NEWS FEATURE: Starving kids images raise money _ and ethical questions

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c. 1997 Religion News Service

UNDATED It’s a holiday season standard. An emaciated little girl in a tattered dress stares into the camera, and TV viewers are told they can either spend a few dollars a month to feed her or think of her on Christmas crying herself to sleep.

Americans, among the world’s most generous donors, are remarkably responsive to dramatic appeals featuring kids. But some philanthropy experts contend those heart-wrenching campaigns mislead donors by suggesting the way to end hunger is to give handouts to starving children rather than fund development projects. And even some well-intentioned organizations try to woo donors by implying the money raised goes directly to children when it’s actually pooled to fund projects.

Direct-mail consultants have known for years the drawing power of the hungry child.

“We do a lot of testing,” said Jerry Huntsinger, a Richmond, Va.-based direct-mail consultant. “A young child will raise more than an older child. A girl will raise more money than a boy. A child in India will raise more money than a child in Mexico.” Donors, the research shows, want to feed and clothe those kids, preferably one child at a time.

But the consensus among philanthropy experts is that the most effective way to save lives is to help an entire community become self-sustaining.

When a charity focuses on one child, said Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York, “all you’re doing is taking care of symptoms. Generally, what is needed is a better sewage system, a well, maternal and child health programs.”

The problem, experts say, is that donors don’t want to pay for infrastructure, so charities tell them about feeding children, not building bridges.

“People in this country cannot connect up to highly sophisticated development approaches,” said Tom Peterson, director of communications for Heifer Project International, a relief organization that provides income-producing livestock for families. “It goes beyond the sound bites many people can understand. I’m not going to be moved by a highly sophisticated development technique even if it’s saving the lives of thousands of people.”

Public relations consultant Carol Fennelly, a long-time advocate for the homeless, agrees. “People don’t give to causes and abstracts. If someone writes a check, they’re giving it to Joe, the homeless guy, or to Susie, the needy child, not to end homelessness or child abuse or poverty. I think there’s a savior mentality in America.”

Ironically, many of the groups most closely associated with saving children believe it no longer makes sense to give money directly to kids.

Childreach, formerly Foster Parents Plan, has retained the picture exchange and letter-writing campaigns between sponsors and children. “But we don’t do handouts,” said Stacey Pulner Mihaly, vice president of marketing for Childreach. “We don’t feed and shelter and clothe the children. What we have found, and this has been substantiated by government organizations … is the best way to help people is through more of an empowerment model, working with communities so they are active participants in lifting themselves out of poverty.”

Still, some child sponsorship programs committed to development have been slow to abandon the old promotional campaigns that have been hugely successful in bringing in donors. Such reluctance, McCarthy said, initially caused tension within child sponsor groups. “People who came out of development rather than marketing and advertising felt the advertising did not necessarily reflect what the organization was trying to achieve,” she said. And donors were left in the dark.

Five years ago at Childreach, Pulner Mihaly said, surveys showed that more than half of their donors were not sure how their money was being spent. One unhappy sponsor wrote, “I thought my kid was dying and you built a bridge.”

The challenge for such organizations has been to help donors maintain a personal connection with children without distorting the charity’s message. Childreach recently introduced a new campaign spelling out exactly how the donors’ contributions are spent. While a 1991 ad featured a picture of “a lost, frightened child,” a new ad shows a picture of a sewing machine that families can use to generate income. The caption: Survival Tool.

“At the risk of bringing in fewer people, we want to be absolutely accurate,” said Pulner Mihaly, who expects new donors to stay with the program longer because they are committed to its principles from the outset. “We’re talking about building wells, schools and clinics and income-generating activity for parents.” In the last survey, she said, 88 percent understood exactly how the money was being spent.

Save the Children has not changed its television advertising much, said Brian Anderson, associate vice president for global marketing. But the organization has beefed up its literature describing development projects. According to the group’s most recent survey, 89 percent of donors understand the “money is pooled,” though Anderson doubts the percentage is as high among the general public.


Some fund-raisers believe donors don’t pay attention to literature about community development. “They allow themselves to be misled because they don’t read in depth,” said fund-raising consultant Carol Macho, formerly with Save the Children and the American Red Cross. And some charities continue to produce campaigns vague enough to be misinterpreted.

“People think … the money is going to the child,” said direct-mail consultant Huntsinger, unless they “read the fine print.” And then there are charities that remain wedded to picturing children with flies in their eyes and giving handouts to hungry kids.

Many observers hesitate to criticize donors who respond to such images out of genuine compassion, but some wish donors would ask themselves questions before contributing to any organization. In addition to researching a group’s financial history, they suggest studying the literature describing the projects and the organization’s problem-solving approach.

“I hope that donors think about the next step, not just feeding the child,” says M’Annette Ruddell, director of donor services for the American Friends Service Committee, an international Quaker organization committed to social justice and humanitarian service.

“What happens in five years? Is there a development project in place that will make sure the child survives?”


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