By Virginia Fresne, Director of Programs at Flying Kites
Yesterday morning, our office received a box of letters, sent by a bright and earnest group of fourth graders from a Boston school. The parents had asked if the class could be Pen Pals with our students in Kenya.
I opened the first letter.
“Dear Flying Kites orphan, I’m sorry you are poor,” the opening line read.
I felt my heart clench. I knew the intention was good, but I also knew I could never pass this letter on. I spent the better part of an hour opening up each crayon-scrawled card and removing the ones that would be confusing, offensive or hurtful to our students in Kenya. It reminded me of a time a parent asked if our students would write about their experiences with hunger in order to teach his son about food disparity.
I don’t mean to sound jaded. As someone who works for an international education non-profit, I am amazed, every day, at how generous, selfless and compassionate people are. People who have never met our students donate abundantly and care profusely.
But yesterday’s care package got me thinking: How can I better communicate our needs to the people who are so eager to help? How can we—nonprofits—convey to donors the most effective ways to be supportive? Because at the end of the day, we both want the same thing: good outcomes for the vulnerable students we serve.
If you are thinking about engaging with an organization serving vulnerable students, here are a few examples of popular trends that might not be as helpful as they seem, and some suggestions for how to redirect these efforts to truly benefit communities and organizations.
Pen pal letters:
The program is not mutually educational, and often feels exploitive. Letter exchanging with “disadvantaged” children to learn more about global poverty in an effort to remind our own children to appreciate privilege doesn’t work for our students in Kenya.
I have people bring me stacks and stacks of letters all the time for our school. Expectations for communications often go unmet, which only ends up disheartening and frustrating the very people who are committing their time and energy to our organization.
How do we encourage kids to begin thinking critically about education and development, in a way that doesn’t involve “writing to the poor” to ignite the conversation?
It’s our responsibility as parents, teachers, and friends to be honest with our children (and ourselves) about nonprofits’ priorities, especially when they may not align with our priorities or desires. We can redirect these good intentions into opportunities that build sustainable results.
Consider having your children or students spend some time learning about the challenges of global poverty, writing to their state representatives about issues that are affecting the world’s poor, sponsoring a student, doing a bake sale, or reading about global poverty and spreading awareness at their school.
Donating old stuff:
My hallway is full of bags of donations given by supporters wanting their old stuff to go to a good place. But, if your kid doesn’t want that ripped pair of pajama bottoms, why would mine? By giving someone less-than quality items, it sends a message that they are less-than-quality.
Instead, talk to someone at the nonprofit directly and find out specifically what they could really use, and in what capacity. Or, if it’s feasible, consider a monetary donation instead—no matter where the organization is based, this supports their local economy while minimizing the costs of shipping, and providing for the charity’s most immediate and pressing needs.
Our nonprofit recently closed its volunteer program. To preface that, our organization was also built by volunteers. I was a volunteer; I don’t take for granted the importance and impact that volunteering can have on the volunteer. However, to create a sustainable and dynamic organization, bringing on unskilled, short-term volunteers is not effective and can be potentially harmful.
Instead, seek out already existing programs that are community-initiated and supported. Immerse yourself and participate in opportunities that ignite your consciousness, but be sure to do it in a way that doesn’t take away from those you are trying to help. Learning about and witnessing global poverty can create transformative conversations that can lead to movements that have the potential to change the world. There are also resources (like Giving Way and Mama Hope) that connect volunteers with already existing NGO initiatives with sustainable goals.
I love working in the nonprofit industry for its continuous evolvement and adaptation. And with that, the ways we support philanthropy need to evolve.
As I finished up reading through the letters, the last one said, “Dear Lucy, you like dogs? I like dogs!! I think we’d be best friends.” I couldn’t help but smile and feel hopeful. Hopeful and energized for this generation, which is more globalized than ever and eager to take action. Classrooms, families, and young people are interested in poverty alleviation and its role in global development.
They’re brave, much braver than I was at their age, and ready to make sure their actions count. They will be a force in this world, but it won’t be because they sent letters to “poor children.”