How does one actually send money to African people in need?
September 1, 2012 9:03 PM   Subscribe

I would like to donate about $20 a month to a family in Africa, can you recommend an organization or give me some info on how this would work?

If you have any experience with this, can you tell me...

1)Is $20.00/month ridiculous? Or would it actually help? we are broke right now, but we would like to cancel our Netflix account to do this. The amount will get bigger as we make progress to a better financial situation.
2) How can I get in touch with a family? through a charitable organization? If so, which are the reputable ones? I would like to either directly send money to the family, or to do it with minimum admin costs so most of it gets to their hands. (would I have to convert to their currency?)
3) If not in direct contact with them, I would like to at least receive updates on how they are doing, or if they have an emergency, or maybe birthdays of the children. Is this customary? Not a big deal if it's not possible, it just would be nice.
4) any other info you think it's relevant would be welcome.

posted by Tarumba to Grab Bag (30 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
We sponsor a child thru Compassion International. We get letters from our child every several months, an accounting of what our money is going towards, and information about our child's family and culture. We were able to choose our child from a list of children from a variety of countries. We have very much enjoyed being able to help support our child this way, and have enjoyed getting to know him through our periodic correspondence!
posted by Happydaz at 9:08 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Donate your money to Kiva! Instead of being an aid-based model, which arguably create more problems than solutions, Kiva provides microloans to help people in developing areas start businesses. There are super-low default rates and super-encouraging successes, plus the money can just keep being recycled back into the system. So if you're on a budget, it's a good way to give continuously without actually having tons of cash available. You have the option to select which person's project you donate to (you could choose to give exclusively to people in Africa if you wanted), or give a random donation, and you can do it all anonymously if you wish. And when you get your first email saying that someone has successfully made a repayment, you feel so damn good.
posted by windykites at 9:38 PM on September 1, 2012 [11 favorites]

Oh, and also- if you do prefer aid-based giving, keep in mind that sometimes sending money is actually a bad idea, because of theft/corruption in the government/etc. Giving through an intermediary group that can ensure acces to resources or build infrastructure (whichever you are more into) is sometimes a safer way to go (Your mention of having currency converted worries me- i don't think you should put yourself in a position where this is even on the table. No cash.). I know some people who are into World Vision, but I don't know if you're interested in a religious organisation, and I am not sure how reputable they are. UNICEF might be a group you could give to, but I don't know if it goes to a specific family or to a fund.
posted by windykites at 9:47 PM on September 1, 2012

What about Heifer International or even TOMS? Does it have to be Africa specifically?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 9:52 PM on September 1, 2012

From what I was told by a coworker, $5 goes a long way in Africa. So, $20 is going to help out quite a bit, especially when other people contribute to the organization's too. Just by using a money converter website, it's evident that 20.00 USD=168.05 ZAR (South Africa) and 10,429.79 in West Africa/Central Africa.

I'm not sure which part of Africa you'd like to donate your money to, but clearly 20.00 there would go much further there than it does here (assuming that you're somewhere in NA).
posted by livinglearning at 10:06 PM on September 1, 2012

I'm a fan of Women for Women International. Rather than just sending money, you are sending money for women who enroll in a training program that teaches women skills they can use to improve their lives and start a business, as well as for daily essentials like food, sending their children to school and so on. Your communication level with your sponsored woman is kind of up to you both, or rather your comfort levels.
posted by Joh at 10:08 PM on September 1, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Does it have to be Africa specifically?

I guess not. I saw this (old and very sad) video and felt that sending actual money to a family in a hard situation regularly would help them have at least some sense of stability. All the school/training/business assistance programs sound good, but I imagine people like the children in the video are in no condition to think about training to be anything, just getting through the day.
posted by Tarumba at 10:31 PM on September 1, 2012

We sponsor a child thru Compassion International.

