SELFHELP CRAFTS OF THE WORLD

It was late afternoon on the last Friday of March 1990, Sue Daley, manager of SELFHELP Crafts of the World, Saint John, New Brunswick, hung up the telephone and breathed a sigh of relief. She had just been speaking with a faculty member from the local University and had agreed to allow a group of marketing students to develop a comprehensive marketing strategy for the store. This was welcome news to Sue because she had to address the Board of Directors in four weeks and they were expecting a document that would outline Sue's proposed marketing strategy for the upcoming year. The Board expected this document to include recommendations on space requirements and strategy adjustments resulting from these recommendations.

BACKGROUND

SELFHELP Crafts was a job creation program founded by the Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and service organisation of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ Churches. It was established in 1946. The purpose of the SELFHELP organisation was to provide "fair paying employment1" for those in less developed countries to help them exert control over their lives and meet their basic physical needs. SELFHELP Crafts saw itself as working toward long-term stability rather than as a "short-term fix".

SELFHELP Crafts was a non-profit organisation with outlets and representatives throughout Canada and the United States. Most people involved in the organisation, including clerks in the retail outlets, came from a variety of backgrounds and religious denominations, and worked as volunteers.

SELFHELP Crafts was involved with over 65 producer groups in a number of countries. Therefore, a wide variety of products were available (See Exhibit 1). SELFHELP encouraged groups to use traditional skills in goods production so that their material culture would be maintained rather than changed. The groups represented were diverse and changed continually. Once members of

1 Fair Paying Employment: to pay individuals fair market value for their labour. Fair market value is defined by the individuals' domestic economy.


This case was prepared by Professor Stephen Grant of the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton and Shelley Rinehart of the University of New Brunswick, Saint John, for the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute as a basis for classroom discussion, and is not meant to illustrate either effective or ineffective management.

Copyright © 1991, the Atlantic Entrepreneurial Institute. Reproduction of this case is allowed without permission for educational purposes, but all such reproduction must acknowledge the copyright. This permission does not include publication.


a producer group had gained enough skills to function effectively on their own, SELFHELP withdrew its support and sought another group in need of assistance.

THE SAINT JOHN RETAIL OUTLET

The Saint John, New Brunswick outlet began operations in October of 1988. It was only the second outlet to be established east of Ontario. The other outlet was located in Petitcodiac, just outside of Moncton, New Brunswick, and approximately 130 kilometres from Saint John. The Saint John outlet operated under the direction of a 12 member Board. It had a directory of 140 volunteers, 60 of whom were active. The city of Saint John, with an approximate population of 77,000 people, provided a large base from which to attract volunteers. SELFHELP also drew volunteers from areas outside the city limits such as Rothesay, Hampton and Quispamsis.

SELFHELP Crafts of the World, Saint John, had recently celebrated its first year in business. First year sales had surpassed all expectations; however, Sue realised that if the store was to enjoy continued success, there were a number of problems that needed to be dealt with immediately. Sue believed that by combining her knowledge of the store's operations with the students' business skills, she could successfully address these problems. A problem common to most non-profit organisations and many private enterprises is that there never seems to be enough money - certainly not enough to hire professional business consultants to develop strategic plans. SELFHELP Crafts of the World was no exception. Sue could not help but wonder if the outlet would have had higher sales if they had hired experts in marketing and retail management prior to beginning operations. She believed that both she and the volunteers who worked in the store would have benefitted from this type of outside consultation.

Sue decided it was useless to dwell on the past, and began to develop a list of issues to be addressed in the store's strategic plan (See Exhibit 2). She realised that if the store were to exceed or even maintain its current sales volume, a new location would have to be identified and an organised promotional campaign put in place. Compared to other outlets, the Saint John store had performed extremely well. However, as with most businesses, growth was a definite goal. Sue was also concerned about the store's current method of inventory control.

BOARD OF DIRECTORS

The Board of Directors for SELFHELP Crafts of the World, Saint John, was made up of individuals from the business community, and other members who were familiar with the characteristics of developing countries. Brian Elliot was the Maritime Representative, Mennonite Central Committee, and he and Sue served as ex-officio Board members.

The Board had multi-denominational representation in keeping with the organisation's by-laws which stipulated that at any one time representation from at least five denominations was necessary. Only one board member was of the Mennonite faith, which made the Saint John outlet unique when compared to its counterparts.

