sponsor a child

Is child sponsorship ethical?

Compassion’s child sponsorship model is effective – really effective. But what about the ethics?

is child sponsorship ethical

“Please do not sponsor this child”

Imagine the scenario – you want to start giving to charity and make a difference to children and families in poverty. You’re browsing the internet trying to decide the best charities for your donations. You’re thinking about sponsoring a child so you start researching the best child sponsorship organisations.

Then bam. You read this:

"Please do not sponsor this child. Child sponsorship is unethical and divisive."

It’s a strong statement and it stops you in your tracks. But is there any truth in it? Why does Compassion believe so wholeheartedly in using a sponsorship programme to help children in poverty?

Does sponsoring a child really work?

Between 2008-2011 a group of academics in the US made history. They conducted the first empirical study into whether child sponsorship programmes work. Compassion was the only charity approached who were willing to have their model interrogated and analysed academically. Dr Wydick and his team interviewed 1,860 graduates of the Compassion programme in Kenya, India, Bolivia, Guatemala, the Philippines and Uganda.

The results of their USAID-funded research, speak for themselves.

“You could beat this data senseless, and it was incapable of showing anything other than extremely large and statistically significant impacts on educational outcomes for sponsored children,” Dr Wydick explains.

In fact, his study showed that sponsored children were 27 to 40 percent more likely to complete secondary school and 35 per cent more likely to get a white-collar job when they graduated.

So Compassion’s child sponsorship model is effective – really effective. But what about the ethics? Is sponsoring a child a good idea?

Here are three of the most common child sponsorship criticisms and why you can trust Compassion’s model.

Child sponsorship criticism no. 1: Is sponsorship selective and divisive?

Our child sponsorship programme is all about one sponsor making a difference to an individual child. We’re really proud of this – it means our marketing is rooted in integrity - the child you support through Compassion is directly receiving medical, educational, spiritual and social support thanks to your monthly donations. They’re not just a photo used as a fundraising mechanicsm. They’re a real child thriving because of you. But because our sponsorship programme is so focused on developing individual children, it is inherently selective. But isn’t all aid?

Chuck McGinty, Compassion’s Senior Director of Child and Youth Development, puts it like this: “Any development organisation has finite resources, so there are choices to be made. That is true of community development, child development or disaster relief. There will be those that benefit and those that don’t. So Compassion’s model is to work with the poorest that we can reach through the local church.”

The local church finding the most vulnerable children

We run our sponsorship programmes exclusively in partnership with local churches in 25 countries around the world. This means that the staff who identify the most vulnerable children to register into our projects are locals who know their communities inside out. They know who is in most need of help.

Uganda church

For instance, from an outside perspective we might look at a rural village in Indonesia or a slum in Nairobi, Kenya, and think, “They’re all in poverty; how could we not help every child?” But our church partners would know that one family can afford a motorcycle, but another can’t send any of their five children to school.

The ethics of selectiveness as a Western concern?

The question of whether sponsoring one child and not another is divisive in a community is usually asked from within our own culture: one which values individualism, individual rights and “being fair”.

Yet, many of the communities where we work are more communal in outlook. When one child is found a sponsor, the whole family, and even in the whole neighbourhood celebrates. When resources or knowledge are gained by one, they are shared with the whole. As Compassion graduate Richmond Wandera says, “I cannot find the words to describe the joy that filled our home when we got the news – Richmond you’ve got a sponsor.”

sponsorship success story

We once explained to a mum of a sponsored child in Rwanda that in the UK people sometimes think sponsorship must create jealousy. She simply laughed and said, “You Westerners! You don’t understand community. My community rejoiced with me when my daughter was registered and when she found a sponsor. They rejoiced for me and also because before, they had to take care of us. When you help me, you help them. That is how it works.”

Child sponsorship criticism no. 2: Is using a child to raise funds exploitive?

It’s a good question to ask - when we share photos of children waiting for sponsorship, are we taking advantage of them? At Compassion, we’re passionate about protecting a child’s dignity, and the way we use photos is a key example of this.

Compassion graduate Thailand

The photos we use on our website and in our marketing are of individual children who are receiving the benefits of sponsorship. When a child is registered by one of our church partners, their parents or caregivers give consent for their photo to be used. Our project staff clearly explain that the photos may be used for marketing purposes.

What’s more, we don’t just want the caregivers’ permission, we want to know that each mum and dad would be proud to see the photo we use of their child. That’s why we take great care to ensure our photos maintain a child’s dignity. We avoid using images which display extreme need—what’s often called “the pornography of poverty”.

Child sponsorship criticism no. 3 Does sponsorship encourage paternalism and dependency?

Another question around the ethics of child sponsorship is whether it creates a paternalistic relationship with the developing world and creates dependency in children.
When many people talk about paternalism in aid, they mean a top-down approach to helping others: those with the resources decide what’s good for those without resources and impose their ideas on a community. This can foster a sense of helplessness within those being helped. It can also reinforce the idea among those who give aid that those they are helping really are helpless. Tragically, this can lead to dependency on aid rather than empowerment—the exact opposite effect to what was desired.

Our partnership model

One major way that we strive to avoid a paternalistic approach is by partnering exclusively with local churches. We look for churches who already have a similar vision to ours—churches who know the needs in their communities and are already reaching out to the vulnerable children among them. Many times, churches in the developing world approach us, knowing that our sponsorship programmes will help them reach their goals.

Freedom to contextualise

Another way we address this question of ethics is to have healthy partnership relationships, ensuring our country office and church partners have the freedom to contextualise our programmes in a way that makes sense in their communities, to bring the greatest benefit to children.

child champions

We call this “freedom within a framework.” The sponsorship framework creates consistency and helps sponsors know what their pounds support. But there’s room for a certain amount of freedom so churches working with Compassion can reach out in a way that makes the most sense in their community.

In one community, this might mean that a church partner decides more of their energy and budget goes toward keeping adolescents out of gangs, while another church partner might decide to focus more on protecting young children from malaria.

Allowing contextualisation helps Compassion ensure we aren’t imposing one-size-fits-all solutions on church partners and the children they serve, but that we engage in a productive conversation about how we can best help a community.

Changing communities by empowering children

Our aim, wherever we work is to empower individual children, families and whole communities to become self-sufficient. In fact in some places, northern Brazil for example, we have been able to remove our support, knowing that it is no longer needed.

We do this through not only giving children access to education, but also helping them develop the character to be contributing members to their society. We help them learn vocational skills and skills to get a job and keep a job. We lead children through life-planning tools that help children envision and prepare for their futures. And, most of all, we help them learn that there is hope—that God created them and has a good purpose for their lives.

To go back to the findings of Dr Wydick’s research, “Child sponsorship appears to get under the hood of human beings to instill aspirations, character formation and spiritual direction. In short, it trains people to be givers instead of receivers.”

We’re empowering children, giving them the skills and resources to break free from poverty and become change-makers in their families, communities and even nations.


Want to learn more about the ethics of our model? Discover how our child sponsorship programme works or take the next step and sponsor a child.


Sources: Compassion Canada: Is Child Sponsorship Ethical?, BBC: Is Child Sponsorship Ethical?

WORDS : Amber Van Schooneveld, Rebecca Corbett

PHOTOS : Compassion International



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