Nashville Flood T-shirt charity project proves that no good deed goes unpunished 

Some Nashvillians were awfully quick to congratulate themselves for not rioting while the floodwaters conveniently forced law enforcement to look the other way — but those must have been the folks who actually received their charity flood relief T-shirts. Those who didn't – whose orders went on backlog, whose emails went unanswered, whose shirts still hadn't arrived weeks after the waters had receded? They grabbed their torches and stormed the storefront, wild-eyed, angry-mouthed and looking for a fight.

True, it was only a virtual storefront. And the threats made were more like angry rants: accusations of scamming, demands for refunds, and promises to alert the Better Business Bureau. But to read the comments on the Facebook page of Nashville Flood Tees, a nonprofit group of local graphic designers who raised money for flood relief with their own T-shirt designs — 100 percent of whose profits will go directly to local charities — is to plumb the depths of human contradiction. It is to stare directly into the heart of darkness, and find equal parts moving generosity and astonishing hypocrisy. It is to confirm what you may have always suspected: The customer might always be right, but he or she is often also an asshole.

For Susannah Parrish, it merely confirmed that no good deed goes unpunished.

The Monday night after the floodwaters had drowned the city, the 39-year-old graphic designer and Texas native found herself wide awake at 3 a.m., thankful her Franklin home had been spared, her mind racing about how to help. Then divine intervention struck. "God just put this little idea in my head and said, 'Why don't you design a couple shirts?' "

She got to sketching, combined the simple slogan "I Heart Nashville" with an umbrella and raindrops, then sent around a few rough samples to friends. Encouraged by the response, she decided to sell them to friends and then donate all the money to Cross Point Church, impressed by the news that their Bellevue outreach crew were some of the first folks on the ground helping mere hours into the tragedy.

But Parrish wondered if she could really move many units. "I just thought, 'Well, I need a few more people to see it to make sure I can sell 300,' " she said by phone. On a whim, she turned to social media to get some impromptu feedback. Little did she know she was tempting fate.

"I posted them on Facebook [the next day]," Parrish said of the shirt designs. "I'll never do that again. It just exploded."

Within a week, she'd sold over 12,000. She attracted virtual visitors from over 63 countries to her website. A few serendipitous media appearances boosted sales further: Widespread Panic's keyboard player, Franklin resident John "JoJo" Hermann, wore the shirt on CNN, and country singers Brad Paisley and Kellie Pickler appeared wearing them on GAC for a flood relief benefit. Demand was so high that the frequency of purchase transactions clogged her payment system — PayPal froze the account until they could verify that it was a legitimate enterprise.

And from there, it was a mad scramble to create a business from scratch: Parrish set up a business bank account and a tax ID, and jumped daily through hoops to prove to PayPal that the business was on the up-and-up. She partnered with local printing company Render Apparel. Friends Josh and Bethany Newman at st8mnt.com, a graphic design firm, helped launch and manage the online store, nashvillefloodtees.com.

Parrish began waking at 3 a.m. to answer emails and track orders for a few hours before work. But with only a small group of people — all of whom have day jobs — running the show, it was still overwhelming.

"The first three weeks, you don't know how you're going to survive," she says. "We all were run ragged. ... Everyone pretty much stopped their real jobs."

She added a professional fulfillment company to handle processing shipment of orders and notification. With each public cry for more — More designs! Bigger sizes! Smaller sizes! Kids' shirts! — she responded in kind, even adding onesies for babies.

But just as each wrinkle was smoothed, another one appeared immediately. Next up on the aggravation block: Some people weren't getting their shirts quickly enough, and that's when the Facebook tirades began brewing.

"Would love to have my shirt, it's been over 5 weeks," wrote one poster on Facebook. "Can't imagine why it would take that long." Others were more pointed: "We are going on week 7 for my shirts still not arriving. If I had to do all over, I would have just donated money to another organization and ordered shirts from another company."