Compassion International is definitely very Evangelical Christian based, but they do excellent work and have a great reputation for getting money to where it is needed. I have a neighbor who works for them-they are based in my city- and he often takes groups of people to the country where their money goes to and they meet the recipients.
Save the Children also has good ratings for getting money directly to families.
posted by Isadorady at 10:53 PM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Just a few things to be aware of:

Families most definitely do benefit from your aid money in many charities, but it's good to realise it may not necessarily be like a commercial transaction where there's them, and you, and money passing between. You may receive letters from a kid somewhere, but that kid isn't getting thirty dollars a month from you. Some examples: 1. An aid org builds a well so the whole village gets fresh water. It costs a lot of money - more than you, or ten families like you donate in a year. The whole village gets the benefit, who's writing to who here and what are they saying? 2. Little kid goes to a school run by aid org, where they get free lunch and are taught to read. Org funds school, teachers, food, etc - who does the kid write to? Or worse, the person paying for a kid has a change in circumstances, and no longer does; is the charity gonna kick them out of school now?

I'm not discouraging you here at all, far from it - and I can see how great updates and things like that especially if you have kids so you can open their eyes to another part of the world/lifestyles and see how their contribution makes a difference, but I just want to make sure that you go in with open eyes about how money is dispersed in aid orgs, and why not hearing from anybody etc is not necessarily indication of waste or failure - and in fact it can be a result of trying to be more efficient.

Note: Despite quite a lot of effort to make it appear otherwise, the same is the case with Kiva. You are funding organisations in Kiva that then lend to individuals. The "person" you sponsor in Kiva is not getting your money (they have in fact already been financed) it goes to a pool held by a "field partner", and they then lend out the money. If a person borrowing defaults, the "field partner" may cover the default to preserve their high ranking. Some of the "field partners" are great, some of them are in my opinion not very good (tip: look for established ones), some of them are non-profit, some of them are for-profit. It's not the "stories" on Kiva you want to check, it's the field partners as there is a variability in their quality. Also it may be worth doing some more reading on microfinance - it's a very complicated (and interesting!) issue, and it's not necessarily the unalloyed good that some Westerners and neoliberals like to paint it as, especially as the field becomes more crowded with for-profit orgs. It's a very complex, and divisive, issue with pros and cons on both sides.

So to sum up, lots and lots of organisations like to give the impression that without your money some specific little kid in Africa wouldn't go to school there - but actually are very, very, very few organisations that do anything like a direct transfer of money to an aid recipient - and there are really good, organisational and ethical reasons for it. If an org does do that, I would want to look very closely at their annual reports and what experts in the field are saying about them because it's got huge potential for abuse, corruption and waste.

If you're doing this as a family, searching for the right org to donate can and should be part of the educative quest. This is a dilemma that aid orgs and govts face all the time: Money is not enough; you have to use it in the right way, and there are trade-offs.

I'd like to commend you on doing something like this and making the effort to ensure you know and understand where your money is going and what it's doing.
posted by smoke at 11:16 PM on September 1, 2012 [29 favorites]

A word on GiveWell: You essentially have to pay to be assessed by them, it excludes many international charities, and their metrics are quite specific. In my personal experience there's no one charity rater I would be comfortable recommending as a one stop shop - there remains no substitute for doing your own research and evaluating charities on what's important to you.
posted by smoke at 2:17 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

If you have the time, I would highly recommend reading Poor Economics to give you more background about aid and the interventions that make a difference.

In terms of logistics, many people don't have bank accounts and even if they did, they are local and can't receive direct funds. Even if they did, your $20 would be entirely taken up by transfer fees. Pooling your $20 by giving it to an aid organisation will achieve more scale than giving it directly to one family. Kiva, Room to Read, Camfed (the latter two are education focused) are organisations I have given to in the past. Plan International as mentioned above is also excellent.
posted by wingless_angel at 2:38 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

To back up what smoke is saying, you might read this comment from allkindsoftime, who works with a relief organization in Africa. I hope he comes to this question to tell you more. In the meantime, he's written several responses on this and related topics so it's worth going through his comments. (Especially this one, in which he tells about Butho's shoes but we learn about allkindsoftime's big heart.)
posted by Houstonian at 4:10 AM on September 2, 2012 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the pointer to those terrific comments, Houstonian.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:54 AM on September 2, 2012

