Child sponsors are the bedrock of Plan International USA’s program work, and provide the platform from which Plan is able to support children in their communities around the world. These sponsors equip children with the tools to feed, clothe, and shelter themselves, working with and trusting Plan to distribute funds where they are needed most. This holistic relationship is foundational to any successful and sustainable development approach and stands in stark contrast to examples of “restricted” projects that had good intentions but resulted in, at best, unsustainable, and at worst, inappropriate and harmful, programming: nutrition projects in which the food couldn’t be eaten since local custom or religion dictated against it; clothing donations that couldn’t be worn since they got stuck in customs bureaucracy and red tape; and housing that didn’t withstand punishing local conditions since it was designed by “experts” who lived in very different climates.
Anyone who works in international development community-based programming knows that the most precious resource is funding that responds to the priorities and agendas that local communities have defined for themselves. Just as no one can solve anyone else’s problems, no one can determine for anyone else what would be most useful to address their challenges. At Plan, our community consultation and child-centered community development approach elicits ideas and innovations from the people who are living day-to-day with these challenges. Plan leaders, who are members of these communities, facilitate discussions that enable the communities to surface ideas and solutions to alleviate these challenges. At that point the greatest hurdle is identifying resources to breathe life into these ideas. Plan’s child sponsors deliver those resources in generous monthly gifts that allow local Plan offices to partner with in-country service providers, government, and the private sector to translate ideas into reality. The return on the investment is manifold.
Take, for example, the sponsored children in Zimbabwe who grew up healthy and educated through sponsorship programs. They formed an organization called Alight Zimbabwe Trust. The Trust was established by children who wanted to give back to the communities that served them, and they created a social enterprise and mentorship program for current Plan sponsored children and community members. Since the Trust was established, members have focused efforts on alternative energy through micro-consignment of solar-powered lamps. They work across Zimbabwe training sellers in basic business skills, advocacy, career mentorship, and guidance on savings, with the ultimate goal of better marketing and selling their solar products. To date they have sold more than 35,000 units of their products and will expand to support rural schools and libraries where there is often no power.
Through compelling stories such as these, the financial contribution of child sponsors is well-recognized and understood. There are, however, contributions that child sponsors deliver that matter just as much as monetary support. These contributions come in the form of the bond that develops between the sponsor and his or her sponsored child. The letters that pass between sponsor and sponsored child are direct lines of communication that represent the best people have to offer and enrich lives on both sides of the world. There is no more important gift to give to another person than to connect with them and to offer them something of yourself. These powerful letter exchanges validate the sponsored child’s situation and let that child and his or her community know that their struggles are seen and their voices are heard.
Bearing witness to the realities of poverty demands that we do more and better to eradicate it in our lifetime, as the Sustainable Development Goals aim to do. Bearing witness creates a cohort of people who reject the status quo and who commit to finding innovative solutions to tough challenges. In countries where these sponsored communities and children are excluded from official assistance and often remain invisible to policymakers and social services, the sponsor’s letter says, “You are not forgotten. You will not be forgotten.”
For the sponsor who sits in a country where they have the good fortune to have ample means to provide for their own well-being, the sponsorship exchanges allow the sponsor to learn about the realities of life outside their comfort zone. The situations of early marriage, famine, drought, and lack of health care and education all call to the sponsor to think differently about how they may engage with the world to alleviate these problems, and to maintain profound gratitude for all they have in their own lives. Perhaps more importantly, the drive and determination of the sponsored child and community to overcome their challenges offers regular inspiration and allows the sponsor to offer solidarity and support. In short, the sponsorship model that Plan offers is a smart and tested way to form inspiring connections with amazing children while delivering a considerable return on investment.