To most folks, the tragedy of May 2010 was the seemingly unstoppable rainfall, uprooting Nashvillians from house and home. To others, it was not being able to wear a T-shirt commemorating it. And in spite of the all-for-a-good-cause spirit of most customers, the longer some do-gooders drifted on without their T-shirts, the angrier they became, like petulant kids at a sold-out concert. Some began offering ultimatums: "I am planning to take action if I don't get my shirt by the end of June," wrote a customer. "If I don't get that shirt by then, I will start making noise by asking for a refund."

Some threatened to complain to the Better Business Bureau, while others suggested maybe the whole thing was a con. "Starting to really think this is a scam. How about my shirt now or my money back."

Nashville Flood Tees apologized profusely for the delays, assuring legitimacy and promising quick action, but commenters continued to doubt and nitpick. Mothers expressed concern that by the time they get the onesies they'd ordered, their babies may be too big to wear them. (Apparently the toddler activist set is a tough crowd.) Fans rallied to the company's defense, reminding the audience that it's not about the T-shirts, it's about helping the devastated community. "It's about the shirts," someone retorted. "Or everyone would have just made a straight donation."

One woman found the whole thing revolting. "The fact that someone would order a T-shirt for a charitable cause and then moan about how long it takes to get to them makes me sick to my stomach," she wrote. "GET A LIFE people! DO you think the people affected by the flood feel the same way you do?"

Even more baffling, given everyone's access to an Internet soapbox these days, was the woman who insisted that the T-shirt she'd ordered the first week of May — and, of course, still hadn't received — was the absolute only way she could possibly express her support for the flood victims. Clearly, Nashville Flood Tees had robbed her of this one chance to express herself.

Parrish says she finally just had to stop reading. "There are comments and emails that have made my heart heavy," she said. "I had one guy say, 'You should have anticipated the demand when you sent out one of the guys from Widespread Panic wearing your shirt.' Well, we couldn't have anticipated the demand. It's like, if you could have anticipated the flood, we could have anticipated the demand."

Meanwhile, as Parrish and her associates dreamed of cutting a big check and being done with the whole thing, another snag arose: As part of standard business practices, PayPal holds funds a certain amount of time until they can verify receipt of the products in question. As long as back orders delayed shipping, and PayPal had no confirmation that customers were receiving the shirts. Parrish couldn't pay the charities. It was becoming a perfect storm of stasis.

"It's been an incredible learning experience," Parrish says. "Who knows what we're prepared for down the line — I don't care anymore. The exciting day is when we're delivering money to those four charities."

Finally, that happened. On Tuesday, June 29, a Facebook update appeared: "PayPal has finally released some of our funds to us, and thanks to all your amazing support we've given $120,000 to the charities this past weekend!!! THANK YOU ALL!!!" it read. (Representatives of each charity confirmed they did indeed receive the money.)

Not so fast, a poster quickly responded: "That's great, but the note that came in the box with my T-shirts (that I got this weekend finally-YAY!!) said you raised more than $250,000 for flood relief. Do you plan on giving the other $130,000 to charity as well?"

Less patient types might have, say, gotten in their cars, driven to the poster's house, and demanded to have their car hand-washed with the T-shirts in question, just on principle. But Parrish kept her cool. Demand has mercifully slowed, shipping has caught up, and now she and her cohorts are simply filling outstanding or incorrect orders and selling off the remaining stock. If it's sold out online, says Parrish, it's sold out. PayPal will soon release the remaining funds, meaning Nashville Flood Tees has raised a quarter of a million dollars to aid locals, all from a 3 a.m. call to public service.

In all, they've shipped about 8,000 orders totaling some 19,000 shirts. The business officially closes Aug. 1. And despite the lesson in cranky consumerism her compassionate act produced, Parrish still thinks of it as a blessing — one that hasn't deterred her from future civic acts.

"I will always be willing to help out others when I can," Parrish says. "But moving forward, I will definitely try and keep it on a much smaller scale. Not that any of us could have ever planned or anticipated this demand, but I will be better prepared in knowing how to keep it reined in much better — should there be a next time."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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