child sponsorship – some excellent advice

By Sallie Grayson. Filed in project background, volunteers' fundraising  |  
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We at people and places are often asked about individual child sponsorship – and we always discourage it.

Here we reproduce an article by Marianne Elliot that speaks of the challenges, efficacy and  transparency of such sponsorship far more eloquently than we can!

“In preparing this post I had several very useful conversations with people who I cannot thank by name here, because they were speaking to me in their personal capacity and not as representatives of the organistations they work for – some of which use child sponsorship programmes and some of which use the ‘catalog’ approach which I’ll also talk about below.

But I wanted to acknowledge them because here’s the thing: I’m a human rights specialist. Although I’ve worked for development organisations like Oxfam, my role in those organisations has been either ensure that human rights principles are woven into development programming or to develop policy and advocacy positions on the other side of the development story.

It’s the part of the story that doesn’t take place in communities in Uganda or Afghanistan, the part of the story that takes place in the debating halls and back corridors of parliaments and senates all over the world and at various international organisations including the World Trade Organisation. It’s the part of the story that controls the overall economic landscape in which poor communities are trying to find their place. It is, in my opinion, at least as important to reducing gobal poverty as any work done on the ground in developing countries and it is, while we are on the topic, very hard to raise funds for this work.

Given my own slant on this topic, I called on some people who know a lot about child sponsorships and community development and I’ve summarised what they had to say into a few simple points.

1. A child’s life can only be improved if the live of her family and community are improved. This is true of child poverty in New Zealand and it’s certainly true of child poverty in Afghanistan. So the idea that individual children could be targeted and given sustainable development assistance was never sound and for a long time hasn’t been part of any kind of reputable development programming.

2. Child sponsorship programmes are entirely about you, that is they are designed to meet the needs of the person giving the money not the community or, for that matter, the child.

3. However, as a rule the money you give through a child sponsorship, assuming you are giving it through one of the reputable development organisations, will be being delivered through sound, community development programmes.

In other words – if you are giving to a reputable development organisation, the fact that you are giving via child sponsorship won’t detract from the fact that the money will be being delivered in accordance with good development practices.

As it turns out, the same is true for those catalogs of ‘gifts’ you can buy from many aid organisations. Buy your mother a goat for Christmas, the goat goes to a community or family that needs it. Oxfam was one of the pioneers of this approach. Organisations like Oxfam, and people like me, saw this as an improvement on the child sponsorship fundraising model because it had less potential to encourage patronising attitudes towards the recipients of the aid.

But at the end of the day, these catalogs fulfil the same function as the child sponsorship programmes – they are entirely about meeting your needs, the needs of the donor.

My boyfriend told me a long time ago that if I ever knew of a good cause that needed money I should simply tell him about it. He wasn’t interested in sponsoring people to walk 100km or paying for a dinner party to raise money for the cause. He didn’t need to get a card telling him that a goat had been given in his name or have a picture of a child on his fridge. All he wanted was to know where his money was needed and where he could do the most good.

Now if all donors were like my boyfriend, NGOs could shut down most of their marketing departments. But most people are not like him. Most people respond well to the marketing gimmicks used by aid organisations to raise funds.

And, to be fair, this is about something much deeper than marketing gimmicks. Or perhaps what I’m about to admit is that marketing is not really about gimmicks. Child sponsorships continue to persist because they tap into some deep human needs.

We need to feel we are doing good in the world. That is a fundamental driver of human action. It is also part of our nature as humans to relate to personal stories and I believe it is both natural and responsible to want to know where and how our money is being used. The people who work in the marketing departments of organisations like Oxfam know this. So they develop fundraising campaigns that are built around personal stories and they ensure that there is a strong and clear message about the direct impact that the donation will have.

The problem is that effective development progamming is complex. So those clear simple messages often don’t tell the whole story.

Here’s what one person said to me in one of those off-the-record chats this week:

There is an extent to which NGOs quite simply do not tell the truth about what they do. Not that they’re doing bad things. They just don’t tell their donors (those child sponsors) – I mean REALLY tell them – what they do with the money.

On the other side there is an extent to which those same donors, I think, kinda don’t really want to know the truth. They want to send their check, get some nice stuff in the mail, put a picture of little Chaiwat rescued from a life of sexual slavery on their refrigerator… and let it be that.

The author of Tales from the Hood, an excellent blog about aid work that I highly recommend to anyone interested in this topic, wrote a series of posts about this complexity and the challenges it poses when it comes to talking to ordinary people who might be interested in making a donation. In the first post, he acknowledges that aid is complex, but insists that this shouldn’t be an excuse for aid organisations to neglect their ‘third audience’ (the first two being the recipients of aid and institutional donors):

It’s not that we think donors are somehow stupid or incapable of “getting it”. But understanding aid, how it works, why it has to be done the way it has to be done takes time and concentration.

I think that as an industry we have basically neglected our “third audience”. We have all fallen down on the side of communicating to our private citizen constituent donors about what we do, and how, and all of the “whys” that invariably follow the “whats” and the “hows.”

More than anything else we need more, new and better ways of telling the public what we do… because right now they don’t know.