Another recommendation for Compassion International.
posted by BurntHombre at 6:29 AM on September 2, 2012

As an FYI, Givewell, previously on Metafilter.
posted by HuronBob at 6:45 AM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, I thought Givewell was like the Angie's List of charities (not illegal but kind of exploitative), where organizations have to pay and devote time to answer surveys and apply for grants in order to be featured/mentioned favorably. Plus, I read that Metatalk yesterday and really don't like them.

Thank you so much for your answers. It would be cool to help someone directly, but I'm ready to trust what the organizations recommend...they know what they are doing! Please keep mentioning reputable organizations you know (preferably non-religious), and will do research in all of them.

Thank you!
posted by Tarumba at 7:50 AM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

For what it's worth, I donated $25 a month to a kid in Peru for about 20 years through Childreach/Plan USA till he grew up. I'm sure it was not a direct payment but rather community support for a remote small place in the boonies. They have an African option as well, which I contributed to briefly till that child died (!). The kid sends you hand-written letters a few times a year, and photos of the child and family and their house, and maybe the kid draws a picture to send you at Christmas, when you're offered the chance to buy him a soccer ball or something. It's quite a moving if remote experience, and I treasure those years of photos. I think Childreach is in Warwick RI. All in all, a fine experience.
(Please don't tell me it's been a scam all this time; I was so pleased by it I didn't do more than basic due diligence at the beginning.)
Excuse clumsy writing; need coffee . . .
posted by fivesavagepalms at 7:57 AM on September 2, 2012

By the way, I never detected any religiosity with Childreach, or I would have dumped them.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 8:41 AM on September 2, 2012

I have an option you might like.

I run a small nonprofit of the type you might be looking to fund in Africa. I won't mention my own charity because that doesn't seem right, but we have a partner organization that helps us with funding called SeeYourImpact that I think you might really like.

SeeYourImpact aggregates projects from many nonprofits around the world that they have vetted prior to partnership. They feature all sorts of different cool things that you might be interested in sponsoring, and you get a story within 2 weeks about the recipient(s) of your gift.

Pros: feeling like you have a personal connection with the donation/recipient can motivate giving regularly and wellbeing amongst donors. I feel this way about Kiva and I do feel warm and fuzzy every time I look at my portfolio, even though I know the system's not perfect.

Cons: The cons here are mostly for the nonprofits themselves, although it could be a weakness that you would have to choose a recipient for your gift each month rather than being able to automate a donation. For the organizations, creating a "story" for every gift takes an incredible amount of time and energy from the field staff - that is time and energy they could be spending doing more good for the communities they serve, and it increases the so-called "administrative costs" of the work. Also, because of the nature of working in a very resource limited situation and needing to be able to work on a schedule, we cannot wait for donations to come in to do the programs, and SYI tells us not to do so because they want donors to always get their stories fast. So we run the programs first, front the money from general funds, then post the needs so that we have the stories ready to go whenever the gifts are given.

There are several other places you can go for similar ideas, such as UniversalGiving, ChooseANeed, Philanthroper, or Givology (that last is specifically for scholarships). What I would recommend is use these websites as a jumping off ground to find small charities doing work you like, try funding a project and see how it goes, and if you like what you see, just set up an automated donation directly to that charity and cut out the middleman. Middlemen often charge fees anyhow so the charity will get more of your money this way. Note that for many of these partners the charity is explicitly asked not to contact you directly because the aggregator organizations want to stay as their point of contact (and some of them are premised on the idea that you can give to a number of different charities without having to receive materials/be contacted by them all).

