a not for profit post

A friend and I did some shopping yesterday, including a stop at Ten Thousand Villages, which prominently announced underneath its name: “A Not For Profit Store.” This being my first time, I asked my friend, “So, then, what’s the point?” The apparent point is that the money they would make as a profit gets passed along to the people in various developing countries who make the products, so these suppliers make more money than they would otherwise.

Of course, a store with this mission could conduct itself by acting just like a for-profit business, only instead of distributing its profits to its owners passing that money back up the supply chain. However, one way the store makes more money than it otherwise might is that it is staffed by volunteers, and so it operates with lower labor costs. And, of course, the store is able to attract progressively-minded customers and get them to pay a greater markup than they otherwise might because it allows us to spend some of our–in the great scheme of things, let’s be honest, ridiculously undeserved–wealth buying unneeded material goods for others in a way that makes us feel like we are doing something positive for the world. My presumption is that this last source of profit is much greater than the first two for how much money the enterprise is ultimately able to give back to its suppliers in the developing world.

I bought a curio for a friend. The store also sells holiday cards, and I was tempted to buy one and write inside “I could have just given $20 in your name to charity, but instead I got you a $20 knick-knack that you don’t need in the hope that maybe $3 more of it gets back to the person who made it than otherwise would. And let’s face it: you prefer that I got you the knick-knack, and so would I. Sick, is what we are. Sick, bloated and spoiled.”

I might have been in an extra surly mood when thinking about Ten Thousand Villages because much of the time we were there a couple of the volunteers were doing this drumming in back. It’s such an unfair stereotype that if you are a bourgeois-bohemian liberal you like to hear drumming while you shop. I admit I did say to my friend, “You know, if this store was for-profit, a manager would go back and get those people to stop that godforsaken drumming.”

In general, the volunteers looked wildly, perhaps even flamboyantly, inefficient, but of course nobody minded because they were volunteers. Indeed, their inefficiency served to remind you of their volunteer-hood, and thereby remind you of the mission of the store, and so maybe actually worked to increase sales.

By the register, they were selling these imported chocolates for a quarter. They also had a free plate of chocolates a few feet away. I paid a quarter and bought a chocolate. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and took a chocolate from the plate. “Why would I take a chocolate for free if the idea is supposed to be giving people a fair price for what they produce? Why the hell are they even giving away free chocolate?”

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

4 thoughts on “a not for profit post”

  1. You’re supposed to take a free chocolate, realise that they’re good, then buy lots of them. Or, more in keeping with your argument, feel guilty about taking a free chocolate from the people who made it, and buy lots of them to make themselves feel better.


  2. If it were a “for profit” firm it would pay taxes on the profits.

    The deeper questions you raise are ones I worry about too.


  3. Lucy: True. I didn’t factor in that the chocolate could be intended as a guilt-generating loss leader.

    OW: Right! I forgot about the tax savings as well. That has to be huge.

    Confession: I looked up TTV online and saw that it had been started by Mennonites, and I think my gut reaction was to feel better about how it was likely ultimately distributing its monies than I would if I had read that it had been started by some secular liberal organization.


  4. Mennonite people are pretty nice, so I am sure they will do a good job of redistributing your wealth. Kind of like modern day Robin Hoods without the sword play.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.