Some Pitches to Aid Needy Child Mislead

Most of the ads show pictures of children--ragged children, sad-faced, often crying, sometimes crippled. Please, they urge, consider "helping one poor girl or boy," "reaching out to one poor child thousands of miles away" by sending $12, $20, maybe $22 a month and becoming a child's sponsor.

The prospective sponsor can choose the child's sex, or age, or country of origin--Zimbabwe, Colombia, the Philippines. One ad offers a child's resume and photo, for approval, rejection or exchange. All promise sponsors periodic photos, progress reports and letters from their children.

This is "one-on-one" sponsorship, implying that the faraway child gets money and the donor gets grateful letters. It may not really be the arrangement. Sponsor money may instead be pooled and spent on general community development or special programs for needy families, and their children are assigned to sponsors as pen pals.

Such advertising is deemed necessary by the couple of dozen sponsor-a-child groups competing for U.S. donors: One doesn't attract sponsors with pictures of agricultural projects or of people digging a new village sewer. It's also misleading, say government regulators, which is why Connecticut's attorney general pressured Save the Children to mention its actual community focus in well-known ads featuring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward and their seven sponsored children. And it has disillusioned prospective donors, who are now a bit leery of the whole business.

Major Operations

Indeed, it's not easy for donors to get beneath the marketing. There are obvious differences. Some, like Foster Parents Plan in Warwick, R.I., and Save the Children Federation in Westport, Conn., are nonsectarian, without church affiliation, church origins or church goals. Others, like Compassion International of Colorado Springs, are evangelical, offering needy children in developing countries not just support but introduction to Christian beliefs.

Some are big business: Save the Children, for example, has staff in 40 countries, collected more than $60 million from sponsors and government grants in fiscal 1987, pays its executives salaries up to $148,000 and publishes a quarterly magazine, monthly newsletter and myriad attractive special reports--on water, day care and education, on individual countries, child health and the status of women. Others are more humble: Children Inc. in Richmond, Va., took in $3.6 million in 1988, paid its staff director $52,000, conducted its business out of her house and sent out its descriptive and financial information on typed sheets, photocopied.

Funds are variously disbursed. Foster Parents Plan still earmarks funds for a particular family, although not in cash gifts; the child's family might be given animals or materials for repairing the house. Save the Children grants community requests, providing agricultural aid, construction help, health care, education, even loan programs. Children Inc. subsidizes board and schooling, clothing, medicine and school supplies for children in orphanages, children's homes and welfare centers.

Checked Against Standards

Other differences are less obvious. Given the donating public's interest in where its dollars go, most child sponsorship organizations offer annual reports and financial statements, variably readable: Who understands such categories as "program expenditures transferred through international" or "community and home infrastructure"? Some provide breakdowns, for example, 70% or 80% of funds covered program activities, 20% to 30% covered management, administration and fund raising. "Program activities" implies something of direct benefit to children: Should the category also include travel, data processing, employee benefits? Do "public education" expenses belong under program activities, or are they fund raising?

Many donors assume that there are better readers, smarter analysts reviewing the same stuff. Indeed, the National Charities Information Bureau in New York, and the Council of Better Business Bureaus' Philanthropic Advisory Service in Arlington, Va., do so regularly, measuring charitable solicitations against various standards of organization and disclosure. Both publish lists of charities coded for conformity with those standards (the major child sponsorship groups do conform). The NCIB also publishes an individual summary of each group's activities.

Some of their standards are financial (fund-raising costs, says the BBB, shouldn't exceed 35%; program activities should constitute at least 60% of annual expenses, says the NCIB); some are ethical (solicitation material should be accurate and truthful). Both groups look at "how much of total income is spent on the program itself," says Bennett Weiner, vice president of the Philanthropic Advisory Service, but their investigations are limited to desk audits, and they rarely challenge information. At most, they "may question accounting methods," says NCIB research assistant Holeri Faruolo.

Few See Children

Government review is also limited. Charities cannot be compelled to disclose to prospective donors or to limit the percentage of funds used for fund raising. Regulators can, however, pursue charities for theft, fraud or deceptive advertising, although they rely on tips, says David Ormstedt, a Connecticut assistant attorney general. "If somebody complained and had some information for us to look at, we would, but with these charities they could be taking the money abroad and buying real estate and who's going to know?" he says. Similarly, desk audits turn up nothing, says Andrea Ordin, California's chief assistant attorney general, "if the report is intelligently done and the paper work is impeccable."

Donors are equally removed from a charity's activity, particularly if it takes place in Zaire or Sri Lanka. They can visit "their" children, as long as the visit is coordinated, like all the correspondence, by the charity's staff. But few go: Last year, Foster Parents Plan had 400,000 sponsored children worldwide, and only 200 sponsors made such trips.

The bigger the organization, however, the greater the chance of something wrong being discovered. "There are always disgruntled employees," says Ordin, "or people who think they're not getting what they were promised. Information on serious violations tends to get to government authorities."

Anything less may not matter. Even if only 60% of a donor's $20 a month, or 30%, ultimately benefits a child, and even if someone's getting rich on the remainder, many donors would feel that need and subsidy were being matched, that people in need were getting something they might otherwise not have, something the donor could never deliver by himself.

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