Some thoughts on child sponsorship

Over the last 25 years, except for my time at UUSC, I’ve worked for development agencies that raised funds from child sponsorship (and other sources).  Over those years, I’ve heard people criticize child sponsorship for various reasons.  Three general criticisms surface with some regularity:

  • Singling out specific children causes divisions in families and communities;
  • It’s expensive to maintain the communications (letters, reports) between children or their families and child sponsors;
  • Handouts cause dependency and do not lead to enduring solutions to poverty.

The earliest eruption of these criticisms, in my experience anyway, was in the 1980’s; when I joined Plan International in 1987, staff at Plan’s International Headquarters were paying close attention to a series of strongly critical articles in “The New Internationalist.”

Amazingly, those New Internationalist articles from the 1980’s are available online.  One of the earliest articles, with the attention-grabbing cover headline “Please Do Not Sponsor This Child,” outlines five key objections to child sponsorship, including versions of the three criticisms I mention above.

Other articles from the New Internationalist include “One Child At A Time,” from 1985, which singles out Plan International in Bolivia for particular scrutiny.  Costs of the “simple exchange of letters” facilitated by another agency I worked with for a time, CCF, are described in 1982 as “Mountains of Paper.”  In something of a summary, the article “Simply … Why You Should Not Sponsor A Child,” from 1989, outlines nine “defects” that sponsorship programs have, again echoing the three major points summarized in this post.

Seeing another round of these same kinds of observations appear in the blogosphere recently made me look online (where I found those New Internationalist articles), and led me to reflect a bit.  In this blog entry, I will consider those summary criticisms; in a future note, I hope to present a more positive and affirmative case for the good work our organizations do.

Singling out specific children causes divisions in families and communities.  In the past, many sponsorship agencies designed programs to provide direct benefits to sponsored children only.  If a child wasn’t sponsored, well, tough luck – that’s the way the program was.  A slightly less noxious example of this phenomenon related to so-called “cash gifts”, which often take the form of money, but also tangible gifts such as bicycles or house repairs or scholarships provided by sponsors to sponsored children.

For me, this criticism was correct.  Agencies that programmed in this way were sometimes dividing families and communities, inadvertently causing resentment and jealousy.  Plus, programming this way greatly reduced the likelihood that activities would address root causes of poverty, or that results would be positive or long-lasting.  Not good program work.

Reputable agencies that raise funds through child sponsorship no longer program in this way – we seek to address the root causes of child poverty in a way that is holistic and broad-based, implementing projects that span entire communities and beyond.  And most agencies have either eliminated the practice of facilitating cash gifts, or have channeled these donations into community projects (with the full knowledge and agreement of the donor.)

The flip side of the original criticism is that understanding the impact that our development programs have on particular children and their families enables us to be accountable and to show what has been achieved.  As long as this is done without singling out specific children, this is good and proper and consistent with the notion of supporting an identifiable human being.  It makes us, arguably, more accountable than others.

It’s expensive to maintain the communications (letters, reports) between children or their families and child sponsors.  This criticism was true, though it took time to document all the costs involved.  I am told that Plan International and the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex carried out a study of the costs of maintaining child sponsorship systems, and perhaps the results were sobering.  (The study is not easy to access, perhaps understandably…)

And yet, I wonder if agencies that do not raise funds through child sponsorship are significantly more efficient.  My impression is that the differences are not as large as were thought in the 1980’s.  And, importantly, if you feel (as I do) that solidarity across cultures is a very important element in creating a better, more just world, then facilitating understanding between human beings as these organizations do has importance well beyond its role in donor retention.

Handouts cause dependency and do not lead to enduring solutions to poverty.  This criticism is a variation of the first one, and was much more valid in the 1980’s than it is now.  The organizations I know of, have worked with, no longer provide handouts except in the most exceptional cases.

Important criticisms of child sponsorship agencies were made in the 1980’s and, as a response, we changed for the better.  Agencies like ChildFund, Plan International, and World Vision, that raise funds through child sponsorship, do effective development work and are worthy of support.  Sponsorship contributions represent a steady and flexible funding source, which allows for long-term engagement with communities and investments that can span multiple sectors.  They facilitate human contact and solidarity – just as important, or more so, than the flow of funds.

Building a better, more just world is the work of many.  Human rights and social justice agencies like UUSC are fundamental agents of positive change.  Specialist NGOs like MSF and Greenpeace do very important, necessary, crucial work.  Organizations like Oxfam, that work across the spectrum of human rights, emergency response, and advocacy, should be celebrated and supported.

Hints of the positive case for the work that agencies that use child sponsorship funding methods are woven into this posting, which has focused on responding to some common criticisms.  I hope to elaborate on these hints in a future note.

