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Ten Thousand Villages | How One Nonprofit Supports Fair Trade and Volunteerism

Ten Thousand Villages | How One Nonprofit Supports Fair Trade and Volunteerism

Last week on Idealist Careers, we delved into the topic of Ethical Fashion and the importance of empowering indigenous artists in Guatemala. In honor of World Fair Trade Day on May 14th, we continue the themes of ethics in retail and fair trade with the story of the rise of the nonprofit Ten Thousand Villages, one of the largest fair trade retail organizations and a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). 

Ten Thousand Villages is known for having established a sustainable market for handmade products throughout North America. It does this by building long-term buying relationships in places where skilled artisans in 38 countries lack opportunities for stable income. Product sales help pay for necessities, education, healthcare, and housing for artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed. 

Last month, I visited the retail store in Highland Park, NJ. Upon arriving, I got a shiver of excitement from the sight of all the beautiful, colorful wares that beckoned from the window, and the warm, welcoming vibe was palpable.

I was quickly joined by Jessica LeMere, the manager at Highland Park, and we spent a couple of hours talking about her introduction to fair trade, her work at Ten Thousand Villages, its history, and its continued commitment to the fair trade mission.

Hi Jessica, it’s great to meet with you today. I’d like to know a little bit about your history here at Ten Thousand Villages. How long have you been working here?

I just celebrated my fifth year on April 11th. We had a store in Red Bank, NJ and I started out as the Assistant Manager and worked my way up to be the Manager.

When I got this job I wasn’t the only candidate – I had an ease with the people interviewing me and I was honest with them. I told them I didn’t know a lot about fair trade but I always remembered having a good experience whenever I visited the store (as a customer). There was an ease about it, and it was a welcoming environment, not pushy. I said that I really wanted to make a difference, even in a small way.

So you actually discovered Ten Thousand Villages as a customer. Tell us a little more about that. 

My first introduction to Ten Thousand Villages and fair trade was in college. I was walking down the street in Philadelphia, looking for a gift for my mom’s birthday. I saw something in one of the Ten Thousand Villages stores (on 12th and Walnut St) and fell in love with several things in the window. That store just looked interesting.

It’s something that happens here, too (in Highland Park, NJ)- our window really draws customers in.

I can vouch for that!

We don’t have a giant sign but multiple people have said to me that they were driving by, saw our window and had to pull over and come in.

I didn’t know what fair trade was prior to my first visit to that store in Philadelphia, and when I realized that there’s a difference between fair trade products and something mass-produced, it really influenced me and made a difference in my purchasing decisions. I know there is someone in another country that actually made this, and when Ten Thousand Villages buys this product from them at a fair price and resells it in its stores, it gives them (the artisans) opportunities they may not have otherwise had.

In third world countries, jobs are few and far between. If it’s a craft they’ve been doing for years, why shouldn’t they get paid for it? They can sell in the street markets, where there’s haggling and they can sell something for $2 to tourists... but so much work has gone into it. It’s an art form and they should be paid fairly for what they make.

It’s more than just a tangible item, there’s a person behind it.

What is one of your favorite parts of your job?

I love visual merchandising. When customers come in here and we talk to them about our mission and what we do, it makes it even more special and important. To know the difference it is making in the lives of the artisans also makes it all the more special.

Visual merchandising- when done well- can be a silent sales person. It allows my creativity and art background to shine. Aside from visual merchandising I just love helping customers.

I understand you have volunteers at your stores. Have you volunteered (now or in the past)? What have your experiences been like?

I’ve volunteered and still do outside of my job here. For many years, I volunteered at animal shelters. When I was in high school I was part of the National Honor Society and that was my first foray into volunteering.

I have so many opportunities to do things that help others who haven’t had the opportunities. I also like to give a voice to the voiceless. I currently volunteer at a smaller animal rescue center.

My own experience with volunteering has helped me manage and relate to the volunteers we have here at the store. I know what it’s like to be a volunteer. The reason most people volunteer is that call to make a difference in some way.

