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The Chicago Tribune, in a lengthy expose of child-sponsorship charities, reported that the marketing of some nonprofits creates false impressions, and that management at times is so lax that individuals were paying to support children who had died.

The Tribune investigated four major groups—Save the Children, Childreach, Christian Children's Fund, and Children International—concluding that the concept of individual sponsorship of a poor child is largely a marketing myth. The March reports, in two 16-page sections titled "The Miracle Merchants: Myths of Child Sponsorship," revealed that individual children often receive few or no direct benefits, even though marketing campaigns suggest otherwise. Three years ago, Tribune reporters began sponsoring a dozen youth from these organizations. Last year, the journalists visited their sponsored children to find out if the donations had made a difference.

The newspaper asserted that while most of the groups have evolved in their field work from an individual focus to community development, their market-driven method of funding has remained the same: one donor, one child.

But the groups say their supporters understand the concept. "We're very open about it," says Save the Children spokesperson Alan Carter. "We want individual sponsors for individual children, but the sponsor's money doesn't go directly to that child."

NO BIG FALLOUT: Starting nearly 60 years ago with wartime orphans, child-sponsorship efforts have grown to become a billion-dollar-a-year charitable enterprise, potentially touching millions of families worldwide. Yet it is an industry that struggles to align its message with its product.

Child-sponsorship ...

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In the Magazine

May 18, 1998

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