Confessions of a sponsorship skeptic

I confess that, until recently, the first thing that came to my mind when someone mentioned child sponsorship was Sally Struthers kneeling next to an emaciated African child, mascara running down her face, telling the TV that “if you can just save one life, won’t it be worth it?”

As passionate as I was about social justice and alleviating poverty, child sponsorship struck me as an old-fashioned model for giving, in which a few select children essentially walked through a breadline to receive meals, school supplies, and medical attention from faraway white “saviors” whose first-world guilt was eased by letters ensuring that their contributions made a difference. I worried that child sponsorship created dependency and that families were forced to attend church in order to receive assistance for their little ones. While I could certainly see the value in saving “just one life,” I longed to invest in efforts devoted to solving the underlying problems that perpetuate poverty in certain communities, rather than simply easing the effects of that poverty among a few.

These concerns didn’t stop me from sponsoring children (especially after visiting India a few years ago), but they kept me from advocating on behalf of the sponsorship model. I think that a lot of Christians in my generation are wary of the suggestion that our responsibility to the world is limited to caring for “just one child.” We long for justice to roll down like streams of living water, not for charity to drip out like a leaky faucet. 

The most radical change I’ve experienced during this trip to Bolivia is that my view of child sponsorship has been turned on its head. A model that once inspired indifference has ignited a passion. While I can’t speak on behalf of all NGOs who participate in such programs, I can now state with confidence that World Vision’s child sponsorship program consistently exhibits the following:

1. A community-based model: As I wrote in Monday’s post, when you sponsor a child, you may very well be sponsoring a dam, too! World Vision takes a trickle-up approach to poverty that begins with identifying and addressing the needs of children, and then works to address the root causes of those needs in the community. Sponsorship donations are pooled so that one portion goes directly to the child and his or her specific needs, and another goes to the needs of the community. This week, I have seen how sponsorship money has funded everything from guinea pig farms to after-school programs to hearing aids to irrigation systems to marriage counseling to maternal health programs to alcoholism support groups. What starts as a mustard seed grows into a tree in which the birds of the air can nest.

©2011 Lindsey Talerico-Hedren/World Vision

2. Sustainability and empowerment: When World Vision begins working in a community, the goal is to maintain presence in that community for 15 years and then slowly make a transition so that all the programs, systems, and opportunities it provided are handed over to the community to maintain. For example, we visited a bakery in which the women of sponsored children were employed. (Oh, it smelled heavenly!) These women are now providing rolls, cookies, and cereal, not only to World Vision-related projects, but to several public school systems in the area. They are turning a profit and making better wages than they would make at a similar job in the city. The goal is that the bakery will continue long after World Vision has made the transition away from this particular area development program (ADP). Similarly, the dam that we visited on the second day of the trip was built, managed, and maintained by men in the community. (World Vision partnered with the local government to provide initial funding.) One man proudly told me that when floods damaged part of the structure last year, the men themselves repaired it, without any help from World Vision.

©2011 Matthew Paul Turner for World Vision

3. Local staff: Over 90 percent of World Vision’s staff consists of people who are local to the communities that they serve. Every single staff member we have met on this trip has been Bolivian. ADPs are staffed by folks who represent the best and the brightest of their countries. A single ADP may include doctors, engineers, agricultural specialists, food specialists, teachers, pastors, accountants, and administrators. By employing and empowering locals, World Vision ensures that no cultural barriers stand in the way of progress and empowerment.

©2011 Amy Conner for World Vision

4. Contextual spirituality: In Bolivia, where over 99 percent of the population identifies themselves as either “Christian” or “Catholic,” World Vision is free to partner with local churches (of various denominations) to help host Bible schools and faith-related activities. But aid is never withheld from families who do not participate in such activities, and World Vision staff members do not proselytize. For example, yesterday we met with four brave couples who shared deeply personal stories about how their lives had been radically changed by marriage counseling offered by a local pastor though a World Vision ADP. One man confessed that he had once been jealous and controlling of his wife; she had to get permission from him to even leave the house. But now he gently put his hand on her shoulder and said that he supports her autonomy completely. With a focus on being the hands and feet of Jesus, World Vision can even work in countries where Christianity is illegal, because the goal is not to win converts but to love as Jesus loved.

©2011 Lindsey Talerico-Hedren/World Vision

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Rachel Held Evans is a speaker, author, and blogger who traveled with our Bolivia bloggers team in August to Cochabamba, Bolivia, to see World Vision's work in the area firsthand. This post was one of many Rachel wrote as part of her trip experience. It originally appeared on

9 more posts about child sponsorship from the Bolivia bloggers team

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So, are you a child sponsorship skeptic? What questions still linger in your mind about the child sponsorship program that you would like us to address?


    My question about child sponsorship, and I suppose about World Vision in general, is this: Do you work to tell all people about salvation that comes through faith in Jesus? I'm especially wondering about this quote from the article: "the goal is not to win converts but to love as Jesus loved."

    How can you love as Jesus loved and yet not try to win converts? Isn't every person's greatest need to know God and to be reconciled with Him? Didn't Jesus tell all people to follow Him, in addition to healing them and meeting their physical needs? So, how does making disciples of all nations fit into the mission of World Vision, and the mission of the child sponsorship program in particular?

    Rachel, Ben's comment is also really important to me. I've always loved World Vision, but I love it because I view it as an evangelical organization that realizes that the Pearl we have in Jesus is more valuable than clothes, food, or water. If someone needs food, you give them food. If someone needs clothes, you give them clothes. Everyone needs Jesus, so we have to give them Jesus. If we take care of their physical needs and ignore their spiritual needs we are prolonging their lives temporarily so that they can burn in hell for all eternity. (I realize Hell is taboo, but Jesus talked about it quite a bit. It makes me uncomfortable, but it is scriptural.)

    Anyway, Ben is a good friend of mine, and we both talked about this. I didn't realize he posted a comment. I really want to know your and world vision's answer. It matters a lot to me how World Vision views the role of evangelism and discipleship in their mission.

    (And I'm so sorry if we have misunderstood you. I applaud what you are doing, and we are not trying to be hypercritical.)

    Hey Ethan, I don't think your questions are hypercritical at all. In fact, I've asked them myself at one time or another. Just letting you know I've passed on your questions... expect an answer soon.

    This is a super blog post. I am going to use it as an ambassador to try and fan the flames of sponsorship. Thank you, thank you for this well written explanation and testimonial. Great material for those of us trying to toot the horn of child sponsorship.

    Hi Namara,
    Unfortunately, we are unable to assist you with your tuition request. Although World Vision receives many worthy requests for individuals in need, we do not have programs in place to provide tuition outside of our existing programs.
    We focus on enrolling in our child sponsorship program children (13 years of age and younger) who live in communities where World Vision has a presence. The funds from the sponsorship program are used to improve the overall community as well as the individual child's life.
    May God bless your search to acquire the funds that will enable you to attend school.

    Lindsey, WV Staff

    I am not commenting but am also requesting for a sponsor to help me with my studies if u can pliz call me on +256701155347 or +256702321133 or +256752321133. thanx

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