Share your thoughts!

11 thoughts on “Some thoughts on child sponsorship

  1. Hi Mark: It is excellent article and thank you for helping us reflect on our experience.
    When done right, sponsorship can not only mobilize much-needed resources, but it can also engage people to make development and justice for children a priority. Child sponsorship is one of the best mechanism to mobilize fund for development and helpful to craft sustainable financial strategy. People have stronger feeling of emotion and are ready to donate when told about one child than when told about many children. The identifiable victim effect (Peter Singer). Some agencies use sponsorship also as development education and advocacy tool to break down cultural barriers and expand the educational horizons of all involved. However, it is unfortunate that some use undignified images of children alongside their appeals especially when it comes to Africa. This has damaged the image of the people perpetuating a colonial mentality that Africans are of hopeless and helpless waiting always for help from outside. Others do a lot to reverse this image and present Africans as they really are- very hardworking and innovative.
    Moreover, those sponsorship agencies that take fund raising and transferring as their main objective work in communities more accessible which happen to be better developed to the detriment of remote and marginalized communities. This is harmful as it deepens unequal regional development and aggravates inter-ethnic tensions leading to social conflicts like what’s currently happening in the Sahel. However there are those that use creative and non-traditional systems to bring services to the most remote and marginalize communities.
    Building the capacity of local institutions is the main interest of some sponsorship organizations. These agencies work in productive partnership with local institutions and are supportive of local institutions and do not seek positions for themselves as initiator and pace-setter. This is positive. However, others do the contrary and with their massive bureaucratic presence in program countries and communities they dwarf and destroy local institutions and in some cases they even act as shadow governments. This is negative.

  2. Great post, it confirms my thoughts on the subject and sometimes i wonder if im even doing the right thing by sponsoring. At least i do hear back from my sponsored child and am hearing great things about the effect on some communities it has.

    Anyway i have no other power to make a difference so i dont have much choice.

    Good post. THanks again.

      • Hi Mark

        There is no comparative study to my knowledge. I would think if you looked at the budget for child sponsorship and compared the expenditure against what that money could do in a community development project the results might be surprising. I am referring to child sponsorship which supports individual children rather than agencies who use child support to undertake community development programs.

  3. Eddie, it is difficult to make generalizations about “development programs” as compared to child sponsorship programs. Especially within smaller, more grassroots organizations; sponsorship usually falls within a greater system of development projects. Many development centered orgs may already be providing access to community wide resources, but for specific costs like tuition, school supplies, or individual business ventures (think Kiva) sponsorship may be the most effective. There are so many organizations out there, that it is very easy to choose an organization you believe will distribute your funds in a way you are comfortable with. In a broader sense, it is important for any organization to remember to keep dignity in mind when working in a community. Don’t donate as a “White Knight” but as an investor in the kids and communities you donate to. With any donation-look for organizations that believe in empowerment, community investment and collaboration.
    There is a time and a place for all sorts of fundraising methods, but it is within the broader organizations themselves you will most likely be able to make an informed decision that aligns with your values.

  4. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for this interesting piece. I recently came across an article by development economist Willem van Eekelen on child sponsorship published in Development in Practice Journal. He tapped into something quite important on the ability of children and their communities to exercise a degree of control over the sponsorship process. For example, can families/parents opt in and opt out of correspondence with a donor and decide on the region or age of their donors? The current ability of donors to select the age, gender and region of children creates an inequality in the sponsorship relationship. Donors are also able to opt in and opt out of writing letters, it would be interesting to trial a model where children and families could do the same. Some children might enjoy and benefit from correspondence with a donor, whilst others might find it unduly time consuming or not in line with their own priorities. Children and families might like to connect with families with children of a similar age (which often happens from the donor side). This could create a degree of equality in the relationship.


    • Thanks for that connection, Kelly. It reminds me of how Plan International, years ago in the Dominican Republic, set up a process through which a group of US-based donors and local families worked together to design their own ways of communicating with each other. It was a very innovative effort, which led to a rich set of new mechanisms that built strong relationships and enhanced a sense of understanding and solidarity.

      The result challenged Plan’s sponsorship communications “systems”, which were designed to promote standardisation as a way of reducing the costs involved in managing communications between the two stakeholders. And they needed to ensure that the child protection systems in place were sufficient.

      Cost control is very important. But I remember that participants (in the Dominican Republic and in the US) were much more satisfied with the communications channels that they themselves, together, had created, as compared with the standardised processes that Plan had been using. They felt a stronger, more human connection…

      Perhaps technology today could more easily handle the wide range of communications methods that would emerge from the processes you suggest, Kelly, and that Plan was experimenting with?

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