The Board consisted of a President, Vice President, Secretary and Treasurer. Board members who missed more than three meetings without a valid reason were asked to resign their positions. Members met on a monthly basis and operated as a working Board. Board members not only worked in the store, but were also expected to help clean and count inventory.

VOLUNTEERS

SELFHELP Crafts was constantly seeking volunteers, especially those with some retail expertise or experience. Volunteers were expected to educate themselves on the background of the producer groups and the products sold in the store. Pamphlets and information cards describing producer groups and product origin and care were available to consumers who purchased the items (see Exhibit 3); however, there was also a master text with which volunteers were expected to be familiar. The master text was a reference for volunteers, to help them answer customers' questions regarding products, producers and host countries. The tasks of the volunteers were quite similar to those of any employee in the retailing industry.

PRODUCTS

SELFHELP Crafts of the World offered a wide, dynamic selection of products. The product line included hand crafted jewellery and baskets; hand woven mats; lace tablecloths; clothing; items carved from rare woods such as teak and ebony; ceremonial masks and greeting cards. There were even some foodstuffs such as packaged wild rice. The assortment of products changed as producers were dropped and new ones added. At times the products available were so unique that not even the staff were quite sure of the product's purpose. For example, one year at Christmas, banana leaves formed into circular shapes were received. The staff, believing they were wreaths, decorated them with ribbon and Christmas decorations. The "wreaths" sold quickly. The staff later learned that these circular forms were in fact meant to be used as trivets to keep hot pots from burning the table surface.

All products sold in the outlets were expected to meet national safety standards. This was occasionally a problem for SELFHELP until the organisation could convince producer groups to raise the quality, change the design or use different raw materials to produce their goods. For example, some children's toys received by the Saint John outlet were removed from the shelves because they were too small and therefore deemed dangerous for young children by Canadian standards. In such cases it was SELFHELP Crafts Canada who absorbed the loss. Another product restriction originated from the organisation itself. In keeping with the Christian faith, SELFHELP outlets would not carry any violent products, such as toy guns for children.

DISTRIBUTION

All SELFHELP Crafts retail outlets purchased their products from the national office of SELFHELP Crafts Canada in New Hamburg, Ontario. The national office provided a central warehouse for all goods shipped into Canada. It also handled all purchasing from producers. Each retail outlet could place its orders based on items available and quantities available for each item. Each outlet was given equal access to the various items, but was encouraged to carry a minimum number of the products available. This policy was meant to ensure that each outlet would carry a variety of products and that no one outlet had the advantage of carrying only "good sellers". Once products were ordered, it was the responsibility of each outlet to arrange delivery. Any loss or damage of goods during transportation was the responsibility of the individual store.

LOCATION

SELFHELP Crafts, Saint John, was located at 114 Prince William Street in a protected area of the downtown core of Saint John called Trinity Royal (See Exhibit 4). Since it was one of the preservation areas in Saint John, a number of restrictions were placed on businesses operating there. The original design of fronts of historic buildings had to be maintained as much as possible, signs had to meet certain requirements and hours had to be consistent.

Various offices, restaurants and specialty shops were located in the Trinity Royal area. These specialty shops included office supply stores, retail outlets carrying hand crafts and decorative items, antique shops and clothing boutiques. Three of the city's major employers were located within walking distance of that area, along with numerous smaller employers, three high schools and two of the city's major shopping complexes. Consumer traffic was heavy in the downtown area, especially during lunch hours and on Saturdays. The Engineering Department of the City of Saint John had conducted traffic studies of the uptown area (See Appendix A).

The outlet itself was very small, consisting of only 640 square feet, a portion of which was taken up by the rest room, office and storage area (See Exhibit 5). Sue Daley saw this as one of the greatest problems she faced in the operation of the store. Because there was too little storage space, Sue had to store some products at her home and transport them back to the outlet on an "as needed" basis. Sue would often make a special trip to her home to get a particular item requested by a customer, only to find that the customer had changed his/her mind. This was not only inconvenient, it made accurate inventory control difficult or impossible.

The store was currently using a manual inventory control system. This system had proven inefficient for a number of reasons. The description given on the packing slips was often insufficient to accurately identify the packaged items. Once inventory was confirmed as received, it was placed either in storage or into stock. Stock was reordered on the basis of visual inspections of the store. Items were reordered if the visual inspection suggested a low inventory, or if they were "fast sellers" This made it difficult to determine what portion of absent items had been sold, as opposed to broken or stolen. This system depended heavily on Sue Daley's ability to remember whether the item had been sold, was still in the store or was at home.

