How to Take Risks Without Losing Your Donors

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Click here to read on Stanford Social Innovation Review.

By Christen Brandt & Tammy Tibbetts

In the seventh grade, Sara1 remembers joining her classmates to write letters. In a letter that began “Dear Sponsor,” they’d thank the person paying for their education, who they’d likely never meet. Sara would share her career ambitions, hoping to inspire the sponsor enough to keep supporting her. She’d ask questions, inviting a response. Finally, before she signed and mailed her letter, she’d draw. When she was younger, this might be a picture of herself or her family; when she got older, she added intricate and colorful borders, carefully executing each stroke so a mistake wouldn’t force her to start over. Then, she’d turn the letter in to her teacher, and she’d wait.

However, the batch of letters that arrived a few months later was never as thick as the bunch they’d sent out. As other girls opened up envelopes with their names, Sara looked on, hands empty. “I used to think, maybe the next letter will be mine, from my sponsor,” she told us. But it never was. Sara’s graduation came a few years later, but responses to her letters never did.

Among nonprofits that serve children in impoverished areas, “child sponsorship” is a tried-and-true fundraising and communications model: The donor receives the name, photo, and biographical details of the individual student they’re supporting, and in most cases, the student writes letters to the sponsor, thanking them and sending updates about their life and studies. Relief organizations started matching donors to individuals in need as early as the 1920s, though World Vision was reportedly the first to use it on a massive scale, with 13,000 sponsors by the 1950s. Commercials with Sally Struthers popularized the model even more throughout the 90s: as a spokesperson for the Christian Children’s Fund, the All in the Family actress made commercials walking through a slum of dire poverty, with no sanitation, full of suffering, holding crying children. “It’s enough to make the angels cry,” she says. Her appeal was for 70 cents a day to sponsor a child. In exchange, donors would get a photo and letter from the child.

In 2009, when we co-founded She’s the First (STF), we relied on this model to fund scholarships for girls. The model seemed logical: Donors wanted to support an individual girl, and organizations worldwide needed the money. From an economic perspective, this has always been a little murky. Clearly, organizations need more than 70 cents a day to put a dent in poverty! Some nonprofits clarify in the fine print that your donation is used to support their general programs, not the needs of one single child. In the case of STF, we actually did restrict the cash to girls’ scholarships, which created an enormous challenge to raise our own operating funds.

That was our first concern with the sponsorship model we had built: It limited our ability to fundraise for operations, or even for programs outside of the sponsorship program itself. At first, we brushed this aside, assuming that the model was the easiest and best way to raise money overall, even if it was inconvenient.

But in 2015, we started talking about the issue with a few of the community-based organizations we funded in East and West Africa, South Asia, and Latin America. They too struggled with the restricted funding, and especially with the administrative burden of collecting letters from hundreds of children a few times per year. Not to mention, they struggled to fund that administrative time itself, along with other under-funded programs, because sponsorship donations were restricted to the girls’ tangible needs.
The exchange of a girl’s profile for a donation also raised ethical questions. We met girls who didn’t ever hear from their sponsors, and we squirmed uncomfortably on the many occasions a donor would refer to a student as “my girl.” We were working against a system that viewed girls as objects, and yet this model subtly reinforced that very idea.

We didn’t jump on the change immediately. In 2017, we dipped our toes in the waters by matching donors with groups of girls and avoiding use of the word “sponsor” in our materials. Taking the pressure off a 1:1 connection was a step in the right direction, but it was also like dressing the same underlying problem in a new set of clothes. We quickly realized it wasn’t enough, and after a year of these changes, we started giving our partners flexible subgrants, rather than restricted scholarship funding.

In the end, human dignity is the most important consideration. If you are committed to eradicating systems of inequity, a sponsorship model actually undermines the ground you stand on. Sponsorship models are based on the very power dynamics we wanted to change.

If your organization uses a sponsorship model to fundraise, here are four reasons to consider moving away from it:

1. Sponsorship reinforces colonial power dynamics: Because this model positions the sponsor—a person of relative means, often white and living in a high-income country—as the savior and the student as the victim, it reinforces the idea that girls are victims, waiting to be saved.

2. Too many girls are already bought and/or sold: A sponsorship model is objectifying by nature since the girl—or at least her biographical information—is the object being “bought” via donation. While this is of course never the donor’s intention (nor was it our intention at the time), the model itself mimics the real-world objectification of girls.

3. Consent is unclear: In traditional sponsorship programs, girls are expected to share their life story in exchange for access to the program, but they often don’t know who will be reading it or why they’re telling it. For some time, we worked to combat this by getting informed consent from girls, ensuring they knew where their information would be used and why. We also asked our donors to reciprocate and write back to girls. But ultimately, this was only a stop-gap measure: Not all girls wanted to share their stories, and not all donors would reply, underlining a power dynamic that favored the donors.

5. It’s an administrative burden: While communicating impact to donors is incredibly important, updating hundreds of profiles is simply not the best use of time, especially for resource-constrained grassroots nonprofits.

By 2020, we had completely phased out sponsorship and stopped sending girls’ profiles in exchange for a donation. We then needed a communication plan that would display the strength and leadership potential of girls, while prioritizing their consent.

To do that, we pivoted to a bi-annual newsletter that publishes the essays, articles, and art of girls who volunteer to share. This no longer positions girls as beneficiaries pressured to ingratiate donors, but rather puts them in a position of power and influence as advocates.

Did we lose some donors? Yes: Along the way, we’ve received a few emails, Instagram comments, and direct messages challenging the change and withdrawing support. But amazingly, we can count those instances with our fingers. Meanwhile, as we articulated the reason for this change and underlined the values driving it, we actually gained many more donors. Back in 2015, the heyday of our sponsorship model, 31 percent of our revenue was from individual donors. In 2020, it was up to 37.4 percent. As we examine our communications over those five years, it’s clear that as we moved away from language centering the donor and toward language highlighting the strength of girls, we attracted donors who aligned more closely with our values and who were excited to hear about why we don’t “sponsor” students any longer. In fact, our most recent post about moving away from the model became our single most popular post to date.

Ultimately, we learned one of the most important lessons in our nonprofit careers: Any time you make a change to better align with your mission, your true supporters will follow. If they share the same vision for the world as your organization, the changes you make to achieve that vision will only excite them and inspire them to share and donate. When you stand up for your values and your mission, not only will you increase the loyalty of supporters who share the same, but you’ll start to attract a new audience. You’ll cultivate a donor base that is fully aligned with your vision for the future, full of the kind of people who put the mission before everything else.

Trust them to make the journey with you.

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