Child sponsorship: Off the shelf vs lucky dip.

Child sponsorship in theory is a great concept. A one-to-one relationship between the donor and the child. The ability for the donor to feel like more than just another dollar, and to see that their support alone is making an on the ground difference. Most people do now understand that the money does not go directly and only to the child, but instead to the community that supports them. Even with this knowledge, the process of sponsoring a child still gives people a sense of control over where their donation is going and an emotional connection with the child.

Child sponsorship is an income engine for development organisations. It strikes an emotional chord with potential donors, more so than program or emergency appeals. Behind the big brown eyes of the chosen child the money does get pooled and spent on community projects.

However, I have always struggled with how child sponsorship is portrayed to the public. In short, how the child is ‘marketed’ to a potential sponsor. A crass word to use when relating to supporting children who do genuinely require help, but a concept that must occur for these children and their communities to receive the support they need.

What level of ‘marketing’ is required and acceptable to encourage people to sponsor children?

Is it wrong to have all the pleading faces lined up on your computer screen so that you can flick through and select the cutest one with big brown eyes? Or is this a level of engagement that is necessary for the people who are attracted to child sponsorship to get that feeling of connection and control?

Is it natural to want to ‘see before you buy’?

Being able to choose the jacket in red over the jacket in blue. Even though you know they are the same design from the same material, but for no particular reason you just like red better. It is horrible to compare child sponsorship to online shopping. But people do have preferences. Even good people who want to sponsor children who do need their help. When committing to handing over money every month it is only natural to want to see what your money is going towards.

Lucky dip.

Some organisations do offer child sponsorship in absence of photos and information about the child. People choose to sponsor an anonymous child for $42 per month and only after the credit card details are entered the donor is allocated a child to sponsor. Thus removing the meat-market pre-purchase scenario (and the horrible risks associated with having photos of children online) but at the same time also removing the choice and control over where the money is going and the selective one-to-one relationship which is unique to child sponsorship. Does this un-marketed version still provide the same level of incentive to sponsor a child? If you do not see photos of the child and do not engage ‘pre-purchase’ are you still as likely to sponsor the unknown child?

So many questions and a personal moral dilemma.

For an organization to run sustainable long-term programs it needs a reliable income flow – which child sponsorship provides and I understand. In a bid to increase this income an online shelf of pleading children drives a higher level of emotional engagement and hence more donors. But to what point is it ok to market these children online? Should we just take the blue jacket, hand over our money and put the choice of where our dollar goes into the hands of the experts and bypass child sponsorship altogether. Yeah probably.

6 thoughts on “Child sponsorship: Off the shelf vs lucky dip.

  1. Great post, I’ve been wanting to write about this myself for a while, but haven’t gotten around to it.

    Firstly, I doubt the majority of people really understand their money isn’t going directly to ‘their’ child.

    Secondly, I feel really, really uncomfortable with children being used to pull at the heartstrings. In an ideal world….

    And in another version of an ideal world, donors would trust agencies to spend the money where it is needed most, on activities that are needed most, and not need to be misled that they are directly sponsoring children, or buying goats, or blackboards, for a specific person/community. Sure, goats might be cute, but what if the biggest issue in a village in PNG is actually maternal health? (For example).

    But of course there is the age-old dilemma that it’s emotions, and heart strings, that so often motivates people to give, and without the money coming in…

  2. To me, it’s a pretty simple case of transparency. If you’re using the sponsor a child model, but the money is not actually going to that child, then you’re probably engaging in misleading marketing to get more donations.

    If you are using the sponsor a child model and the money is actually going to the child, then it’s possible that your program is not all that sustainable, as it’s focussing on the individual, rather than the system.

    Finally, the second model brings up some serious problems, as has been shown by a recent study of how individuals are sponsored via internet micro finance organisation kiva.org. “We find that donors
    appear to discriminate in favor of more attractive, lighter-skinned, and less obese borrowers, even as donors appear to systematically favor regions of the world where lighter skin is less prevalent.”
    http://www.rug.nl/gsg/Research/Conferences/EUmicrofinconf2011/Papers/1new.9.Theseira.pdf

    I think that is it is the responsibility of the development industry to educate the public on what we think is good and bad development, and using photos of children to sell one-to-one can be highly problematic in achieving this.

    • Spot on. Responsibility does lie with the organisation to educate on where and how money is best spent and not engage in misleading marketing. This is a hard shift when the public responds to child sponsorship just like any other product and the bells & whistles bring in more dollars…. a tough one to crack.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I agree that it’s a difficult issue- integrity/transparency vs. steady income-stream which can support communities over a longer period.

    I work for an organization in which child sponsorship is one of the funding streams. It definitely leaves me a little uncomfortable, and the more we can look into and develop alternative ways of building that personal connection between donor and community, the better. That said, the ‘tug’ of a child is probably the most basic and primal that human society knows, so its power as a motivator is unsurpassed. Certainly, by all accounts from our marketing team, nothing else comes close in bringing in our community development funding.

    ‘Donor transformation’ is often talked about as the solution here- we engage with our donors over time and try and educate them to the way in which development, NGOs and developing communities work, so that they start to give in more meaningful ways. In this sense, sponsorship is the hook to get them through the door.

    Realistically, this doesn’t do very much. Most donors probably aren’t interested in changing. Hanging the photo of your sponsored child on the fridge is a nice reminder of what you’re doing with your money, and is a point of connection to help the kids understand too. It’s just such a powerful tool with such a strong drive, I’m really not sure that agencies who are hooked on sponsorship will be able to shift away from the model without losing a huge amount of their income base.

    In time (and we’re seeing this in the new generation of donors coming to the fore now) things will change. Gen Y’ers are far more skeptical- of child sponsorship, and NGOs generally- and as older donors retire and die, the sponsorship stream will dwindle and other marketing patterns are likely to emerge to the fore. But there’s a good 20 years in the system yet before this really takes hold, and as long as Boomers and even Gen X’ers are putting money into sponsorship, there’s no real incentive for large NGOs to shift their marketing patterns drastically, given the risk involved.

    • Thanks for this great, insightful comment. As you said ‘most donors aren’t interested in changing’ a difficult situation when it is the responsibility of the organisation to educate the public. Perhaps it is just a job that requires more time and effort…. hopefully not 20 years 🙂

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