Most of the outlet's furnishings were obtained as "gifts-in-kind". For example, Mark's Work Warehouse, a local outlet of a national clothing retailer, donated a number of shelving units when they moved to a new location. The main cash counter was an old lab desk donated by the local Community College, and the curtains were made by a volunteer using imperfect material and remnants from a local fabric store. Shelf coverings and window displays were made from donated scraps of fabric. Despite the use of donated and used items, the products were quite attractively displayed, although somewhat crowded. Almost every available inch of floor and wall space was in use. Additional shelving space and display areas were obtained by using items that were for sale, such as wicker bookshelves. This caused problems because when the furnishings were sold, the volunteers had to find another way to display or store the products.

Sue had been looking for a larger location or a storage facility that was near the outlet. She believed that it was important for the store to remain in the same general area. This would minimise confusion for customers who were just becoming familiar with SELFHELP Crafts. Past searches for a new location had been futile: either the rental fees were too high, the spaces were too small, or the traffic volume was much lower than in the current location. Property rental fees were extremely high in the downtown area and lease requirements were restrictive. In many locations, business hours were determined by building owners or retail associations. Rents in the downtown area ranged from $500 per month to $30 per square foot of retail space per month. Exhibit 6 provides information on selected rental spaces that were available as of March 1, 1990.

The hours of operation in the current location had to be consistent with those of other businesses operating in the Trinity Royal area. The hours changed seasonally and during some special occasions the store was open on Sunday. Typically the store was open Monday to Thursday 10 am to 5 p.m., Friday 10 am to 8 p.m., and Saturday 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Volunteers were asked to work four hour shifts. Scheduling problems arose, especially during the summer months due to vacations, etc. Since only 60 volunteers were active, and since these individuals were volunteering their time, schedules had to be both convenient and flexible. Board members were expected to work in the store and when there were no available volunteers, Sue had to be available. Volunteers were not expected to work alone in the store; normally there were two or three people working at a time.

PRICING

The national office of SELFHELP Crafts Canada was responsible for pricing all products distributed in Canada. All products were therefore priced consistently throughout the Canadian outlets, and were priced before being delivered to the individual outlets. This price was calculated by adding 25 percent to the cost of the goods to the retail outlet. This 25 percent markup was meant to provide the outlet with enough resources to meet its expenses, including shipping, export duties, overhead and taxes. SELFHELP Crafts, Saint John, also sold a few items that did not come from the producer groups. These were complementary items, such as candles for candle holders available in the store. These items were priced competitively with other stores selling the same or similar products in the area.

FINANCES

SELFHELP Crafts, Saint John,, began operations in October, 1988 with approximately $9,000 to cover start up costs. This money was obtained through personal loans from third party donors. These loans were to be paid back within two to three years at zero percent interest (See Exhibit 7).

The store, although one of the smallest physically, had sales which made it one of the top four outlets in Canada in 1988/89 (see Exhibit 8 for sales figures). This was surprising since it was the first year of operation and an extremely small percentage of the Saint John population was of the Mennonite faith. Sales appeared to follow a cyclical pattern typical of the retail industry (See Exhibit 9).

More money was needed to realise the promotional, educational and sales objectives of SELFHELP Crafts. The organisation had two primary objectives. Education was one objective in that it sought to educate society about the purpose of SELFHELP Craft's activities. Its other objective was to increase awareness and stimulate sales for the retail outlets. This, in turn, would benefit the producer groups and move them closer to self sufficiency.

Because there was only a 25 percent margin to work with, the budgeting process took on particular importance for SELFHELP, Saint John (See Exhibit 10). Sue Daley was also concerned with the limited amount of capital (See Exhibit 7). She feared that this lack of capital would restrict her ability to accomplish the objectives of the organisation. She also feared that a change of location could result in increased overhead expenses, and make even greater demands on the available capital.

PROMOTION

Because education, increased awareness and sales were such important promotional objectives for SELFHELP, Sue and Lieth Box, education chairperson for SELFHELP Crafts Saint John, were active public speakers to various groups in the greater Saint John area. These groups included church groups, senior citizen's clubs, university and community college classes and service clubs. A typical presentation would include an explanation of the SELFHELP Crafts concept, its purpose, organisation and history. These presentations also included a display of various products and descriptions of the producer groups. A slide presentation was occasionally given, time permitting. Sue and Lieth gave approximately 60 presentations during the first year of operation in Saint John.