By the way, the type of support you are considering giving REALLY does go a long way (the conversions in one of the above answers don't really tell you what the value of your money is in another country unless you know what the inflation/costs of goods and services is - but I can absolutely assure you this is true, as noted on the Givewell website, you can save a life for less than $20). And having monthly donations from supporters that organizations can count on is SO much better than sporadic, here and there donations that come in an unpredictable way. So thank you for doing this! I admire your determination to help others.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:48 AM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

By the way, to answer your question most directly, if you want to avoid all admin fees, send the organization a check. Even donating directly to a nonprofit through their own website you lose several percent to the merchant. The reason I recommended setting up an automated donation was that it will make it something you don't have to remember or think about, and your nonprofit will be able to count on it. Bank bill pay services may also allow you to automate the sending of a check to a payee of your choice on a monthly basis with no additional fees.

Some small groups will allow you to send your donation directly to their in-country bank account via wire transfer, but this will typically cost you a fee of about $25 (obviously not worth it in your case).
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:52 AM on September 2, 2012

I second Heifer International.

It was started 60 years ago by a mid-westerner who was handing out cups of powdered milk to refugees from the Spanish Civil War. As a farmer, he had a better idea: instead of a cup why not a cow? So he worked out how to ship heifers (young cows that haven't had a calf) overseas.

Heifer International now supplies livestock, materials, plants and agro-ecology training to small farmers in more than 40 countries. Every family receiving something agrees to "pass on the gift" which is often the first-born calf or goat but can also be knowledge or training. That way a small donation can resonate for generations.

Heifer has been rated by Forbes Magazine and others as one of the Top Ten trusted charities in North America. I believe it too but here's some fair disclosure: I've been volunteering for them for a few years, so I'm obviously partial.
posted by ecourbanist at 11:34 AM on September 2, 2012 [2 favorites]

If you might consider a program that helps women, specifically because targeting them makes a major impact on the entire village they live in, Google the Health By Motorbike project in rural Kenya. It was founded by a public health lecturer at my university who built a pen pal relationship with a woman in Kenya. When she visited, she realized that the remote areas really suffered from limited access to supplies and knowledge. She has helped train nurses, increase access to fresh water, encourage women to advocate for their own health instead of waiting for permission or automatically giving medicine to their kids instead. Because of this, the health of everyone else in these villages (because the women care for them!) improves.

If you want a real-world connection with the people you help, knowing their names and following their lives, this is definitely possible. That's how it started!
posted by Madamina at 3:26 PM on September 2, 2012 [1 favorite]

I am right now in Cambodia trying to figure out how to regularly remit money to my kids' relatives to pay for school food etc. For a relative in Vietnam, we've settled on Western Union every three months because she lives in the middle of a farm in the middle of nowhere - it's 30 minutes by boat to the nearest Western Union for her, let alone a bank. In Cambodia, we're going to attempt to open a bank account and wire funds over every couple of months, but it's going to be tricky. Every few months because otherwise the charges eat up the funds, and not once a year because then it's not dependable income but a sudden windfall.

So choosing a good charity - yes, you will have some admin overhead, but doing it directly for a relatively small amount (under $500 a month?), you're going to lose some anyway. Plus you would have to identify and communicate with a family that needed the funds - is the best method.

I want to add that "sponsoring" a child/family has pros and cons. It does cost the organisation more than a straightforward donation, and when it's not well implemented, it can be quite damaging to the people being helped. But it is emotionally much more meaningful for you, and if this is your first time donating on a commitment, it is a good way to learn about and think of the people and causes you want to help regularly. I have heard good things aid-wise for both Compassion and Plan, and their financials/aid numbers are good.

My organisation does both, and I've come from being irked by people wanting to sponsor a particular child to now seeing it as a meaningful way for people to get involved with non-profits/aid *IF* it is carefully managed with a focus on creating awareness and compassion, a relationship that helps both donor and recipient, not only to fundraise for the NGO.
posted by viggorlijah at 11:18 PM on September 2, 2012

I don't have a big heart, I have a black, cold, whiskey-addled one.

There are lots of good organizations already mentioned above. I could personally "vouch" for a lot of the work I've seen a lot of them doing - Compassion, Heifer, Plan, World Vision (where I work). I don't feel its wrong to mention where I work because A) 40,000+ other people also work here, B) I've always tried to be completely transparent about it when I have mentioned it, and C) I always mention lots of other orgs I think also do great work.

