child sponsorship – some excellent advice

child sponsorship – some excellent advice

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?

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