Why person-to-person child sponsorship is not effective

Many people in western world are thinking of getting involved in social causes but are not in the position to do so professionally. Donating is a good alternative. Especially children in third world countries are the main target groups for donations. Child sponsorship has become very popular. Numerous NGOs offering “Sponsor a Child” services have grown over the past years – from large international  NGOs like Plan International, WorldVision or Save The Children to small local projects run by one or two engaged do-gooders.

There are two common child sponsorship models: Individual one-on-one sponsorship where a specific child is sponsored by an individual person who usually keeps personal contact through letters and may also send presents to the child. General sponsorship is when a larger group of children is sponsored by a large group of donors both are anonymous to each other.

Person – to person sponsorship is more popular amongst NGOs because the donor-mind is easier to trigger when a personal relationship with the sponsored child is built. Donors get the satisfaction of knowing exactly where their money is going.

Are individual programs as effective as we think?

The intention is well-meant and seems like the perfect win-win situation: A child is enabled to go to school and the donor feels good about helping a poor child escaping from a miserable life in poverty. Sounds all like the perfect plan. Now what is the downside of this model? The negative impact coming along with the positive intention of sending money is not to be underestimated. Much more effective are general sponsorship models where donors and children stay anonymous to each other securing that all children are treated equally.

Ever since my first trip the poorest country in the world – Malawi – 10 year ago I was thinking about how I can contribute and make a difference for children in poverty. Eventually I left my business job 15 months ago and started working as a development worker for a project that supports education for street children in one of the biggest slums in Kenya.

During my ongoing work with street children in one of the worst slums in Africa I have experienced many dynamics as well as issues caused by one-to-one sponsorship.

Here is why I don’t believe in individual one-on-one child sponsorship and what to consider if you want to sponsor a child. 

1. Inequality:

Individual sponsorship is selective and that is where the problem starts. A donor mostly from western world chooses a specific child from third world that he will sponsor. Sponsorship mostly covers a package including education, health and school supplies additionally the donor may send presents and additional support for the family if he likes. Selectivity singles out children or families for preferential treatment. Those that don’t find a donor feel left behind. Brothers, sister and community members become jealous.

We often find projects that support 50 or more children with individual sponsorship. Different donors will give different amounts of additional support in forms of presents, letters etc . Some get large birthday presents, some small, some none. This causes anger, frustration and disharmony amongst the children but also the whole community.  fights amongst the beneficiaries and community members.

What you can do: find organizations that sponsor a larger group of children and don’t match donors with children directly. If you are already engaged in individual sponsorship don’t send presents to the child. Instead donate presents to the project so all children benefit.

2. The “I am special” attitude  

Having individual connections to western world especially when money is involved is still considered as a privilege in the development world. Children with an individual sponsor and their families feel special and privileged about being selected by a donor from western world. They often feel superior and start having an “I am special” attitude  towards their siblings, neighbors and community members.

3. Parents loose responsibility

In African culture it is common that the closest relative automatically becomes the guardian of a child that has lost both biological parents.  The meaning of orphan in an African context is different from western world where an orphan usually does not have anyone. Many organizations use the label “orphan” as a powerful fundraising tool. Westerners –  just like me in early days – would consider an orphan a child that is without any parents or supporting family.
African families are big and in most cases there is always someone to take over the responsibility as a guardian. Many families grow big as they take on children from deceased relatives. Guardians often have 10 or more children to support. These are often families that are taken into sponsorship support.

When a foreign donor comes in to support a child, parents or guardians tend to drop all responsibility. I have seen cases where a parent didn’t even want to buy a pencil. The family and child will rely and depend on the donor without taking any little effort to support their child.

What you can do: It is important to retain the guardian’s responsibility for the child to prevent total dependency from others. When looking for projects or NGOs ask what principles and requirements they have in place that help to retain the guardians responsibility. Guardians and parents should contribute with whatever they can for the education of their children.

4. Administration 

Individual sponsorship requires extra capacity and manpower to submit reports to the donors and administer the  child/donor relation. Donors want to receive letters, school records and reports and vice versa send gifts and letters to the child. This requires extremely high administration cost. Costs that in the end will be taken from the donations. So in other words less will be going into supporting  persons in need.

What you can do: Find projects or NGOs that work with general sponsorship. Their administration costs are much lower as they do not need to administer individual relations

5. Risk of loosing consistent sponsorship

When financial situations of donors change during the cause of the education the longterm sponsorship until graduation of the child will be at risk. Larger organizations are usually able to cover the financial gap though Local or smaller NGOs do not have the financial capacity to fill in when a donor drops out. Taking a child out of school due to lack of funds is a very painful procedure for all, apart from the psychological dynamics. Now that a relation has been built and a dependency created the child is being dropped.

6. Different worlds

Letters between child and donors are exchanged though mostly after a thorough screening and censoring often letters are even dictated to children. This limits the cultural exchange often expected by the donor. Though we have to consider that both donor and child live in complete different worlds. The donor is not skilled or educated about the situation on side and how to deal with different dynamics. He might talk about his normal way of life, hobbies and vacations which will create unfulfillable desires and dreams that eventually ends up in frustration for the child

What you can do: If you are already sponsoring a child do not communicate with the children directly. Communicate with the project and try to find ways where all children of the project benefit in the same way.

It’s not all that bad. Not all of these criticisms apply to every agency. After all a child is educated and taken from the streets into school. If you do have the chance to choose your sponsorship model support organizations that work with general sponsorship.


Leave a Comment