SELFHELP Crafts relied heavily on publicity. When the store celebrated its grand opening it received a great deal of publicity in the local newspapers as well as on the local television channels. The Saint John outlet had a number of press releases, and an article that promoted the outlet as a good place to purchase Christmas gifts was published in the December, 1989 issue of the Atlantic Advocate, a regional publication (See Appendix B).

Sue had appeared a number of times on a local noon-hour talk show to discuss the SELFHELP concept, the outlet's activities, new producer groups, new products or upcoming events associated with SELFHELP Crafts. She expected to make another appearance soon. The local cable community channel frequently aired a 45 minute, documentary style piece about the store, and Maritime Independent Television (MITV) had often provided news coverage on the store. The store had bought a few newspaper advertisements, but due to cost and budget restrictions these advertisements were kept to a minimum.

SELFHELP Crafts also used a variety of pamphlets as promotional and educational tools. Pamphlets were provided with every purchase to ensure that the consumer received information on the origin and care of the products purchased (see Exhibit 3). These pamphlets were product specific. A variety of other pamphlets were available which described the SELFHELP concept and its purpose. All promotional pamphlets were produced by a printing company that was sympathetic to the organisation's cause and were distributed, free of charge, through the national office of SELFHELP (See Exhibit 11). SELFHELP, Saint John, also used locally produced inserts in area church bulletins to promote the outlet and its products.

Since SELFHELP Crafts was located in Trinity Royal, the Association of Trinity Royal businesses afforded SELFHELP a number of promotional opportunities. During Trinity Royal Days all shops in the area remained open on Sunday. While consumers could not make purchases, due to Day of Rest restrictions, they could browse and obtain information from the clerks on duty in the store. The event was well promoted in the newspapers and on radio, with costs shared among all participating businesses.

A LOOK TO THE FUTURE

Sue Daley's dream was to find a new location with at least 2,000 square feet. In the new store she wanted to have adequate storage facilities coupled with a more progressive system of inventory control. She also wanted to see room for a repair shop which would permit damaged goods to be repaired on the premises rather than taken home for her husband to deal with. In the retail portion of the new premises, Sue wanted enough room to display the available products in a more complimentary manner. She wanted to be able to set up educational and promotional displays in the store to give customers more information on the concept, as well as on the individual producer groups and their products.

Sue hoped that community awareness of SELFHELP Crafts would increase in the future, and that increased awareness would translate into more business for the store. Sue realised that well planned promotion was necessary for the success of any business, non-profit or private. She also realised that if the store relocated, promotional activities would become even more important. However, the limited cash flow of SELFHELP imposed significant restrictions on promotional activities. Another complication was that Sue was not really sure who her customers were or how to reach them. Given the low number of Mennonites in the area, SELFHELP Crafts, Saint John, had to push their products and the concept much more aggressively than outlets in other centres.

While the Saint John outlet had ranked in the top four in Canada in terms of performance, the varied clientele base it had to draw from required that customer needs and wants be examined.


EXHIBIT 1 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

EXAMPLES OF PRODUCER GROUPS AND CORRESPONDING PRODUCTS


Company Name Country Products
Action Bag Bangladesh Jute Bags
Artexp Vietnam Beach mats, Bamboo curtains, lace table cloths, cotton embroidery
Archana Handicrafts India Brass ornaments
Pekerti Indonesia Baskets, augklung (musical instrument)
Children's Rehabilitation Centre Phillipines Hand painted vases,  toys, ceramic bells
Mountain Maid Self Help Projects Haiti Placemats, cards, wood carvings.

 

EXHIBIT 2 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

 SUE'S LIST OF ISSUES

* STRATEGIC PLAN DEVELOPMENT * MONEY
* TIME MANAGEMENT * STAFFING
* INVENTORY CONTROL * PROMOTIONAL ACTIVITY
* BOARD RELATIONS * STORAGE SPACE
* LOCATION * RECOGNIZING VOLUNTEERS
* STORE IMAGE * SHELVING
* PUBLIC AWARENESS * SHIPPING COSTS

 

EXHIBIT 3 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

INFORMATIONAL PAMPHLETS WHICH ACCOMPANY ALL PURCHASES

exh150.jpg (6150 bytes) exh151.jpg (23683 bytes)
exh152.jpg (11822 bytes) exh153.jpg (15376 bytes)
exh154.jpg (9444 bytes) exh155.jpg (17321 bytes)