If I vouched for their work (many of the NGOs I believe in), I'd be vouching for the good parts. I can't vouch as accurately for the bad parts for orgs I don't work for, but I can vouch that they all have them. All NGOs have their individual and yet non-unique (mostly) inefficiencies. WV is the biggest, so we have all the pluses and minuses that come along with that. Smaller orgs don't have the resources to do as much monitoring and evaluation as WV, or to audit themselves both internally and externally for better accountability. Nor are they able to afford to set up the very vital internal security structures that an org of our size needs, to keep staff safe in the field (only us and the UN have formal security structures as far as I know) - do you care about the staff of the organization being safe or are you willing to flaunt that to get more $ to beneficiaries? Nor are small org's able to pursue tax exemptions for their in-field offices based on their economies of scale - even WV pays taxes in many of the countries where we work - we literally pay the government to implement projects we will eventually hand over to their communities. Nor are they always able to get their work permits and other government documents for their operations without paying bribes.

Nor etc. etc. etc.. Small orgs also don't have the insane amount of administrative morass that I have to deal with on a daily basis. They aren't as daily targets of frivolous lawsuits by disgruntled former staff who got caught embezzling. They don't have as many consultant-types who've glad-handed enough senior management to embed themselves in the organization permanently, adding little or no value. They probably have better financial visibility simply because of scale albeit not having the best industry mechanisms to manage finances - so its probably harder for finances to go missing. Etc. etc. etc..

Someday I may finally get around to writing my own aid exposé, complete with a few hundred of my personal experiences over the years. That's all the detail I can get into on that for the time being. Except to tell you that last month I was told at 12:30pm one Tuesday that my wife needed to exit our country of residence - before the end of the day - because the person who was supposed to get her dependent's visa in her passport didn't bother doing their job for the last however many months. That story I will lead with in my book.

But I don't want to write another damning criticism of the aid industry, I own multiple copies of Dead Aid and all the other popular attack books and some of them make a few valid points and most of them miss the mark miserably. I firmly believe that for all its failures, aid is working. If you do some very, very basic research on key development indicators, in our lifetime alone, the evidence is undeniable. When there are millions of people existing monthly on less than what a minimum wage employee in the US makes in an hour, the math both defies logic and is concretely irrefutable. That Apple and Exxon have as much cash as they do, or that America can have as much debt as it does and still find bailing out the banks to be even a possibility, in a world where 20,000+ children die EVERY DAY from preventable causes should shame every single citizen of a developed nation.

I want to point out what needs to change about aid. There is so much that needs to change, no one book will ever contain it. And even if it could, it is all way too dynamic - what needs to change will always be changing. That's what I've been working on for the last 5 years, I've been trying to focus on bringing modernized, optimized, effective and efficient supply chain management and logistics to places where the function mainly doesn't even exist. And where it does, it is rife with, riddled by, completely engulfed in corruption. Have you ever stood in the ocean and thrown your full body weight into the force of an oncoming wave, only to be knocked back, then get up, and see the next wave coming? This is my job.

- $20 will go a lot further in Africa than it will in the US. I could probably feed a family for a month and still have some funds left over to help the community save up to maintain the borehole we dug for them. Again, economies of scale help here. You never sponsor one child, you sponsor a family (at a minimum). Please, please don't give because you think any amount is too little. If everyone who could afford internet access would give $1 monthly to those who can't, we could solve most of humanity's biggest development-related issues.

- Research Givewell previously on Metafilter. I will pretty much vouch for every bad thing you hear thrown their way. I don't know them personally but I see their types every day in the field. Gucci isn't hard to see walking down a dirt street.

- Consider programs that focus on helping children / orphans / women primarily. They are the most vulnerable, but the good thing is that most orgs know this from experience and target them implicitly. In Haiti, for example, most orgs (like us) would only distribute relief supplies and food to female head of households.

