TEN THOUSAND VILLAGES is a US-based company with a powerful mission to create opportunities for artisans in developing countries.  Formed in 1946, they now buy from 37 countries, have 78 branded stores in North America, about 260 other retail partners, and sales of $42M for the year ending March 2012.

They are one of the largest and most successful fair-trade organizations on the planet.

10kVillagesI had a chance recently to speak with Wendy Poppen, who runs our local store.  She brings a powerful passion in this role:  “I’m going to leave this planet a little better than I found it.”

This is no marketing statement.  She’s always looked for jobs like this.  It’s a combination of a political purpose – to help poor people around the world – and loving beautiful handmade crafts.

It’s something that’s pervasive in this company.  Their mission says it best:

Ten Thousand Villages’ mission is to create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term fair trading relationships.

What’s different about this company – as compared with all the other admirable high-principled mission statements that you hear all the time – is how they bring it to action.

Let’s start with the business model.  It’s a non-profit 501(c)3, which of course can have tax benefits.  Outlets take the form of company stores, branded retail stores, and other non-branded retail partners.  I learned that this creates a set of tiers, where each level has a different amount of ties back to the corporate set of products.

And if you’ve been in one of the shops, you know that the products can be astounding.  High quality, and each one with a story of the real people whose lives have been improved.

But it’s not about tugging at your heartstrings.  Wendy helped me see that it’s really about creating a respectful value-for-value relationship.  Customers appreciate finding unique and thought-provoking products, while suppliers now have an international market.

How wonderful it is that a family in Fort Collins, Colorado is able to directly help a family in Kenya!

When your purpose is to improve peoples’ lives, then you should do the same everywhere, right?  So I was quite impressed to hear about Wendy’s recent trip to southeast Asia, where she made connections with actual artisans across the region.  The parent company will encourage one or two of these trips each year, paid for by the store, because it’s so important to the relationships and company goals.  And it makes her such a powerful leader for her 55 volunteers.  The company has a powerful orientation program to help ensure that alignment is consistent and pervasive.

Helping people in developing countries around the world is the core of the business, and it makes for a compelling message to the market.  Supporting fair trade reinforces that it’s a respectful relationship, not manipulation.

If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, look up your local store when you’re shopping for your next gift.