The Billings Outpost

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Fighting poverty with T-shirts

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By JOEL HARRIS - The Billings Outpost

“There are 27 million slaves in the world today,” said Jesse Murphy to a packed crowd at Dog River Coffee in Hood River, Ore., last month. The room, which had been filled with a hum of coffee house chatter, went silent.

“To put that in perspective,” Mr. Murphy went on, “America transplanted roughly 12.5 million Africans into slavery during its 300 years of slave trading. That’s not even half our current number.”

This is the reality Mr. Murphy became aware of in high school - shocking, horrific injustice happening not in a history book but right now – and he has spent the last two years telling that story as founder and president of Myfight.org.

MyFight.org is a nonprofit based in Billings that sells T-Shirts to raise money for poverty-fighting practices worldwide.

Poverty, for Mr. Murphy and the MyFight team, is the primary root behind more eminent symptoms of injustice: things like human slavery, sex trafficking and child soldiery.

“These symptoms are indicative of broken economies, lack of opportunity, desperation,” Mr. Murphy said.

MyFight’s strategy is to align its free market engine (an online T-shirt selling business) to fund and scale microfinance, a proven practice for fighting poverty by enabling opportunity for the impoverished.

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For those new to the idea, Microfinance Institutions (MFIs) give small loans (microloans) to jumpstart would-be entrepreneurs (mostly women) seeking to raise their families out of poverty.

Mohamed Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for developing this innovative approach to galvanizing economic activity from the ground up. The Nobel Committee applauded his successful “efforts to create economic and social development from below.”

Instead of dumping enormous chunks of aid onto government officials at the top, microfinance invests in solutions from the bottom up, brick by brick. Borrowers are often the poorest of the poor.

In the ’70s, Yunus discovered that many of the impoverished in his home country of Bangladesh were not poor because they were lazy. Their lives, he found, were a continual fight for survival that required incredible resilience and initiative.

They were poor because they simply had no opportunity to be otherwise. So Yunus began giving small loans to women with entrepreneurial ideas. It worked.

They not only paid him back, they paid him back more reliably than borrowers repay lenders in developed countries. Today, Yunus’ Grameen Foundation boasts a 98.2 percent repayment rate (much better than repayment rates for college loans and credit card debt in the United States, for example).

The loans average around $250 and are used for small business ideas — starting a laundry or water-filtering service, expanding a tortilla-selling enterprise or replacing a lost plow-animal. The goal is economic sustainability.

Many of MyFight’s shirts follow the formula: “MyFight is ________.” Designs like “MyFight is Ethiopia” and “MyFight is Honduras” reflect the organization’s commitment to fight for economic justice in these countries.

MyFight recently partnered with Adelante, a Honduran MFI to whom MyFight loans money at zero interest which is then loaned again as microloans.

“Basically, we want to scale microfinance, a poverty-fighting practice which invests in local solutions to local problems,” said Mr. Murphy.

MyFight’s initial loan to Adelante is enough to fund 465 women over three years and once MFIs like Adelante repay, the money can be recycled again and again.

With such an easily scalable model, Mr. Murphy anticipates being able to fund more MFIs each year. That’s if T-shirt sales continue to expand robustly.

“Which depends on whether or not we can spread the word effectively,” said Mr. Murphy.

In the 15 months MyFight has been selling shirts, it has sold around 5,000. The organization sees a bright future with tools like social networks to help spread the word.

Upcoming web functionalities will soon augment this potential with incentives for friends to get other friends to purchase shirts, all through Facebook.

MyFight seeks to replicate successful models like Threadless.com, Kiva.com, Wikipedia and Facebook – companies and web-based organizations that rely on the crowd for much of their content.

“We know from the success of companies like TOMS Shoes that people (especially the millennial generation) love the idea of leveraging conscious consumerism towards social good. With us, they can do so with a T-shirt. We can also see from Threadless.com and Facebook how much this generation wants to be involved in creating content. We are trying to meet their needs in order to leverage social good. That means cool T-shirts and web 2.0 engagement.”