In his second post, he addresses a controversy that was raging at the time about Kiva loans. There was an accusation that the loans were not necessarily going to the actual person whose photo and profile the lender had chosen. This is especially relevant to our discussion today, because the same accusation could be leveled at most child sponsorship schemes. Your money isn’t going directly to that child, at least it shouldn’t be if any kind of aid best practice is being followed. Is this dishonest? Here’s what Tales from the Hood had to say:

The recent blogosphere fervor around Kiva is almost exclusively focused on the way that they market their product to donors online. The issue boils down to, “is Kiva dishonest? Did they withhold facts from their donors?”

I won’t answer for Kiva. But I will answer for the entire aid industry:

We do not tell the whole truth to the general public about what we do with their money.

We don’t. We just don’t.

There are some very good reasons why we aren’t and probably can’t implement policies of total transparency, but if you think about it, they all boil down to this:

We don’t really trust them.

We have to take seriously the changing role of the public – that Third Audience – in our work. We have to recognize that, just like our more traditional donors, our Third Audience has an array of “rights” and perhaps also obligations in their relationships with us, the deliverers of aid.

We also need to do it because like it or not our Third Audience really are increasingly stakeholders in what we do.

We need to be able to tell them what we do.

And we need to be able to trust them…

I found this post very compelling and I wondered whether there were more people out there who, like my boyfriend, would be very happy to bypass the child sponsorships, gift catalogs and fundraising events and just give their money where it was most needed, trusting the professionals to make responsible calls about where that would be. Is the aid industry under-estimating it’s third audience?

5 Comments

  1. Comment by Sallie:

    a PS thankyou to Jenifer Lentfer of http://www.how-matters.org/about/ for drawing this article to my attention via the wonderous twitter!

  2. Comment by Martin Myers:

    Very interesting read.

    I sit on a committee of a charity who operate a child sponsorship scheme. We are a small charity and have 2 employed staff in the country we operate in who work tirelessly to ensure donors money goes where we say it does. Our committee visit the country several times though the year (unpaid, as their holiday) to ensure this runs as well as it can with the resources we have. Our 1/4 issued newsletter includes a section which gives details of where the money goes and how it helps. That said, when I approach people to see if they would join up there are many who have a skeptical view of the programme, despite our best efforts. I have to admit to being one of those donors and from time to time send money for gifts (bags of rice & bikes etc) knowing this is going direct to the family. I’m happy to do this.

    However, somewhere niggling in my head is a voice telling me is that for the greater good? How can people in the communities we are trying to help be encouraged to thrive when we are creating a culture of dependency? I do also see that the approach could be seen as ‘patronizing’. I have many friends in that country, all very proud people and some do not look at charity from the same viewpoint that donors do.

    Is there a better way to approach this? I have started to change my own approach and I feel that combining entrepreneurial and charitable aspirations to create employment may be the way forward. So, if people do just donate money where it’s needed this could go to funds to help business start-ups or community based projects run by locals who are paid to work on the project (with assistance from 3rd sector groups helping skill development). Perhaps that is where real equality can be achieved by offering a sustainable and commercially viable alternative to communities via charity groups – not just hand outs.

    I don’t often comment online so thanks for motivating me to do this.

  3. Comment by Sallie:

    Thanks Martin – the matching of local need and sustainable support and donor need is so very challenging. I remeber once asking a charity director what was the most challenging part of her role and she said “giving other peoples money away”!
    I do not profess to be an expert efficacy of child sponsorship but we at people and places do believe that building the capacity ( in whatever way is needed and appropriate) of families and their communities is indeed the way forward for philanthropy – be it through financial donations or responsible volunteer programmes. This ofcourse is not as “easy” as building a school,funding attendance for some children or standing in front of 1 class of children teaching them english for a term.It’s often very difficult to convince donors and volunteers! – and we know that we loose potential volunteers who want to work instead of local people – not with them.I wish you all the very best with your plans for the future.

  4. Comment by Emilie Hagedoorn:

    As someone who used to be a teacher and now works for Fair Trade Tourism I often wonder how tourists/guests can best support children (and other projects for that matter) in developing countries we visit. I really like what James Fernie from Fair Trade Tourism certified Uthando has done in South Africa. He has merged fundraising and project visitation quite effectively by tapping into the tourism and hospitality industry. Guest tours support some very worthy causes that he has carefully selected and allow them to really gain an insight into project work and local people’s needs. This model could easily be replicated elsewhere. It is one of Fair Trade Tourism’s most popular activities to book. You can find more information here: http://www.uthandosa.org/pages/19

    Best wishes, Emilie

  5. Comment by Sophie:

    I dislike the marketing gimmicks so much so that I withdrew my annual sponsorship from two charities (wildlife not child protection). I contacted them to advise them I did not want their ‘free’ gifts of cuddly toys, personalised stickers, cards, etc; I simply wanted my money to go to where it was needed and not into advertising overheads. The only charities I regularly give to now are the small, independent ones I have volunteered for, and usually only when it is required for a specific project. Having seen first hand the development that has occurred over the past 10 years I trust them that my money is being put to good use. I require nothing in return for this, not even an acknowledgement of my donation.
    I had considered child sponsorship previously but was always concerned about whether the money would always reach the child and whether it would actually make a difference if poverty was still evident within the family/community, a concern which this post has reinforced.
    I hope that charities will learn to become more transparent and honest about where their donors money really goes, but I think it will require significant public demand.

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