- Make it a family, educative experience, and keep on researching and learning more about what you are doing and the orgs you are doing it with.

- Good on you and yours for thinking this way. Someone somewhere in Uganda at the moment is thinking of what a wonderful person you must be.

Its really encouraging to see all the great answers above. MeFi has come leaps and bounds forward in this particular area of its knowledge, I am very, very happy about this, and I believe more and more in the goodness of the people on this site. Feel free to me-mail me if you want to talk more about any of this.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:27 AM on September 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Just a note: World Vision is a religious organisation (this does not obviate the good work they do).
posted by smoke at 4:16 PM on September 3, 2012

smoke makes a good point - WVI is the epitome of a religious organization, more so than most NGOs. Compassion and many of the other mainstream NGOs could also be labelled as such.

Some clarification, though, at least for World Vision - and some of these are probably true for other "religious" NGOs as well. First, WV is not expressly evangelistic - as far as I know we have no program, whether relief (emergency) or development, anywhere on the planet, that ties religious activity or behaviour to receipt of aid. In fact, we expressly forbid any kind of evangelistic activity from our staff to beneficiaries or other community members in many countries where we work, because yes, at some point, this has been a problem in the past. This is especially true in Muslim countries where it can become a security matter for staff safety. I am not saying that it doesn't happen somewhere sooner or later, with an organization as big as ours, at some point you have someone go rogue. That said, I'm much more concerned about community development officers taking bribes for selecting beneficiaries or even worse - sex for selection (sometimes with children).

Second, in the interest of full disclosure, I'm helping facilitate a Procurement-to-Payment Process Mapping session this week with a bunch of staff here, and we're currently, as I type, singing hymns in our daily devotions. You don't have to take part if you're a heathen like me, but you have to put up with it. Most offices have either weekly or daily devotions, either as a whole office or in the individual business units. These are internal and do not involve the people / communities that we work with. But many staff are required to sign a "statement of faith" to take up their positions. I personally don't think that very often this expressly causes people to mis-represent their beliefs, not at least in most sub-Saharan African contexts where Christianity is already the prevalent religion. But it is something that I think donors should aware of. Of course nobody signs these in Muslim contexts.

In the end, not everybody has an allkindsoftime to penetrate each and every NGO, so every donor should do their own research with an organization and get to their own level of personal comfort. I would find it hard to believe that if you called up any NGO saying you were considering giving, you couldn't find someone willing to describe the religious nature of a particular organization. Unfortunately I don't know of any expressly athiest or non-religious organizations, probably UNICEF or UNHCR are going to be the closest you can get to that.
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:11 PM on September 3, 2012

In addition to the UN orgs allkinds mentions, MSF maintain a strict policy of independence towards political, religious and economic power in any shape or form; Save The Children - despite the name - have no membership or affiliation to any political party or religion. There's lots of others.

I am, perhaps, somewhat biased in regards WV - they are quite religious in my country, replete with "Statement of faith". I know that it is very difficult, in Australia at any rate, to secure employment with WV without either being, or pretending to be, Christian.

I have no idea how this plays out globally, and I'm quite sure the org would not encourage proselytising, and a plumpynut tastes the same whether it comes from JC or RC.
posted by smoke at 11:06 PM on September 3, 2012

Yes, but here at WV we believe that we can pray over the plumpynut to multiply it for like 5,000 people at a time ;)
posted by allkindsoftime at 10:43 PM on September 4, 2012 [3 favorites]

You should check out Give Directly if you really want to directly give money to families in developing countries with the least overhead and administration possible. The only money that doesn't isn't given directly to a poor family is spent on (a) ensuring that the money is going to poor families without requiring bribes to middle men (b) foreign exchange fees.
posted by vegetableagony at 9:19 PM on September 14, 2012

The FAQ also gives some good information about Give Directly, including explaining some of the potential advantages of giving cash directly rather than micro credit loans or conditional gifts.
posted by vegetableagony at 9:22 PM on September 14, 2012

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