 

EXHIBIT 4 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

MAP OF SAINT JOHN UPTOWN CORE

exh159.jpg (44849 bytes)

GIFTS & CARDS HANDCRAFTS
Guy Watts Q9 Country Ceramics K1
Holder's Cards & Gifts H1 Country Treasures S4
Holder's Cards & Gifts K1 Croft House H1
Linja Gift Shop M Magic Lantern H1
Your Candle Shop L16 SELFHELP T1
The Rocking Chair T3 The Waterside Shoppe J2
The Whale H1

NOTE: Blocks T, V and W are the Trinity Royal preservation area.

EXHIBIT 5 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

STORE LAYOUT

exh158.jpg (25715 bytes)

 

EXHIBIT 6 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

AVAILABLE RETAIL SPACE

LOCATION SIZE(ft2) COST/MONTH ATTRIBUTES
Prince William St. (between Princess present and Church) has large (T2) heating 2200 $1500 tenant pays heat, site is next door to location, display windows, costs identified as a problem by former tenants, meter parking
Canterbury St. (between Princess and Church) (T23) 1000 $ 675 heat included, attractive area, large display windows, meter parking
King St. (between Prince William and Canterbury) (T13) 1100 $15/ft2 tenant pays heat, site is close to Prince William St. intersection and therefore near present location
Charlotte St. (between Union and King) (L13) 1100 $ 900 heat included, private office located in rear, site is in business core, meter parking
Union St. (between Charlotte and Germain) (L10) 1000 $ 800 tenant pays heat, site is away from central business core and shopping district, unattractive location, meter parking
Major Downtown Shopping Centre (facing King between Chipman Hill and Germain) 5% gross sales location determined by the mall, can be forced to move if a for profit wants to rent the space, variety of stores draw (K) more potential consumers, meter and garage parking available
Princess St. (S9) 128 $ 102 storage space only, approximately one block from current location

 

EXHIBIT 7 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

BALANCE SHEET AT JANUARY 31, 1990

ASSETS

Current Assets $ 150.00

Cash on Hand

Cash in Bank

Savings Account

17,838.87

Chequing Account #1

- 11.83

Chequing Account #2

---

Shares Account

300.00 $18,277.44

Inventory

SHC (SELFHELP crafts)

39,772.83

Labrador (Native crafts, Canada)

546.60

Candles

888.53

Rice

58.55

Books

15.00 41,281.51
Fixed Assets

Furniture and Equipment

2,499.92
Deferred Assets

Leasehold Improvements

850.34
TOTAL ASSETS $62,908.81

LIABILITIES AND EQUITY

Short Term Liabilities

Sales Tax Payable

500.10

Accounts Payable

10,011.79

Gift Certificates

120.00

Credit Notes

64.36 10,696.25
Long Term Liabilities

Loans Individuals

2,000.00
 
TOTAL LIABILITIES 12,696.25
Equity
Surplus/Deficit 1988-89 25,035.94
Surplus/Deficit 1989-90 25,176.92
TOTAL EQUITY 50,212.56
TOTAL LIABILITIES AND EQUITY $62,908.81

(Source: Company records)

 

EXHIBIT 8 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

INCOME STATEMENT FOR THE PERIOD MARCH 1 - JANUARY 31, 1990

REVENUE

Store Sales

SHC (crafts)

$178,539.35

Labrador (Canada)

2,973.53

Candles

1,751.50

Rice

924.50

Books

60.00 $184,248.88

Cash Short/Over

- 86.20

Donations

282.42

Sales Tax Commission

137.77

Interest

907.74

Challenge '89 Grant1

1,472.00
Total Revenue $186,962.61
Cost of Goods Sold

SHC (crafts)

133,904.52

Labrador

2,230.16

Candles

525.47

Rice

785.85

Books

33.00 137,479.00
Gross Margin 49,483.61
OPERATING EXPENSES

Rent

5,190.00

Electricity

292.56

Maintenance

774.43

Telephone

747.37

Office Supplies

309.96

Bank Charges

45.00

Postage and Freight

217.90

Advertising

891.38

Promotional Materials

972.78

Travel

1,814.50

Volunteer Costs

619.76

Volunteer Stipend

4,400.00

Store Supplies

755.08

Items for Resale

51.65

Challenge Wages

1,367.98

Regular Wages

177.94

Challenge UI & CPP

103.87

Regular UI & CPP

11.83

Insurance

300.00

Extraordinary Expenses

3,500.00

Losses

1,763.00
Total Expenses 24,306.99
NET INCOME AND SURPLUS $25,176.62

1 Government sponsored work program for students (Source: Company records)

 