I know that our volunteers want to be here. I want people who are passionate about what they are doing and who understands we are not just here to be here. I want somebody who is able to convey the artisan stories for them. That is my biggest motivation.

Yes, we are a retail establishment so there is the selling aspect but there are so many people who are affected by the purchases made here.

What do you look for in volunteers?

Volunteers should have an open mind and be willing to learn what we do. If you don’t know what fair trade is at first, that’s fine- I didn’t either.

Volunteers must be at least 16 years old, and we have a quick little form they can fill out with basic information.

I mentioned giving a voice to the voiceless earlier, and I meant it regards to my work with animal shelters, but it applies at here as well. Not that artists can’t speak, but we are speaking for them here. I say to our customers that I am here to sell the products for the artisan who can’t actually be here. The world needs to see what they are doing.

Before selecting a volunteer, what I like to do is have them come in for a trial shift – this helps me see whether it’s going to work out or not. I show them a video we have that outlines our customer service standards. Next, we talk about what they just saw. I don’t have them stay long. Then I ask them to evaluate what they experienced, and they can do that either via email or over the phone. From there, if we mutually decided it’s a good fit, we put them on the schedule.

I look for people who are upbeat and show enthusiasm for what we are doing. And respect what we do, the artisans and their stories.

Sales skills? You can learn that. But you can’t train enthusiasm.

That’s definitely a common theme I hear from many hiring managers at nonprofits- that the passion the individual has for the work or the cause is so important. Do you ever hire volunteers for staff positions?

It can serve as a pipeline if we have an opening in the store. It’s a good way to learn more about what we do and learn retail skills if you don’t have them.

We do get a lot of people in here who want to volunteer and they might also be jewelry makers or are interested in being artists or poets. We get a lot of artistic people. They see what some of the artisans are doing and I think it gets creative juices flowing. We do a lot of events in the store too. Last week we made construction paper flowers and people could “pick” them from our planters for a discount. So there’s a lot of opportunity for both volunteers and staff to be creativity and have a voice in what we do here.  

What is the ratio of staff members to volunteers at your store?

We have one full-time manager (that’s me), three part-time employees, and seven volunteers.

Wow, that’s an interesting mix! What are the benefits and challenges of staff and volunteers working together?

Making sure the volunteers know they are as valued as staff, and vice versa. I’m sure it can be daunting for a volunteer to feel like they are held as accountable as a staff member is. I try to help them overcome feeling like they are not as “important”.

In some ways, the are more important, as they help us do what we do, keep overhead low, and still be successful. The money that we make in the store goes towards making more purchases from artisans. Anything else goes back into the operations of the organization.

So I value the volunteers just as much as I value the paid staff. I know they don’t get paid and I know they want to be here. I value their opinions. I have them come to staff meetings, they come to staff appreciation breakfasts, etc.

We only ask for a 4-hour time frame once a week. Of course, they can volunteer for more time than that if they wish.

What do volunteers do?

It might seem weird that you can volunteer at a retail store. What I strive to bring across to our volunteers is that they are speaking for the artisans.

Not all volunteers might be comfortable speaking with customers, and that’s okay as there are other things they can do- maintenance and cleaning, unpacking merchandise, and the like. When the new items come, it’s like the holidays and we are really excited to see them.

I am working with The ARC of New Jersey  (New Brunswick) on the Project Hire program. We have one volunteer who comes to work with a job coach. He has been helping with unpacking shipments, organizing our stock room, and general cleaning of the store.

What do you think motivates people to volunteer at Ten Thousand Villages?  

For the most part, they seem to be motivated to make a difference. When our first store opened in Highland Park I (was not here at the time) it was in the Reformed Church nearby. They had a thrift store inside the church, and part of the thrift store was devoted to new merchandise that was fair trade. They got those items from Ten Thousand Villages, and they did really well even though they were in a very small space.

