Child sponsorship makes “donate” the default

What nonprofit strategy could make frequent, regular gifts from core donors as automatic as paying a cell phone or gas bill? Can nonprofits use the same powerful “set it and forget it” payment model used by online data backup service and car leasing agencies (see  “Make Donate the Default) to set a reliable pattern of frequent and recurring gifts from core donors?

It’s already been done – for more than 70 years!

In 1937, the child sponsorship organization Plan International (formerly Foster Parents Plan International) created a philanthropic subscription model that transformed overseas philanthropy. Today, many more organizations use the same model to generate billions in relatively small individual gifts for international development projects benefiting children around the world.

The core offer is this: for a regular monthly contribution of a specified amount (typically between $20 and $30 per month), the donor will help a child in a less-developed country meet basic needs and grow up to be a healthy, well-educated and independent adult. Sponsors can develop a personal connection with a sponsored child through letters, reports and, in some cases, visits to the child’s community.

(For the record, I worked at Plan from 1987 to 1994. I wrote a short history of the organization in 1998 for its 60th anniversary and did a range of consulting work for Plan International or its affiliates until 2003.)

Child sponsorship organizations do three key things to support the sponsorship offer.

  1. They connect real people: the sponsor receives photos, a case history and cards or letters from the sponsored child and can send them to the child.
  2. They place a fixed, recurring value on the benefits provided to that child.
  3. Finally, they work constantly to assure sponsors that the services are being delivered to the child and that the child is benefiting.

As with any giving program, annual growth is a matter of making sure that new donor acquisitions outpace discontinuances. Plan International has been an innovative direct response fundraiser throughout its history, pioneering direct mail in the U.S. and nationwide telethons in Europe to bring in new sponsors.

Of course, sponsor retention is the real key to growth. Now, unlike their cable bills, sponsors have no legal obligation to donate every month. But, the sponsorship relationship, when well-mediated by the organization, encourages donors to regard sponsorship as both rewarding and obligatory.

The technicalities of payment options make a big difference, too. It’s not surprising that donor retention rates are lowest for monthly check writers and highest for those who choose automatic payment through credit cards or account debits.

The benefits of sponsorship are clear: it sets a high floor for annual giving ($240 a year and up) and creates a compelling, relationship-based connection among donor, organization and beneficiary, setting the stage for extremely high retention rates.

Most convincing of all, it has worked for 70 years.

From its beginning with 200 pairs of Spanish orphans and English sponsors in 1937, Plan International today conducts projects benefiting 3.5 million children all over the world with support from an equal number of sponsors in 18 nations in Europe, Asia and North America.

Save the Children adopted sponsorship in 1940. Since then, Child Fund, World Vision, Children International, Compassion International and many others have adopted the sponsorship model as the basis for steady and sometimes explosive growth.

Should you? I’d rather ask “How could you?”  While child sponsorship can’t be transferred intact to, say, a land trust or mental health provider, let’s look at what key elements of this highly successful subscription model could be applied. I’m certainly going to be thinking lot more about what my environmental and other clients can learn from these nonprofit subscription pioneers.

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