Impact Journalism Day 2016

Vending a Message of Hope

A Polish NGO has taken an everyday item, the vending machine, and filled it with the opportunity to do social good. And yes, this machine actually produces change.

The Monar association's Praga Center in Warsaw, which helps ex-drug addicts, alcoholics and the poor.
Jerzy Dudek

Mariusz Wojtowicz has been working at Monar for the past several years. Founded nearly 40 years ago by the Polish humanist and psychologist Marek Kotanski, it’s a nongovernmental organization operating across Poland. It specializes in addiction therapy and prevention, helping the homeless or those addicted to alcohol or drugs.

Like everyone else, Wojtowicz has always walked past vending machines selling mineral water, juices and candies. Vending machines are everywhere: at train stations, airports, on the subway, and in hotels and offices.

We all know the process: You put your coins in, press a button or two and, a few seconds later, enjoy your purchase.

But nobody considers the fact that behind these simple machines stand large companies employing thousands of people and generating millions of dollars in revenue.

“One day I thought to myself, We could use this simple concept in our work with people who are at risk of social exclusion; people who, after receiving counseling and leaving our centers, often have difficulties in returning to society,” says Wojtowicz.

But how can a simple vending machine help people at risk of social exclusion? One of the elements of the support system devised by Monar is post-rehabilitation: Forming a bridge between drug therapy for addicts or homeless people and their social reintegration and return to self-sufficiency.

Helping those ‘with baggage’

Besides offering a place to live, the most important element of the support is preparing the former addicts or homeless people for the labor market. For this reason, the organization runs projects that aim to teach social and professional skills, creating new career opportunities.

Wojtowicz says the people Monar treats are those “with baggage”: ex-addicts, alcoholics, people with a criminal record. It is very hard for people like this to find work, he notes.

“The inability to find work often leads to breakdown and relapse,” says Wojtowicz. “I thought that by using vending machines, we could create a social enterprise that could employ people who leave Monar after successful treatment. They could make the products, deliver them to the vending machines and even do maintenance work on the machines.”

This is how The Social Good Vending Machine (Dystrybutor Dobra in Polish) project was born. It fits perfectly into the organization’s strategy: The social enterprise will use vending machines, an online shop and other distribution channels to distribute healthy food and products made by Monar members, and all the profits will be reinvested into the further development of the project. This way, The Social Good Vending Machine will support those at risk of social exclusion.

But given the vast number of different vending machines out there, how will it be possible to distinguish The Social Good Vending Machine from all others?

“Well, I had an idea,” says Wojtowicz. “The vending machines are being designed by students from the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, which wanted to take part in our project. We want our vending machines to be instantly associated with charity.”

And that’s not all. Each distributor, website and online shop will have a “charity clock” that, after a purchase, immediately shows the customer the amount of “social charity” produced as a result of their purchase. It will also show the total amount of social charity generated by a given vending machine and the grand total of all the machines.

“Poles already know how this kind of clock works. The ‘debt clock’ located in Warsaw city center shows them the government debt and how it is increasing. We would like to reverse this and show Poles that their money can also do good,” says Wojtowicz.

Socially responsible firms

“An important element of the project is also the idea of pro-social purchasing and so-called CSR,” adds Wojtowicz, referring to corporate social responsibility. “The concept is simple. Instead of giving money directly to the homeless begging on the street, we want to create an opportunity for people to give their money to an organization that offers comprehensive help.

“The social responsibility of businesses can be seen in our partnership with the shopping malls where we want to place our vending machines. The participating shopping mall can use the project to enhance their own positive image in the community, in exchange for allowing us to place our vending machines there for free. Both sides will be happy,” he believes.

The Social Good Vending Machine project has already been noticed in Europe. It was chosen as one of the finalists in the 2015 European Social Innovation Competition – New Ways to Grow, being short-listed from a total of over 1,400 applicants from all over the continent.

Monar wants to place and start operating its first half dozen vending machines in Kraków during World Youth Day, a weeklong faith festival that takes place in July.

“It’s going to be an excellent opportunity to show that we can do something good for somebody else whenever we want,” says Monar project manager Iwona Pasichnyk. “Then we’d like to develop and grow our enterprise.”

Of course, the problem is money. Monar needs around 50-60,000 zloty ($12,700-$15,200) to create the first vending machines, though the organization may receive financial assistance from the European Union. And to help finance the project, a crowdfunding campaign is being launched on Indiegogo titled “The Social Good Vending Machine.”

“We are hopeful and believe in the success of our project,” says an enthusiastic Wojtowicz.

This article first appeared in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.