The Bata Shoes story

Is the glass half full, or half emp­ty? It depends on how good you are at looking.

Written by
Ken Burnett
March 25, 2021

The Bata shoes story has been a favourite of mine for so long I’ve almost forgotten why. Recently I had a salutary reminder of it, which made me think that this story perhaps holds one of the simplest yet most profound and important messages of all, for all of us.

The Bata shoes story goes like this:

When I first visited Africa in 1978, I toured the wild north of Kenya. In tiny villages and markets along the way I kept seeing signs for Bata, the shoe company. When it came to indications of commercial product dominance in these flyblown, out of the way spots, Bata was in evidence far more than any other maker of anything. I vaguely wondered why at the time, and later was told this tale, in explanation.

At the end of the nineteenth century, just as colonial Africa was opening up as a market, all the manufacturers of shoes in Victorian England sent their representatives to Africa to see if there might be an opportunity there for their wares. All duly came back in time with the same answer. ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there is no market for our products there.’

All, that is, save for the Bata rep. He came back saying, ‘Nobody in Africa wears shoes. So, there’s a huge market for our products in Africa!’

And that’s why signs promoting Bata appear all over Africa, even in the remotest of spots. It’s why Bata’s shoes are known as the shoes of Africa.

So, what’s this got to do with fundraisers? Well, it’s about how we look at things and how we see them. It illustrates why being good at looking is a quality well worth cultivating.

Evaluations always only give part of the story and you invariably have to discount the ‘Mr Grumpy’ effect. But how can one reconcile the difference between comments such as these?

Another instructive example for me came years back when I found myself at a fundraising conference in the UK, attending a session called ‘frontiers of direct mail’ or something similar, a panel discussion featuring many of Britain’s most successful fundraising direct marketers. Sitting next to me in the audience was a young account manager from a marketing agency of my acquaintance, just a few weeks into the job. After the presentations she couldn’t wait to deliver her verdict. ‘Huh,’ she exclaimed with contempt, ‘that was nothing new. I already knew all that.’

‘Well,’ I replied, trying to be sage-like, ‘I know what you mean, but funnily enough I took six pages of notes, nevertheless’.

She delivered me a withering look, which showed that her scorn for me knew no bounds. She didn’t have to say so, for I could sense her smugness as she flounced off thinking. ‘Fancy that, I know more than Ken Burnett.’

The fact that people see things differently was brought home again for me recently at the UK Institute of Fundraising’s 2011 National Convention where I shared the stage briefly with two splendid observers of the human condition, Giles Pegram and Alan Clayton. Afterwards we were duly sent the audiences’ evaluations of our presentation, handed in as they always are at the end of our show.

I’m a bit long in the tooth now to pay much store by evaluations. They always only give part of the story and you invariably have to discount the ‘Mr Grumpy’ effect. But how can one reconcile the difference between comments such as these?

One delegate wrote, ‘didn’t take anything away from session. Boring, not interactive’, while another said, ‘wow – thank you so much. Already I feel 10 feet tall and I haven’t even started yet.’ Were these people in the same room? Well of course they were. Each had seen and heard the same things but had looked and listened differently.

Someone else said, ‘it’s just common sense’, and that was clearly a criticism. Another said, ‘it’s just common sense’ and meant it was great to be reminded of simple, fundamental truths.

Of course we know nothing anyone does will please everyone. But equally, if we dismiss something because we think we already know better, we’ll often miss out. Instead, we should learn to look and listen better, and to think before we jump.

Thanks for the lesson, Bata.

About the author: Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett

Ken Burnett is author of Relationship Fundraising and other books including The Zen of Fundraising, (Jossey-Bass Inc, San Francisco, USA). The Tiny Essentials of an Effective Volunteer Board and Storytelling can change the world, both published by The White Lion Press, UK

In 2021, he wrote and published a book about campaigning fundraising, The essence of Campaigning Fundraising in 52 exhibits and 199 web links.

Ken co-founded SOFII with his late wife Marie and served as a trustee before retiring from the SOFII board in 2022.

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