Those looking to become MyFight fighters can submit T-shirt designs, host an event, vote in the design contests on the website (see www.myfight.org/get-involved/) or even join the core MyFight crew itself. People can have an impact by doing as little as sharing the MyFight page on Facebook (facebook.com/myfight) or wearing their shirts.

“You’d be surprised how many people ask about these shirts,” said Mr. Murphy. “It gives you a platform to start sharing about MyFight.”

And Mr. Murphy is taking every platform he can get. Like the stop at the coffee shop in Hood River mentioned above, MyFight events are mostly held at coffee joints and attract young people by enlisting local organizers and musicians to host the event.

The local musicians, especially, attract their friends to the event and costs are low as coffee houses are generally happy to have these events to bring in customers.

“We have events scheduled through the rest of the year from coast to coast,” said Mr. Murphy, “Seattle, Portland, LA, D.C., Philadelphia and several others.”

And for the months of November and December, an anonymous donor family has committed to matching, dollar-for-dollar, every sale that comes through the website.

“We’ve got some big campaigns in the works,” said Murphy, “but starting in November, buying a $20 shirt over the holidays will mean a $40 impact. That’s a huge opportunity.”

And the MyFight team hopes to make the most of it with events like one coming up in November.

“THE STAND, A Free Concert With Global Impact” is slated for Nov. 26 at Off the Leaf and will feature music by four or five different local acts punctuated with short talks by Mr. Murphy.

Live shirt models will stand on counter tops and chairs sporting MyFight apparel. Coffee-carrying hipsters will congregate with live music in the background.

While MyFight is a registered nonprofit, Mr. Murphy and the MyFight team prefer to designate their work as social business, unashamedly leveraging good business practices for social good rather than profit. All money generated by T-shirt sales and donations is recycled back into the fight, not placed in the pockets of shareholders.

“People have often asked me for an exact figure on how much of a $25 T-shirt goes to actually funding microfinance,” Mr. Murphy smiled. “I tell them that well over 100 percent when you are thinking in the long term. Over a three-year period, the $25 is used six times.”  As the loan is borrowed and repaid every six months (which is the agreement with Adelante), after three years that original $25 actually funds nearly $150 in loans.

It’s a clear break from traditional practices of charity.

Mr. Murphy pointed to the book “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo, which outlines ways in which traditional aid is actually doing harm in Africa.

Since 1940, for instance, over $1 trillion has been given to Africa in the form of charity. Much of this aid has been absorbed by corrupt officials at the top levels of government. At the same time, philanthropic “dumping” of foreign goods in Africa has increased unemployment by knocking local providers out of the market. According to the book, the past 50 years of charity in Africa has seen poverty increase from 11 percent to 66 percent.

“In medicine, there is often a great need to treat symptoms with pain killers and surgery, yes” said Mr. Murphy, “but the most important thing to address is sources, not symptoms. Doctors need to focus on people not getting sick to begin with and we have the same mentality. We understand and respect traditional charitable organizations for doing what they do but we respectfully take an entirely different approach.”

Recently the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street phenomena, orchestrated largely with modern technology and social networks, have confirmed Mr. Murphy’s hunch that modern connectedness could be leveraged for change, even to spark a social movement, perhaps.

With MyFight.org, Mr. Murphy is banking on that hope.

“I want to be there when the extreme poverty museum opens up,” said Mr. Murphy at Dog River Coffee. “I want to be there when the only place on Earth you can experience what that kind of life is like is in a museum. Our generation needs to do this.”

Shirts are sold at www.myfight.org and Off the Leaf Coffee Bar. MyFight’s Facebook and Twitter pages are facebook.com/myfight and twitter.com/myfightorg.

 

Copyright 2012 Wild Raspberry Inc.

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