Tuesday, November 12, 2013

I Visited Your Sponsored Kid

When we walked into a brightly-painted classroom and twenty adorable children burst into a performance of a Bible song, I almost turned to look for the hidden cameras. At another project, teachers proudly showed off children who were doing so well in school that they were tutoring the grades beneath them. Compassion International’s after-school program and one of World Vision’s schools offered us just a glimpse of life for a few of the tens of thousands of Honduran children who are supported by international “sponsors.” While this glimpse was encouraging, I still wondered what difference child sponsorship really makes.

Sponsorship seems like a beautiful idea. One (wealthier) family sends a monthly check to an organization which then will support one (poorer) child in the family’s name. The child and family exchange letters, and the family receives regular photos and updates from “their” child.

It’s hard to ignore ads with the pleading faces, and the promises that a small monthly sum can transform a life. It’s hard not to let your heart melt when you see six-year-olds who are excited about reading the Bible. But one lesson I've learned this semester is that things that seem obvious can be much more complicated than they seem. And these organizations are definitely more complicated than one check going directly to one child.

While Compassion International and World Vision have similar goals, they follow very different strategies. When you sponsor a child through Compassion, that child immediately begins to attend after-school programs two or three times a week. These programs teach Bible stories and offer homework help, and many also offer leadership programs and skills classes for older children. All of Compassion’s work is partnered with a local church. The church gets to choose which children will attend the programs, and generally hosts the children in the church building and uses church volunteers as staff.

On the other hand, World Vision has moved to a more community-based form of sponsorship. While the child whose picture is on your fridge does get benefits like academic and health monitoring, the money for each individual child goes to support community programs. I interviewed World Vision’s education coordinator earlier in the semester, and she explained their reasoning.

“When you give [the money] to that one child, they get the school kit, they get the nice uniform,” she said, “But what about the other children?” She pointed out that that type of sponsorship can foster jealousy within families and communities, and a dependence on foreign aid. Instead, World Vision works to empower families and communities through schools, agriculture programs, and other projects.

There are pros and cons of both Compassion and World Vision’s approach, and both are full of anecdotal evidence that their programs are changing lives. But is sponsoring a child the best use of donation dollars? Unfortunately, real scholarship on the effects of sponsorship is lacking, 

When we visited Compassion, they insisted that sponsorship was the best way to do their programs. Not only was it a good way to keep them accountable for the money they spent, they said, they thought the cross-cultural connection was important for both child and sponsor. They also mentioned the power of people internationally praying for the children and their homes. It’s true that the children we met knew the names and home-towns of their sponsors, and were required to write frequent “thank-you” letters for any extra gifts.

But in all honesty, the reason that organizations do sponsorship is simply that it raises more money than any other type of fundraising. Donors feel connected to “their” child, and many will sponsor for years. This is a good thing, because one of the biggest problems with child sponsorship is that it can be ridiculously expensive.

World Vision employs many people just to track the 21,200 children participating in its Honduran programs. “They report back six times a year,” the education coordinator told us, “It’s a really hard job, to monitor all these things for all these children.”

To sponsor a child through Compassion costs $38/month, while World Vision asks for $35/month. But of the $420 donated yearly per child to World Vision (we didn't learn specific numbers for Compassion), $305 never leaves the main office, going instead towards things like strategies, marketing, curriculum, translating children's letters, postage, and other overhead costs. Of the $115 that makes it to the headquarters of each country, $72 then makes it out to the local office to do the projects, after-school programs, and everything that World Vision is really all about.

This money isn't disappearing -- I'm sure you could find an honest accounting for each dollar on their websites -- the sponsorship model in general is just very expensive.The truth is that for every $2 you give in child sponsorship, about $1 goes to the programs benefiting the child, and $1 goes to taking their picture and mailing it to you and all the other steps that go into monitoring tens of thousands of individual children.

A more subtle objection to child sponsorship comes from the pleading faces in the ads. Campaigns based on guilt can be manipulative, and many people are misled to believe that their donations are what are keeping a child from starvation, which is hardly ever exactly true. Sponsorship can also undermine families and local communities, damaging local agency and filling parents with the shame that some North American is able to provide for their children when they can't.

Finally, the very accountability that Compassion workers praised can also be a hindrance. Direct sponsoring means that organizations must answer to donors who seldom understand what’s actually needed in any region. It can be very hard to “sell” your donors on latrines, for example, if they would rather build an orphanage.

So do I support child sponsorship? That's still a complicated question. Because of the high cost of tracking individual children, something that’s exclusively for my benefit, I think my donations are better spent elsewhere. But if that connection is important to you, I wouldn't tell you to stop. I've seen with my own eyes the children benefiting from the existence of these programs. But, knowing the expense, make it worth it. Write letters to your child – they treasure them. Go out of your way to learn more about their country. Let your sponsorship stretch your giving muscles and your global awareness, broadening your "world vision" (if you'll permit me that one) and your "compassion."

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