All About Estates

Child Sponsorship Fundraising

Courtesy of Save the Children, Australia

Child sponsorship is one of the greatest mass-market fundraising innovations of all time and a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Used primarily by international development organizations, sponsorship emotionally ties donors to individual children, providing insights, human connection, and funder loyalty.  It’s a fascinating model that has evolved over time, and it’s not without controversy.  How did it emerge? Why is it so enduring?  And, really, what’s happening behind the scenes?


Child sponsorship in its modern form emerge after the European humanitarian catastrophe of World War I.  It is the invention of Save the Children Fund, a British charity with a talent for social marketing and mass fundraising.  In 1919, the charity invented individual child sponsorship and it was an immediate success.  Foster Parents Plan, aka Plan International, used the technique at its founding in 1937 to help the children affected by the Spanish Civil War.

The programs have similar features.  The donor gives a fixed monthly or annual amount to sponsor a child, which is a fine example of creating a rationale for increased giving. The donor and child exchange photos and letters.  The goal is to “unstranger” the beneficiary and promote empathy and understanding.  In the early days, there was a limited connection between donor and child. Real children, real sponsors, but the infrastructure to encourage the relationship between the two parties was light and the connection was often symbolic.

American Innovations

After World War II, American charities active in the “developing world” adopted the technique. Many of these charities, such as World Vision, were rooted in evangelical Christian faith.  They made excellent use of direct marketing techniques.  They put significant resources building and maintaining a strong personal bond between donor and child.  That unmediated relationship between sponsor and child speaks to a donor community that is skeptical of big organizations and bureaucracy.

The relationship seems direct and personal.  It’s more about individual benevolence – helping a person in need – than Anglo-Saxon charity, which is about helping groups of strangers in need.  Ironically, child sponsorship created a huge charity infrastructure to connect children to donors, creating the impression of an individual relationship.

Now thousands of charities worldwide use the technique, including those based in Africa and the global south.  Why? Because it continues to be good fundraising.


There are documented economic, social, and educational benefits to children and their families.  And, of course, sponsorship arrangements help communities as well as the child who putatively writes the letters.  But the engagement of donors is the greatest appeal.  Emotional connection unlocks a lot of money.  I’ve known sponsors with 10 or more sponsored children. Some visit their children and bringing extra money and goods, although most charities discourage this practice.


The criticism of child sponsorship has been persistent as well.  Critics have pointed out that child sponsorship creates haves and have nots in communities.  It perpetuates a colonial, paternalistic saviour mentality.  The donor is at the centre, not the child or her community.  The industry is based on sham personalization, as many charities have one child with many sponsors.  It’s a bait and switch.

Save the Children and Plan International (no longer Foster Parent Plan) both still use the technique, but both are trying to get some distance and have evolve their programs. Witness US Save the Children’s subtle but clear explanation of their modern children sponsorship program.  Contrast it with Chalice (bit like a puppy rescue board) or World Vision (a 1:1 relationship).  Each charity has its own approach to child sponsorship that reflects its mission and world view.

Estate Donations

Donors do leave money in their wills to charity to sponsor children. Sometimes they wish to sponsor their children. It’s a difficult wish to fulfil and inherently impractical.  Children grow up and “graduate” out of the program only to be replaced by others.

World Vision Canada does not allow bequests for specific children, but does provide sample will language that encourages support of the children sponsorship programs generally.  There is a gulf between lifetime giving culture that is focused on personalized benevolence and estate donation culture that relies on confidence in a big, institutional charity.  It a gulf that may be difficult for some charities to bridge.

About Malcolm Burrows
Malcolm is a philanthropic advisor with over 30 years of experience. He is head, philanthropic advisory services at Scotia Wealth Management and founder of Aqueduct Foundation. Views are his own.

1 Comment

  1. Holly Allardyce

    June 13, 2024 - 1:07 pm

    This was an excellent read. Thank you, Malcolm!

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