EXHIBIT 9 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

MONTHLY SALES - YEAR ONE

exh163.jpg (19667 bytes)

(Source: Company Records)

 

EXHIBIT 10 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

BUDGET AND RESULTS FOR THE YEAR ENDING FEBRUARY 28, 1990
ACCOUNT PROJECTED BUDGET PROJECTED BUDGET ACTUAL BUDGET
(YEARLY) MARCH - JANUARY MARCH - JANUARY

exh164.jpg (35303 bytes)

(Source: Company Records)

EXHIBIT 11 - SELFHELP CRAFTS

SAMPLE PROMOTIONAL PAMPHLETS

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exh166.jpg (14443 bytes)

SELFHELP Crafts markets the products of approximately 65 groups from around the world - groups such as a women's co-op in Bangladesh, hilltribe refugees in Northern Thailand, displaced families in Central America, and landless peasants in Indonesia.  By creating jobs for these and other groups in developing nations, SELFHELP is working at long-term solutions to poverty and hunger.

SELFHELP Crafts is a non-profit program of Mennonite Central Committee, the relief and service agency of Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches.  Most North Americans involved in the program are volunteers.


APPENDIX A - SELFHELP CRAFTS

EXCERPTS FROM THE TRAFFIC VOLUME REPORT
(Vehicular Traffic)
exh168.jpg (18483 bytes)

Source: 1989 Traffic Volume Report (12th ed.). Traffic Engineering Section, City of Saint John, Engineering Department, Municipal Operations

APPENDIX B - SELFHELP CRAFTS

CHRISTMAS GIFTS
From the Third World
By Carolyn Van Buskirk

In the waterfront section of Saint John, N.B., a gift shop window reflects far beyond the harbour to the harsh realities of the Third World.

Cosy and unpretentious, the store's interior is a bustling maze of exotic handicrafts. Mingled with wooden elephants from India and exquisite West Bank manger scenes, are Thailand's exquisite linens, rich woollen rugs from Vietnam, plant hangers of Bangladesh jute, beaded work from the natives of Labrador, and a wealth of brass, wicker, lacquerware and basketry.

Since opening its Prince William Street doors one year ago, Selfhelp Crafts of the World has met an overwhelming demand for useful and decorative items from struggling producers in areas of extreme poverty, refugee camps and rehabilitation clinics.

Only the second shop of its kind east of Toronto (with a parent operation also located in New Brunswick at Petitcodiac), Selfhelp Crafts benefits both producer and consumer

by paying a fair wage and charging a fair price. Retail mark-up covers shipping costs, export duty, taxes and overhead expenses but not profit. Managed and staffed by more than sixty volunteers, it took Saint John's downtown store just six months to establish itself as one of the most active in Canada, ranking second in sales nation-wide.

Such support and enthusiasm shocked no one more than the nucleus of organisers who, buoyed by a series of Selfhelp Craft fairs in local schools and churches, grew committed to the cause. "What began as a dream of helping the world's underprivileged to help themselves quickly became a responsibility," says Manager Sue Daley, "then an obligation, and finally an obsession."

After conducting a feasibility study, the tiny group took a long, hard look at its resources and clearly came up short. Needing about $50,000 in seed money, a high-traffic location with lower overhead, display fixtures, decorating supplies, and an army of man-power--it had, in fact, nothing.

Although Selfhelp Crafts is a program of the Mennonite Central Committee, Saint John formed an inter-denominational Board of Directors with a by-law requiring that a minimum of five denominations be represented at all times. Meanwhile, education chairman Leith Box lined up talks and slide presentations for any group willing to listen, taking along a sampling of the handiwork to be offered by the prospective store. "The key to Selfhelp," she believes, "is educating our society; making us more aware of millions of people around the world, including some parts of Canada, who do not have enough to eat, cannot afford decent housing, and have no savings to help them cope in a disaster because they don't have a job."

While sending food and money is a stop-gap measure, she says, helping through job creation and teaching self-sufficiency is the long-term solution to hunger and poverty.

