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An Ode to the T-Shirt

September 04, 2009

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about Independent Sector's "Envisioning Our Future" initiative.)

Girl_effect It's Labor Day weekend, the traditional end of summer. Like many of you, I'll be spending it in jeans and a comfortable T-shirt, relaxing with friends and recharging my batteries.

Those who know me, know I love T-shirts. Not the $250 Brioni kind recently written up in the New York Times. No, I'm talking about tees associated with organizations and causes that throughout the years have shaped my life and life’s work. I don't know what it is, but a T-shirt with an eye-catching design or clever slogan creates an instant connection between the wearer and others, even in unfamiliar surroundings. In 1966, for example, I was traveling across southern Cameroon and came across a boy on a bike sporting the logo of Slippery Rock State University. That shirt was a long way from home, but somehow it helped bridge the gap between us.

As you might imagine, after more than four decades of social activism, my closets are stuffed with T-shirts that mean something to me. My collection is so extensive, in fact, that out of necessity we’ve had to adopt a household rule: Every time I buy a new T-shirt, I have to dispose of an older one. Rules were made to be broken, and I periodically flaunt that one. I mean, how could I ever part with my "Kaapu for Mayor" T-shirt (circa 1969), even though it hasn't fit me for...oh, twenty years. It doesn't matter. It just makes make me happy to remember all those times I wore it and, in so doing, gave a "shout out" to the first native Hawai’ian to run for mayor of Honolulu.

Of course, in the years since tees have become the world's most enduring emblem of a social conscience. Today, you can buy a Gap T-shirt and contribute to the global fight against AIDS/HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria. You can wear a "Girl Effect" T-shirt produced by Nike. You can promote an anti-animal cruelty message by wearing any of a dozen different ASPCA T-shirts.

And as more and more young people turn the upper half of their bodies into mobile billboards for a good cause, the message to nonprofit organizations is clear: Find a fair-trade T-shirt producer, find a wordsmith to craft a snappy slogan and an artist to create a great design, and start promoting. These two companies can help:

Through its philanthropic division, Now and Zen Productions, one of America's largest suppliers of novelty tees, assists nonprofits and charities by selling their T-shirts at cost. The company also will donate an additional 10 cents on the dollar to charities and projects it supports through its "+A Dime" program.

Colorado-based One Tribe, a branding and marketing firm that bills itself as "a new model for social enterprise," designs and sells 100 percent organic tees for a select group of not-for-profit clients. Not only are the T-shirts beautifully designed, but a hefty 50 percent of the purchase price ($46) is turned over to the nonprofit. The firm, which is currently working with four nonprofits, is accepting applications from other worthy causes.

Got a favorite nonprofit T-shirt slogan that has stuck with you over the years? Use the comments section to share it with others. And have a great Labor Day weekend!

-- Michael Seltzer

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Posted by Longitude Books  |   September 16, 2009 at 04:58 PM

The Transportation Alternatives One Less Car T-shirts are awfully nice.

Posted by Kathryn Pyle  |   September 17, 2009 at 03:58 PM

Great piece, Michael. Just the other day I came across my "Take Back the Night" T-shirt from the candlelight march through Philadlephia's steets c. 1980 protesting a rash of sexual assaults that had terrorized the city. "Take Back the Night" marches sprang up spontaneously around that time and "TBTN" is now an annual event throughout the country, particularly on campuses, to raise awareness about sexual violence. An organization even formed around the idea to provide support: www.takebackthenight.org.
There's history in those worn threads!

Posted by laborashirt  |   May 11, 2010 at 05:21 PM

Great article.
Trough the years, t-shirt has become a major mean of communication. Something we can wear every day with which we can transmit a message easily.
"show me your tshirt and I can tell you who you are"

Posted by Account Deleted  |   May 30, 2010 at 03:38 AM

Excellent article. T-shirt rules. :-)

Posted by Evil Sticks  |   June 15, 2010 at 04:26 AM

Not really a not-for-profit, but some of the anti-political shirts are definitely up there with my favourites.

Think about how popular the "Che" shirts are.

Posted by Marvelous  |   October 12, 2010 at 01:07 PM

Great article! and ideas.

Posted by Marvelous  |   November 02, 2010 at 02:38 PM

We will volunteer our services to design a tee for any non-profit that fits our philosophies. Contact us at http://www.marvelousstudio.com/contact-marvelous.php

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