This is an editorial (opinion piece) written by Andrew Cates, CEO of SOS Children UK
Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Duncan Ross of the Consortium of Street Children (SOS Children has very substantial projects on preventing abandonment and keeping children off the streets). The conversation was long and varied but he mentioned being surprised by someone when he was working for another Street Child charity who had stopped him and said "Charities are inefficient, ineffective and intrusive". It is hard when you look around the sector not to agree. But instead of judging others I thought I should give ourselves a check up to see how we felt we were doing on these charges.
At any rate the charge of being ineffective is the easiest one for SOS Children to answer. When I joined SOS, a friend retiring from UNICEF commented how lucky I was to join a charity where you could see the tanglible fruits of your work, and indeed our "tracking footprints" project following children we have brought up onward through life shows a story of very positive contributions the children make to society. "Ineffective" is always a challenge raised about government aid and short term attempts to solve long term problems.
Jasmine Whitbread, the CEO of our smaller cousins Save the Children admitted in an article in the Times yesterday that she had heard plenty of stories of aid failing to improve the lives of struggling families in Africa and causing dependency (although I was disappointed that her response was then that the UK should commit aid for popularity with young voters rather than address the effectiveness). It is a cliche that in general communities which have had a subsistence standard of living for generations are not straining at the leash to start on a path to sustainable improvement and more often lapse into the previous status quo when the aid workers return.
Children however are a different matter. They grow up and are automatically on a path of individual development and learning. They can grow up (or die) in the gutters with no hope or grow up in a family with education and nutrition and play an important part in improving society. No wonder that giving children a future works.
With the choice of giving money to communities and letting the benefits "trickle down" to the children or helping the worst off children and help them through to independence where they can help others, our decision is very clear. It will always be better to help a dependent grow up and contribute than make contributors into dependents.
I know the order is wrong but it makes more sense to address intrusive first.
Charities are intrusive by sending unsolicited mail (chate mail: charity hate mail), employing "chuggers" (charity muggers) to solicit donations from the street corner, intruding into people's homes and emotions with distressing TV adverts or phoning people at home. And all of these intrusions are very inefficient because charities in the UK put more and more money into them until the "return" on each one falls to the point where they judge it uneconomic. Some charities have even reacted to the falling returns by trying to shock more or intrude more.
Fortunately, we do not do any of these. No unsolicited charity mail, no chuggers, no cold callers no distressing TV ads. Instead we have an internet site where people can come at their convenience and read about our work. And millions of people do exactly that and many of them contribute.
And the decision not to intrude pays off handsomely. Since the costs of getting donations online are about 1p per £1 raised, versus 40p for junk mail this makes us more efficient as well.
A year ago our cost comparison against other charities looked very good, since our income has risen further and our costs have not. Why do others not follow our lead and give donors the choice about when and whether to give? I cannot say, but certainly the public endorse our belief that we should trust them to give, not hound them to give, and in the end it is the child alone and orphaned in Africa who benefits.