Alive & Kicking’s BOGO model is different. Our balls are hand-stitched in Nairobi and Lusaka, which are in the region we operate, by local people being paid a fair wage. This simple difference, which many donors do not immediately grasp, is integral to demonstrating how BOGO can be used effectively. Our model is a hybrid of trade and aid.

Unlike traditional BOGO methods, anyone that ‘buys one and donates one’ through A&K is automatically promoting sustainable employment in Kenya and Zambia. On average, our stitchers make 2.5 – 3 balls per day, so one BOGO order would provide nearly a full day’s work for one person. Of course this doesn’t just benefit the employee, it benefits their household as well, with our average staff member supporting over 6 dependents. Further, there is broader support for the national economy as Alive & Kicking’s leather is sourced from local tanneries. In this BOGO model both the ‘bought one’ and the ‘given one’ have a positive impact in the developing world.

The balls we make are designed for each context. The donated ball is leather, much tougher than imported synthetic balls, and is easily repairable, meaning that children using them on rough surfaces get much longer game time out of each ball. The ‘bought one’ is synthetic, suitable for play in the developed nations where they’re sold.

As for the donation part of the BOGO, we do give out balls for free, but never to individual children, to avoid creating a ‘something for nothing’ attitude amongst our stakeholders. The balls go to schools, sports projects and youth clubs across Africa, using local distribution networks already in place. The recipient groups would otherwise have no equipment to play with, or would buy imported synthetic balls which are more expensive and less appropriate. Alive & Kicking doesn’t just give balls away, they are also sold (not-for-profit) in retail outlets in Kenya, Zambia, Uganda and Rwanda.

Final Thoughts and Recommendations

So to summarise, there are legitimate drawbacks to the traditional ‘buy one, give one’ model but they aren’t terminal. BOGO can be a positive format for interventions, and we believe that Alive & Kicking provides a case study of just how to do it. We attempt to get the best out of BOGO (a more appealing structure for donors) without subscribing to the worst (importing inappropriate gifts). We hope our model is one that other social enterprises and charities will adopt or adapt, and we would highlight five recommendations to make BOGO effective:

  1. Ensure there is a legitimate need, that cannot be met by the local economy, for any products being donated in kind
  2. Seek guidance from local people to ensure products are designed to fit local needs
  3. Carefully plan to whom and how products are donated to avoid creating unrealistic expectations
  4. Produce or source the products under fair wage conditions, in the region to be assisted, to ensure both the bought and given gifts have an economic impact on the area
  5. Where possible, ensure the materials and component parts for the gifts are also sourced from local producers

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