ChildFund Australia was facing a conundrum. For years, the organization had funded much of its development work by linking donors directly to a single beneficiary, through child sponsorship. But the model had come under scrutiny in recent years, with questions over how tightly donor money needed to be linked to individual children. Moreover, a number of countries where ChildFund Australia works simply weren’t good fits for individual sponsorship, for legal and cultural reasons.
They needed a funding model that was equally engaging for donors without the logistical and ethical complications of an individual model. The organization has traditionally drawn almost half of its funding from child sponsorships — for the 2015 financial year, child sponsorship made up 48 percent of their income.
“We know that child sponsorship has the highest retention of regular giving products,” Simone O’Connor, digital engagement lead for Global Community at ChildFund Australia, told Devex.
The middle way they created in response is community sponsorship: Instead of tying donations to an individual, they are tied to a group. Money is split across a number of different projects related to health, nutrition and food security, child protection, education or water and sanitation.
ChildFund Australia is now rolling out the Global Community program in three countries and hopes that the model will create an alternative to the long-used child sponsorship program in some situations.
Global Community grew out of the realization that traditional child sponsorship programs would not be possible in certain countries where ChildFund Australia works.
“In Papua New Guinea for example, it can be very difficult to track individual children due to the low levels of birth registration, the remoteness of most of the population and the mobility of families,” O’Connor said.
Child sponsorship is also contentious in Laos where the local government and communities do not support the concept. Myanmar had no existing child sponsorship program and the organization wanted to have flexible funding to implement activities for different communities.
Those three countries are now the launchpads of the new Global Community program.
“We wanted to design something similar that creates a direct and personal connection between Australian sponsors and people in developing communities,” O’Connor said. “The community sponsorship program is a viable alternative for those countries where child sponsorship is not suitable, and still has the benefit of linking Australians with real people.”
The link between donor and beneficiary is a key part of the program’s design. The traditional letter writing between sponsor and child has been replaced by digital media and online collaborative platforms.
“Youth ambassadors are selected in ChildFund-supported communities and trained in a variety of digital media tools, including video making and editing, monitoring and evaluation, computer skills and youth leadership,” O’Connor said. These young trainees share their lives, thoughts and ideas with sponsors.
Sponsors can reply, and even collaborate directly on a series of “microprojects” as part of their donation.
One microproject in Nonghet, Laos, for example, aimed to help children navigate the long distances between their homes and schools. Through the collaboration process, a bamboo bicycle building workshop was decided upon. A consultant from Bamboo Bicycles Beijing visited the community and taught youth ambassadors how to source, treat and use bamboo for building bicycles.
“This two-way communication process places young people at the center of development and gives Australians the opportunity to play an active role in the development process as well,” according to O’Connor.
Administratively, community sponsorship is far easier to manage. Child sponsorship requires a lot of support in its coordination. Individual children need to be tracked, letters and gifts need to be sent back and forth and reports provided to sponsors.
The digital communications and engagement platform through Global Community eases administration for country offices. Tracking outcomes is simpler.
With administrative and accountability costs accounting for 5 percent of ChildFund’s expenditure, that may mean less money on administrative costs and more going directly to the community.
“Child sponsorship has a fixed price, and cannot be adjusted due to the costs of implementing this type of program,” O’Connor explained. “Community sponsorship however can be a variable price, as administrative costs are much lower. It also means that supporters have the ability to adjust their contributions based on their financial situations.”
The success of the community sponsorship program will lie in its ability to resonate with donors, and ChildFund is researching and testing its messaging to hone the right formula.
“So far we have spent time building up the idea of community sponsorship, and communicating its unique benefits to supporters and new audiences,” O’Connor said. “We did some initial testing around the messaging of the word ‘sponsor’ and found it resonated the most with audiences, namely because they understand the concept of sponsorship and it was much clearer about what we were asking them to do.”
The response from sponsors has so far been positive. Jess Carter, the first Global Community sponsor in Papua New Guinea, spoke highly of the program.
“I'm so thrilled to be the first sponsor and just love what you and the team are creating with the Global Community vision,” she said. “Hopefully it's the start of an exciting chapter for the intersection of community development and giving.”
According to O’Connor, many sponsors appreciate how the program can cater to various types of donors, from the highly engaged to the less intensively involved.
“We are reaching a wider network of people who can contribute it ways that are most meaningful to them,” O’Connor said.
ChildFund is taking its time to roll out community sponsorship. Currently the program is operating in three communities, one in each country, with a total of 3,000 sponsors.
But they are planning for big things. Vietnam and Cambodia will join the program within two years and in November, New Zealand will be added as a sponsor country.
Marketing will also expand. Currently, face-to-face teams in Melbourne and Sydney bring in the bulk of community sponsors, and the competition with child sponsorship is fifty-fifty. A wider campaign is planned for community sponsorship including digital marketing via Facebook and Instagram. Google Search is currently the biggest pathway to generating awareness.
For NGOs interested in ChildFund path, O’Connor recommends being specific to developing countries’ needs, which could include numerous sponsorship options.
“Deciding what type of fundraising program to launch should really be dependent on the countries where you are working — it needs to suit the particular context,” O’Connor advises. “We are really happy to have three strong regular-giving programs in place now, which suit a range of audiences, and allow varying levels of interaction.”
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