Share Our Shoes practices questioned

November 1, 2011 9:00:00 PM PDT
Since it began in 2009, Share Our Shoes has become a high-profile charity in central North Carolina. It's been featured on news shows - including ABC11 - and even partnered recently with IBM in a drive to help tornado victims.

The premise is simple: Match donated shoes with people in need who can't afford to buy them. There are drop boxes around the Triangle, and the charity says it's collected more than a half million pairs of shoes to date.

But ABC11 discovered something that some donors may not know. Share Our Shoes sells a portion of the donated shoes to cover its operating expenses, and there are questions about its practices.

The fact that shoes are sold is stated at the bottom of the organization's web site in a legal disclaimer:

"Items donated to Share Our Shoes may be used in any of the charitable programs of Share Our Shoes or may be sold to a third party. All monetary contributions and proceeds from the sale of items donated to Share Our Shoes are used to cover the costs of operations of Share Our Shoes," it reads.

Jennifer Pierce is the founder of Share Our Shoes. The organization’s web site says she started it under the name "Shoes-4-Souls" when she realized a childhood friend of her daughter's couldn't come out to play because she didn't have shoes to wear.

"This is my baby ... personal to me," Pierce told ABC11.

She explained that the charity needs cash donations in addition to shoes to keep operating. If the cash doesn't come in, then it's forces to sell donated shoes to cover mounting expenses and keep the lights on.

"We, at the time here, were facing eviction," Pierce explained.

Asked about the numbers, Pierce said it costs $17,000 a month to keep Share Our Shoes running. That includes the cost of things like donation boxes, fliers, and keeping a staff.

But Pierce told us she doesn't keep the books for the organization, and was a little fuzzy on what's sold versus what's given away. She couldn't be exact, but estimated Share Our Shoes has given away about 75,000 pairs of shoes this year. She also said about 15 percent of the shoe donations taken in are sold instead of being sent to the needy.

"If we had donations in, we don't liquidate. It's not something we are going to do if we don't have to. There's been months and months we don't. Especially this year, because we've had donations, donations are picking up," Pierce explained.

But Veronica Scott - a former Share Our Shoes employee who was let go by the organization - told ABC11 that she estimates the number of shoes sold is closer to 50 percent of the donations coming in.

Documents obtained by ABC11 show a lot of shoes have been sold this year. They reveal that since December, Share Our Shoes has sold more than 100,000 pounds of shoes for more than $174,000. A buyer in New York paid $1.90 per pound.

"We felt if we could take the shoes that were not as necessary, or needed, or even a portion of ones that were, and take a portion of those and liquidate them to support a place to prepare them and pack them and get them ready," said Pierce.

Both Pierce and the buyer told ABC11 that he sells the shoes for profit to people in need. Pierce said the shoes were sold in a poor region of Africa.

"They will sit on the side of the road and sell those shoes to get rice, feed their family, support their families," Pierce explained.

And Pierce defended the sales.

"I don't deal with the money here. I have liquidated shoes for Share our Shoes only after being told by the treasurer we were [in a] severely overdraft state or we needed some funding in immediately," she said.

But there have been accusations that Pierce personally benefited from some of the sales. When we put that question to her, Pierce denied taking money for shoes personally.

But then we showed her documents from her New York buyer showing two separate deposits in her personal account. One was for $4,000 in April. The second was for $2,000 in September.

A single mom of two kids, Pierce told us the buyer was sympathetic to her condition after watching her loading a container while pregnant and knew that she was about to pull her daughter out of a school because she couldn't afford it. She said she took the money not thinking there was anything wrong with it.

"I have never ran a non-profit. I have no non-profit background. Not that I think I earned it or anything, not that I do this for a tip, but just like I felt someone in my own mind thinking someone working at Ruby Tuesday's leaves them a 50 dollar tip because they do a great job or really proud of them, I thought of it the same way," Pierce explained.

Pierce later said the $6,000 was a loan and once the Share Our Shoes board was made aware of it, she paid it back.

"I returned this money to him and wrote him a check back for that money and asked him not to send it to me," she said.

Pierce showed us copies of three personal checks totally $5620. The memo line on the checks say "payback of loan," "airline tickets," and "reimbursement for hired labor."

ABC11 also learned that in August, Hope Community Church held a big fundraiser for Share Our Shoes. The church had a "Barefoot Weekend" where the congregation stood up, took off their shoes on the spot, and donated them for people in Haiti. In addition to more than 2,500 pairs of shoes, the church sent nearly $5,000 to cover the shipping.

More than a month after the collection, the shoes were still sitting in the charity's warehouse, but Pierce told us they'd be sent out soon.

"There are 2500 pairs of appropriate shoes that will be going on a container with Stop Hunger now Friday from Charlotte," she said.

Pierce also said the organizer would ship them for free. So what about the money from the church? Pierce said it would go toward paying other Share Our Shoes expenses.

"It cost us to operate the program. We gave them boxes. We had to pay for our web site for our e-mail to be up, pay for a person to correspondence with them, people to go pick up all the shoes," she explained.

But weeks after Pierce claimed the shoes were off to Haiti, ABC11 discovered they never left Share our Shoes warehouse. When we informed Hope Community Church's pastor, it was a big surprise.

"Obviously, it bothers us because people do this out of the goodness of their heart, and sometimes they get burned," said Mike Lee.

Lee also said the money the church donated was specifically supposed to be used to help cover shipping expenses.

"I think the worst reaction out of this is we just aren't going to do this anymore. I think this has been a good organization. I hope they can get their issues worked out and continue. We're not in a position to judge what they do," said Lee.

Veronica Scott - the former employee let go by Share Our Shoes - said her dismissal came suddenly with a text message at 2 a.m. one morning.

"Just by the way we were dismissed, I feel we were in the way," she said.

She said she was shocked.

"Something has happened, and it's very obvious something has happened," she offered.

Scott said she began with the organization as a volunteer before becoming an employee and still believes in the Share Our Shoes mission.

"Under proper leadership, more accountability, it can be saved," she said. "Staying true to the mission of what SOS is about or should be about."

Pierce insists she did nothing wrong as she claims she had full approval of her former board of directors. She also calls Veronica Scott a disgruntled employee.

Pierce said the Share Our Shoes board of directors investigated the allegations against her and stripped her of her director title. Then, everyone on the board resigned.

Pierce still works at Share Our Shoes collecting her $1,200-a-week salary.

She told us she remains focused on getting shoes to those in need and hates to have to sell donated shoes. But unless she gets more cash donations, it's a reality of her business.

Share Our Shoes now has a new board of directors - all recommended by Jennifer Pierce.

As for the shoes donated by the church for Haiti? We checked Thursday, and they're still sitting in the warehouse. Pierce said it a matter of logistics with customs and shipping. She has provided us with documents that show she is still making efforts to get those shoes to Haiti. We will let you know if they're sent.

The new board of directors of Share Our Shoes issued this statement:

As the newly appointed Board of Directors of Share Our Shoes we are excited to be in the position to help see this organization, including SOS Founder Jennifer Pierce, succeed well into the future. Whether it's due to natural disaster or financial hardship, Share Our Shoes' priority always has been, and always will be, to provide shoes for those that walk barefoot, without a choice. It is our goal to one day be able to give shoes, without having to sell some.

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