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The Street Store: A Lesson for the Sharing Economy?

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Leadership & Transparency

We’ve seen a lot of charities emerge into the global spotlight in recent years. Organizations like Doctors Without Borders, World Wildlife Fund and Defenders of Wildlife have gained prominence as world events shaped the demand for their services. But most of these organizations have been around for years, and their global reach and international reputation are largely the result of hard work, promotion and donor investment.

One nonprofit that began in South Africa, however, seems to be setting a new bar when it comes to the amount of time it’s taken to gain brand recognition.

The Street Store, born on the streets of Cape Town in January of this year, began as a local initiative by Max Pazak and Kayli Levitan. The founders, with the support of South African advertising agency M&C Saatchi Abel and the Haven Night Shelter, wanted to find a way to streamline donations to the homeless. They also wanted to reduce the awkward and often humiliating emotional exposure that charity recipients are often subject to when receiving aid. So, they came up with a way in which recipients could pick out what they needed personally without combing through boxes of miss-sorted clothes, or be forced to take things they didn't need.

And, just as importantly, they brought the store to the community members, rather than making the members travel long distances to ask for help. By developing a simple, easy-to-reproduce sign that could be printed out by anyone and could accompany the hangers and displays of shoes, clothes and donated materials, they set up " shop"  along the side of the street and invited local residents to come in and browse.

But it is what happened after the Street Store's pop-up shop began to take off that's interesting: In an effort to gain donations and funding for its launch, the founders turned to the Web. According to the Street Store's website, the response was momentous. Not only did the nonprofit succeed in raising far more than expected (more than $2 million), but it garnered the publicity of international organizations like One, TED and Huffington Post that pledged to help to globalize the initiative.

A year later, dozens of Street Store events have taken place throughout the world. The locations range from South Africa to South America, as well as the United States, Canada and Belgium. Some of the world's largest cities have been hosts to pop-up stores, with donations ranging from drinking water to isles of free clothes, winter coats and shoes.

Its global success begs a question about the way that charity is distributed, the way it is perceived, and the remarkably simple way that this initiative, which spawned dozens of home-based exchanges, is accomplishing its goal: What is it that makes it work? Is it the simplicity and lack of investment required to set up the pop-up store?  Is it the universality of the idea, the fact that it works in just about any private or commercial venue? Or is it the personal connection people feel to their communities and neighbors at need?

There's a Jewish saying that suggests that the highest form of charity is one in which the donor and the recipient are not known to each other.  At the heart of that thoughtful concept is the dignity of the recipient, who benefits but isn't expected to either repay or feel beholden to the giver.

The Street Store seems to work because it reaches its goal simply and straight-forwardly, and because its ultimate product is the self-esteem and self-worth that's gained by both parties. It takes a page from the early days of the sharing economy when sharing your neighbor's drill or lending out a bicycle was the sum of the act, and where community action was the intended product, not the commercial outcome. It's a lesson that may have great value as we move into the new year, and it's encouraging to know it's an attitude that still thrives where it counts most.


  Image credit: The Street Store

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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