The women working there rallied to get a store in Highland Park. There’s a lot of heart in this town and a lot of the regulars do come in here because they are interested in fair trade.

Tell us a little bit about the history of Ten Thousand Villages.

It’s pretty awesome because it was started by a woman named Edna Ruth Byler, the wife of a Mennonite Central Committee administrator. They were on a trip to Puerto Rico in 1946, and she noticed these women doing these beautiful needlepoint crafts. She thought that they should be getting much more money than they were getting, so she purchased a lot of the crafts, brought them back to Pennsylvania and sold them to her friends. Then she took that money back with her to Puerto Rico and bought more.

In 1952, she and Ruth Lederach went to Switzerland for the Mennonite World Conference and sold the products there. At that time they were known as The Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project.

Fast forward a few years and in 1968 they changed the name to SelfHelp: Crafts of the World.

In 1972 the first gift and thrift shop opened up in Ohio. They evaluated their operations in 1985 and decided they were financially self-sufficient and could continue to grow.

By 1986, the sales of all the products topped $3.6 million and they moved into the building that is now the main office in Akron, PA.

The name changed again in 1996 and in 1997, they opened company stores. To date, there are 33 company stores and 41 contract stores. The difference between a contract store is that the operators raise their own funds to open it, and they typically have more volunteers than a company store does. Contract stores still have support from the organization. The store here in Highland Park is a company store. 

Contract stores also sell products from other fair trade organizations, whereas company stores like us sell mostly Ten Thousand Villages' artisan products. We do sell a few other fair trade products- we work with Equal Exchange, so we have coffee and fine chocolate here. We offer coffee to everyone who walks in, and we provide chocolate samples on most days.

Sounds like my kind of place! What are some other key highlights from its history?

For a long time we were operated by the Mennonite Central Committee, but now we are partners with them.

In 2000, it was incorporated as a 501( c )3 and by 2006, sales across the board reached $20 million. That’s when we realized we have something here and we were really growing. We also started our e-commerce channel and that gives us a greater reach, to people who are in areas where our stores are not located.

We’re in Boston ( a few stores) and Burlington, VT. A lot of people come when they are on vacation and then we can direct them to the closest store in their area.

Ten Thousand Villages is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). What does the WFTO credential give to an organization?

Being WFTO-certified gives an authenticity to your organization. There are ten principles that the groups need to follow: transparency and accountability, fair trading practices, payment of a fair price, no child labor or forced labor, and ensuring good working conditions, to name a few.

We work with artisan groups that follow those ten standards. Within an artisan group , such as Prokritee there will be other artisan groups that work for them. There’s a chain and everyone in that chain has to follow the fair trade standards too. 

We will work with an artisan group for a long period of time. Buying from them once is not going to make enough of a difference. Once we have the artisan group we will continue to work with them until they don’t need us anymore.

Something else I should add that in addition to buyers, we also have designers, who help our artisans continue to grow. We offer them design assistance that will keep traditional crafts alive but that appeal to customers here.

It’s a fine line – we don’t want to tell them what to do, but to help them know what sells here and how they might want to adjust their work. We always make sure we keep their culture and traditions alive too.

Have you traveled to any of the countries where the artisans make their products?

I have not. Working for this organization has kind of been my passport to the world, even if I haven’t visited the countries where our artisans live and work.

Anything else that you’d want people to know about Ten Thousand Villages?

We have something for everyone here. I can’t tell you how many times people have come in and said “oh, this is a girl’s store”, and that’s not true- we have something for everyone. Music, instruments…

Chocolate and coffee!

...I know our customers can feel good about the items they are purchasing. They know they are able to find a unique gift here, maybe something they have never seen before, and that there is a story behind it.

Our work is not just about environmental sustainability but also social and economic sustainability. Any surplus we have in the stores is invested back into our mission and our artisans. We’re proud of that.

Come visit us, because you will fall in love!

Jessica LeMere- Store Manager, Ten Thousand Villages (Highland Park, NJ)


By Victoria Crispo

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