Thursday, March 27, 2014

heroism, poverty and transparency in child sponsorship

If you've been following social media this week, you probably know about the fire storm of response created by World Vision's decision and subsequent un-decision regarding World Vision USA's hiring policy. Absolutely everybody has weighed in on the debate spawned by the two announcements and I don't intend to add one more blog post to the already flaming pile. There is great danger commenting on the dynamics of an organization for which one does not work. Nevertheless, we are closely familiar with World Vision and other child sponsorship organizations having seen their work and impact first hand on the field. What follows is our honest observation, and we welcome any correrction if we are mistaken. 

I almost could have ignored the entire conversation were it not for the persistent stream of comments exposing a very specific point of donor ignorance.

It is unfathomable to me that people would choose to punish and drop the child they sponsor over a difference in doctrine… It's astounding to me that Christians would take food from starving children because a gay person might have helped in getting it there. (

That poor child they are leaving behind sadly does not have a choice to eat, go to school or live a healthy life. (fb comment)

I will continue to advocate for the children around the world who are losing access to vital, elemental needs (like food, healthcare, education, clean water), because a bunch of Christians in America got pissed about an HR decision made in a corporate office. (

 a child’s monthly needs are at stake. (

What does it say about our Faith when our response to a corporate policy change is to kick a needy child in the teeth? (

It's very inhumane to cut off food to a hungry child because you hate gay people. (blog comment)

I fully affirm the concern being expressed for children around the world. God loves children. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Every child deserves clean drinking water and a chance at school. Every one of them deserves security and love. To all those standing on the side of children, BLESS YOU.

Nevertheless, I sense some confusion about the nature of child sponsorship, and I hope this post will clear some things up. The truth of the matter is that no one sponsor is solely responsible for any one child’s life. When a sponsor withdraws support for any reason – change in financial situation, or difference of doctrinal opinion – whatever the reason,fff the withdrawing supporter is NOT kicking a child out of school, taking food out of his mouth, ripping the shirt off his back or sending him out into the streets. 

No, no, no, no, no.

A "dropped" child is not being punished or sentenced to a life of destitute poverty. This is not how child sponsorship works – within World Vision or any other organization that I know of, including my own. Child sponsorship is a JOINT commitment on the part of the generous donor and the coordinating organization. When the organization takes on a child, they commit to provide a certain set of services to that child for a certain period of time – whether or not the donor keeps sending checks with that child’s name on the memo line. Funds for sponsorship are not matched one to one so much as they are pooled together to provide for ALL the children on the sponsorship roster, in addition to a host of non-child-specific activities. As much as it may be a let down to hear, World Vision is not anxiously waiting for your sponsorship check so that when they get it, they make a call to the field staff in Zambia informing them that, Praise the Lord, Mwewa can have dinner tonight!

Large, well-organized, fiscally sound child sponsorship organizations have certain structures assuring that YOU cannot ruin a child’s life. These organizations build into their budget a certain amount of financial margin to allow for fluctuations in donor support. They have in place contingency plans for seasons of drought. And they absolutely have a certain level of professional ethics whereby they are not blithely playing with children’s lives.

To tell donors that children will suffer if individual donors do not continue to give $35 a month is emotionally manipulative. Emotional manipulation is hurtful and wrong. As directors of a small non-profit, Jeremy and I are more or less professionals at working off of a tight budget. We can easily think of about 50 ways that most non-profits, World Vision included could save money (at least in Zambia) without the kids ever noticing. Internal politics, USAID grant restrictions and desirable media campaigns largely dictate to where and to what the dollars are going. Charging the already conflicted donor with the suffering of thousands of poor, needy children world-wide lacks integrity. 

It would seem that the lack of transparency within the sponsorship process has only served to reinforce the savior complex held by many Americans. Many families display their sponsored child’s picture on their fridge as a conversation piece, a reminder to pray, and – dare I say it? – because it makes them feel good about themselves. Is it possible that, in the recesses of our hearts, we actually want to believe that our child will die without us because of how important that makes us feel? And is it possible that the teams for raising millions of dollars to fund all the expenses of a sponsorship program want donors to feel indispensible so that they keep giving? Is it possible that organizations are too intent on garnering support that they “forget” to tell you that the birthday money you sent to Maria actually didn’t go to her?

Are we misappropriating a sense of accomplishment when we feel like we have made a difference in a child’s life? Probably not. Are we misappropriating a sense of accomplishment when we feel like we have single handedly saved a child and revolutionized her community? Probably so.

Self-righteousness is oozing out of the myriad comments expressing this sentiment in a different way:

“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to make a point.”

 Does anyone else feel the slope getting really, really slippery? The question of financial stewardship is not cut and dry. What if we changed that comment to something else:

“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to fuel their starbucks habit.”
 “I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to get a manicure once a month.”
“I can’t believe that people would leave children in poverty to buy another pair of shoes.”

If we are going to start throwing stones over $35 a month – regardless of the rationale – we ought to be prepared to account for ALL of our financial decisions. I have a hunch that if we all scrutinized the spending of every $35 increment, the previously felt sense of heroism might start to fade. Truth be told, we pass by the needs of the global poor EVERY DAY in order to satisfy our own preferences. Is withdrawing support because of difference of opinion any more deplorable than not sponsoring more because doing so might cut into the restaurant budget? Maybe, and maybe not. That is for each donor to decide.

Might I suggest that we all take the opportunity created by the World Vision media exposure to both contemplate and commit.

            Who do I give to and why?
            What is my motivation for giving?
            Am I being the best steward possible with what I’ve been given?

            To rejecting every notion that we are Savior.
            To give through an organization but freely and unto the Lord.
            To become informed donors, researching organizational methods and cash flow.

It's true that there is a lot at stake here as the culture war rages on, not the least of which is our own sense of self-importance. Let's leave emotional reactionism by the way-side and have a rational perspective about our importance, our dollars, and those we serve.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks my friend! I appreciated reading your reasoned perspective. I'm glad you offered something rational into what seems to be an otherwise emotional, misinformed and distorted public debate.