As Selfhelp's speaking engagements escalated and the word spread, more and more workers enlisted. MCC's Maritime Representative, Brian Elliot, of the Petitcodiac store, helped the fledgling enterprise by contributing proceeds of special sales and offering expertise. Small grants and loans from interested individuals trickled in, "but," says Mrs. Daley, "never fast enough to get on with the job at hand."

Standing at intersections, the organisers counted cars and studied traffic patterns. Finally, they agreed to search out a flat, wheelchair-accessible retail space in historic Trinity Royal.

When the City of Saint John called with a 640 sq. ft. storefront on a sunny corner, it sounded like just the thing. "Rushing to inspect the premises, "she recounts, "we recoiled at the sight of silverfish, fleas and rodents. The ceiling dropped from three different altitudes, walls were caving in, and the decor was an unbelievable blend of electric blue, yellow and psychedelic orange."

Deflated but not defeated, they negotiated a $1,500 face-lift. But as one calamity led to another, the city wound up spending ten times that amount.

Rolling up sleeves and donning coveralls, the Selfhelp troops moved in with gallons of paint supplied at cost, discarded shelving from a clothing warehouse, and light fixtures from their own family rooms. Unpacking dozens of cartons of stock ordered from the Canadian Selfhelp headquarters in New Hamburg, Ontario, they had little but imagination for conjuring creative displays. Volunteer staff attended orientation sessions focusing on theft-prevention, the backgrounds of various craft items, and cash register training.

"From opening day, however, until a cash register was generously donated to the store," muses Mrs. Daley, "we worked out of a cardboard box."

Within weeks of the store's official opening in mid-October, 1988, it was virtually sold out to the bare walls. Declaring a "Third World Christmas," many shoppers brought long gift lists and filled them on the spot. Others, amazed to find such unique and individually-crafted items so reasonably priced, returned day after day, week after week. Desperately awaiting its next scheduled shipment, Selfhelp Crafts borrowed truckloads of stock from Petitcodiac.

"People feel good knowing their gift is giving more than once," says Pauline Steinmann, treasurer of Saint John's Selfhelp. "And they seem to really appreciate the enclosure slips available with most of the crafts--describing the area of origin, the culture of the people, and the conditions they must work under."

By avoiding sweat shops and dealing directly with co-operatives and cottage industries, Selfhelp Crafts of the World eliminates excessive middleman profits and encourages independence. As soon as new markets for a craft can be found, she explains, Selfhelp withdraws support in favour of another deserving group.

Action Bag Handicrafts, a producer group in Bangladesh, for example, requires its women crafters to put a specified portion of their wage into a savings plan. With the accumulated money, they are expected to invest in a profitable enterprise. One woman, having the imagination and foresight to buy a photocopier with her savings, is gainfully employed today in the marketplace at Saidpur.

Another woman, severely disfigured and deformed by leprosy, spends her days splashing paint onto small greeting cards at the McKean Rehabilitation Clinic in Thailand. After thirty years of exclusion from her village and "doing nothing," Selfhelp has given her "a reason to get up in the morning."

Besides being effective therapy, Miss Steinmann says, the work at such clinics restores self-esteem by allowing the patient to be productive and self-supporting again.

Sixty-five producer groups are now involved in Selfhelp, including young families in the slums of Calcutta, Manila and Nairobi; displaced farmers in Central America; Palestinian refugees from West Bank, and hill-tribe peoples of Taiwan. All are required to use products only from their native country, she stresses, and must also contribute to such social and economic improvements as hygiene, nutrition, family planning, well-baby clinics, and better technology to help raise living standards.

Due to a U.S. trade embargo, $250,000 annually in Vietnamese ceramics, linens, lace, rugs and baskets are available only in Canadian stores. And, as a subtle reminder that Third World poverty exists in Canada too, the Saint John shop carries handiwork from the Eskimos of Labrador and wild rice grown and processed by the Ojibwa Indians of Wabigoon, Ontario.

Started in 1946 as an outlet for the needlework of Puerto Rican women, Selfhelp Crafts of the World now operates 120 stores in Canada and the United States, supporting one family for a year with each $1,000 worth sold.

"One thing our volunteers and customers share is an appreciation for living in a country where, generally speaking, we have much more than we need. It's this privilege," says Sue Daley, "that makes us painfully aware of the hardships of others and we want to give some back."

(Source: The Atlantic Advocate, December, 1989)

(Reprinted with Permission)