Stanford Social Innovation Review : Informing and inspiring leaders of social change


Individual Giving

Sponsoring Hope

A properly designed sponsor-a-child program can have real, long-term impact on the life course of its beneficiaries.


A study of one child sponsorship organization shows that the sponsor model can yield positive long-term results. (Image courtesy of Compassion International)

A young couple in Uganda, when asked if they would like to enter their newborn into a child sponsorship program—a program similar to the one that helped both of them get through school and into good jobs—said no. “Poverty ended with us,” they explained.

International child sponsorship programs collectively raise more than $3 billion per year. Those photos of developing world kids that get pasted to so many refrigerator doors in the developed world clearly help large aid organizations to raise funds. But do the kids benefit from the money donated have now tracked many of these children into adulthood, and the answer—at least for one child sponsorship organization—is yes. “The impacts that we find on secondary school completion and on employment are fairly remarkable,” says Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics and international studies at the University of San Francisco. “We did the study in six countries, and in all six countries we find positive impacts from sponsorship.”

Wydick and colleagues followed more than 10,000 adults in Bolivia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, the Philippines, and Uganda. The adults who had received charitable sponsorship as children are one-third more likely to have finished high school, and on average they complete more than a year of additional education. They are also 35 percent more likely to have a white-collar job.

“It’s probably the impact evaluation that most changed my mind about things,” says David McKenzie, lead economist in the World Bank’s research department. The impact in this case is especially notable, he says, “given the lack of results of many other development interventions that have been darlings of the aid world.”

The results of this study don’t necessarily apply to all child sponsorship programs. Wydick and his colleagues contacted many sponsorship organizations, but only one—Compassion International—was willing to participate in the study. Compassion International is a child-focused church-based organization that follows a pure sponsorship model: Instead of using sponsor donations to build village-level public goods like a road or a school, it directs benefits to individual children. Compassion, moreover, attends not only to children’s need for meals, immunizations, and tutoring support, but also to their emotional, spiritual, and social development. In that way, the Compassion program instills a sense of hope.

And hope, as Wydick has discovered in follow-up studies, may be crucial to the program’s positive outcomes. “If you only gave hope to kids without giving them some basis for hope, that probably wouldn’t work very well,” he says. “But if you only did things like provide school tuition and uniforms for kids, without increasing the level of aspirations, they might not believe that they’re actually capable of greater levels of education and better employment than their parents.”

The Compassion program is relatively expensive, but it has a lasting impact—especially on certain groups of people. “If you want to do a really good thing in the world, sponsor a girl in sub-Saharan Africa through an organization that uses a pure sponsorship model,” says Wydick. “And if you want to do something great in the world, sponsor 10 [girls].”

Bruce Wydick, Paul Glewwe, and Laine Rutledge, “Does International Child Sponsorship Work? A Six-Country Study of Impacts on Adult Life Outcomes,” Journal of Political Economy, 121, 2013.

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  • BY Paul Penley

    ON September 5, 2013 12:19 PM

    Compassion’s strict program guidelines, leadership development and internal accountability are paying off. As a charity evaluator myself, I’ve been impressed at success on such a large scale. To see Compassion’s growth rate, # of children served, total expenses and fundraising efficiency, go to

  • Great to see you comment here, Paul, and what a timely article as I just learned of Compassion’s new Change the Story project which is a mobile experience that helps those who cannot or won’t travel to developing contexts the ability to get a better sense for, and internalize, the situation in a way that leads to action.

  • Wayne F Hess's avatar

    BY Wayne F Hess

    ON September 5, 2013 02:31 PM

    A great article and I can attest to the effectiveness of a sponsorship program.

    I have been working with a school sponsorship program for the past twelve years. The program was started by Casa Xelaju, a Spanish language school in Guatemala, about eighteen years ago..I founded La Pedrera School Project, a 501 (c) 3, organization to facilitate the recruitment of volunteer sponsors. At the time the program started in Guatemala, no child had made it past the fourth grade. There have now been twenty two high school graduates and one young lady graduated from university as a nurse
    The website for the project is:

  • BY Jennifer Lentfer

    ON September 6, 2013 07:08 AM

    Regardless of the results of this particular impact study, the author would have brought more balance to the topic by at least highlighting the ethical issues that can occur within child sponsorship schemes, that is their potential to disrupt community cohesion and create local inequalities, the psychological effects of being an aid recipient, and the amount of funds spent on administration of the communications between donor and child that does not go into programs. I agree with the evaluators’ conjecture that hope is instilled through a mix of tangible and intangible results, but so much of the success of child sponsorship programs has to do with the skills and management of those on the ground and the relationships they create with the children’s families and communities.

    For a collection of articles examining the ethical aspects of child sponsorship, see:

  • Tania DoCarmo's avatar

    BY Tania DoCarmo

    ON September 6, 2013 11:34 PM

    Thank you, Jennifer. I’m often surprised at the lack of conversation in articles such as this one (and many others) about these same ethical concerns. Many of my colleagues and I (I work for an international non-profit) are very concerned with the long-term impact of singling out children in this way and the potential for exploitation.

  • BY Help my study

    ON July 15, 2014 03:04 AM

    Although, many organization working to help underprivileged child on their study, due to their operating cost the axact amount of donation is been expensing on unrelated matter. The matter that focus by some organization to collect more funds and spend less make many donors confused while choosing the right organization. There are millions of childrens deprived from basic needs in the world. In developing country like Nepal thousand of childs haven’t seen even a primary school yet. As a organization which helps to provide equal education oppertunity to the child from underprivileged communities, we suggest on contributing small amount that can change the life of someone.

    we have no idea how our $10 can change the life of someone. But this$10 can contribute to buy book for the whole year for one child. What a wondorous world is this, some possess fountain in the thirsty city but some are dying of thirst and we pepole have no concern about contributing an small drops. Just have a glimpse of the child seeking sponsor to have primary school educaton on our organizaiton

    Any way I appreciate your contribution on this post.

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