The Austin Women’s Clothing Swap

This case study is a great example of one of our basic rules of problem solving, Appeal to Self-Interest. The idea is that you “sell” a self-help idea to a community by immediately creating a short-term incentive. By getting a large group of people enthusiastic and on-board, you are able to create cascading positive changes that are orders of magnitude above and beyond the initial “hook” — and the cascading benefits create so much positive change, that eventually the idea sells itself.

Two young women, Harmony Eichsteadt and Rebekah Small, first met at a leadership seminar in 2008. They teamed up and decided to create a project in their community.

They knew they wanted to focus on helping women, and they knew they wanted to do something big. Since they are part of a large, close-knit group of artists and creative people, they already made use of a small-scale barter system. Their goal was to take the energy and resourcefulness of their community, and add enough structure and playfulness to create an event which was fun and memorable, while also delivering a huge impact.

Rebekah and Harmony had a simple, and elegant, idea: throw a fabulous party where every woman brings the clothes she no longer wants (or, let’s be honest, fits into). Their theme was Abundance for All. Everyone would have fun, socialize, and go home with a bag of “new” clothing.

While it was a simple idea, it was a powerhouse event. A small army of volunteers started setting up well in advance. A month before the swap, women were already donating clothing at drop-off points, coordinated with participating coffeehouses. Then, organizers set up groups of volunteers to sort the clothes, and a store owner lent professional clothing racks. On the day of the event, hundreds of women walked into the large donated space and saw racks and racks of clothes, all elegantly sorted and labeled by category, and all with the same price – free.

At the all-woman event, women musicians played, while a woman engineer worked the sound board. Over the course of 5 hours, hundreds of women came and went. A raffle and modest door fee raised over $1,000 for the Fistula Foundation, an organization which provides surgery for African women who’ve been injured in childbirth. Meanwhile, the leftover clothes were donated to the local women’s shelter, SafePlace. The workers at SafePlace were shocked when the truck drove up . . . carrying over one ton of clothing.

All of this abundance and generosity arose from a group of people who came together to celebrate. They created something amazing, from items that would normally have been discarded. It was an event that enriched the spirit, as well as the local community — but all of it started with an appeal to basic self-interest. By asking women a simple question (“How would you like some free clothes?”), the organizers created an event which became an annual staple for 3 years, growing in size and scope every year. It provided thousands of dollars in aid to women locally and globally, and demonstrated a model which could be replicated in other communities, large and small.

Self-sacrifice is admirable, but it is not the only – or even the best — way to motivate large groups of people. In working for the common good, it often works best to appeal to the personal good as well.

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