In the midst of the Korean War, Reverend Everett Swanson was stopped in his tracks by the startling, desperate needs of Korean children orphaned by the war. While in South Korea as a missionary and evangelist in the early 1950s, he encountered orphans dying in the streets in the cold of the night, their lifeless bodies collected by soldiers to be unceremoniously buried each morning.
On his flight home, one question buzzed in Everett’s ear to the rhythm of the plane’s engines: What are you going to do about it?
Out of this experience, Compassion International was founded by Reverend Swanson in 1952. Just over 10 years later, Compassion expanded to open an office in Canada.
Right from the beginning, the mission was clear: one child—then another, and another, and another until every child is released from poverty in Jesus’ name. Out of this deep conviction to care for the one in the pursuit of every came Compassion’s famous one-to-one child sponsorship model, in which we match one child living in poverty with one sponsor who commits to providing financial support, words of encouragement and faithful prayer as the child grows and develops into an adult life free from poverty.
It’s a compelling model with an inspiring origin story. But is it still relevant today, nearly 70 years after Revered Swanson first founded Compassion International? Or is it time to kick child sponsorship to the curb?
It likely doesn’t come as a surprise that here at Compassion, we’d say child sponsorship is more relevant than ever. With almost 70 years of experience under our belts, we still believe that child sponsorship is a worthy investment that is effective, empowering and exciting—even in times of crisis like a global pandemic. But why? Let’s unpack it together.
1. Child sponsorship is an investment—a worthy one.
In a world of quick-fixes and instant gratification, we know that ending poverty isn’t something that can happen overnight, but requires slow, transformative work. It requires long-term investments, like an investment in the life of child.
This is what makes Compassion so unique: our model isn’t about short-term projects like digging a well or building a school. While we do invest in those kinds of projects, we always do so with child development in mind. Compassion partners with local churches to invest long-term in the lives of children in their communities, journeying with them from womb to workforce to break cycles of poverty in their lives, their families’ lives, their communities and their nations.
Compassion has been at this for a long time. That longevity has taught us a lot, but perhaps most importantly, it has instilled a deep belief in the long-term, transformative work of child development. It can be slow, but it never fails to be incredibly fulfilling.
2. Compassion’s child sponsorship model works. It’s a highly effective way to fight poverty.
It seems basic, but it’s true: we wouldn’t do this if it didn’t work.
Independent research of Compassion’s work published in 2013 shows “statistically significant impacts on sponsored children”, including increased probability of secondary school completion, white collar employment and becoming a community leader in adulthood.
“We believe sponsorship, at least in the Compassion model, not only provides for some basic educational and health needs, but is very good at raising aspirations among sponsored children through a weekly tutoring and spiritual mentorship program. … In short, yes, it seems that child sponsorship works.”
– Paul Glewwe, Laine Rutledge and Bruce Wydick, Does child sponsorship pay off in adulthood?
But independent research isn’t the only reason we know it works. We see that it works in the lives of Compassion alumni all around the world, who consistently speak about the difference Compassion’s child sponsorship program made in their lives.
“The Compassion program is holistic. In the program, I developed leadership skills that I’m able to use to this date. Also, I acquired a passion for serving and caring for the lost, the least and the last.”
– Luciano, former sponsored child from Haiti
What both the independent research and stories of lives transformed tell us is Compassion’s child sponsorship model works. It’s a highly effective way to carry out the mission of releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name.
3. Child sponsorship is empowering. Compassion’s model is always locally driven.
A common concern about child sponsorship is that it is paternalistic or exploitative. In the world of international development, that is always a risk that we need to constantly examine and interrogate. But it’s also important to know that there is a safeguard against this built right into Compassion’s model: our partnership with local churches.
On top of being child-focused and Christ-centred, the third of Compassion’s distinctives is that we are church-driven. Everything we do is done in partnership with local churches in the communities where we work. Our goal is always to equip and empower churches to reach their neighbours and care for people living in poverty.
That means sponsored children don’t receive care from outsiders, but from local Compassion staff who are often their actual neighbours. It means that when we engage in a short-term community development project like digging a well, it is always initiated, owned and implemented by our local partners. Because of this, Compassion’s programs are contextualized to local needs and culture. Children see their sponsors as partners in the fight against poverty and see themselves not as just objects of mission, but agents of it.
To us, child sponsorship isn’t transactional but transformational. It’s not a one-way street but something that empowers and equips all of us to more fully step into the call to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.
4. Far from being stale, child sponsorship is an exciting way to fight poverty for everyone involved. It’s compelling, relational and breaks down barriers.
Okay, you might be thinking, child sponsorship is a worthy investment—it’s effective and empowering. But it’s just so yesterday. It’s something my parents did.
The first thing you need to know is that the longevity of our child sponsorship model doesn’t mean it’s stale or behind the times—in fact, our global program team is constantly learning, evaluating and adapting our programs to be the most effective in our current times in every context in which we work. Our programs have shifted many times throughout our history to better serve children in poverty and make the widest impact possible. We know that when the lives of children are transformed, it transforms entire families and communities, too.
Beyond this, child sponsorship continues to be a compelling way to engage in the fight against poverty. It is highly relational. In a world of overwhelming need that seems increasingly impersonal, tight-fisted and divided, child sponsorship is personalized to each individual sponsor and child, breaking down barriers through radical generosity and compassion.
While child sponsorship has a long and storied history, today it is an exciting way to confront the brokenness of our world with an intentional choice to end poverty in the life of one child.
5. Finally, child sponsorship is effective even in times of crisis and disaster, such as the COVID-19 crisis.
In the past year, our child sponsorship model was put to the test: would it continue to be effective in the face of a global crisis unlike anything we’ve faced before?
We’d faced crises before, from events that gained global attention like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, to more localized crises like cholera outbreaks, tropical storms and droughts. From these experiences, we knew that having local partners who personally know, love and care for affected children and families is a huge advantage when responding to crises and disaster. As the world faced down the COVID-19 crisis, we were confident that our church partners would be up to the task. We were right.
Our church partners rapidly shifted our child development programming from in-person programs focused on cognitive, socioemotional, spiritual and physical development, to crisis and disaster response, safely delivering emergency food packs and hygiene kits to children and their families. All the while, they adopted new strategies and technology to continue our long-term investment in each child’s life, providing support for remote learning, virtual Bible lessons, counselling, child protection training and more.
Our goal through the COVID-19 crisis is to ensure that children don’t just survive this pandemic, but thrive long after it. Our long-standing child development program equips us well to do that.
Answering the same question, 70 years later
When Everett Swanson first founded Compassion International, he likely had no idea what would become of it nearly 70 years later: in 2021, Compassion serves more than two million children and their families in 25 countries around the world. Our first program country, South Korea, where Reverend Swanson first felt the call to serve children in poverty, is now one of Compassion’s partner countries, with South Koreans sponsoring over 120,000 children.
Millions of people have now joined Reverend Swanson in responding to the question that buzzed in his ear on his plane ride home. What are you going to do about it? They’ve joined a movement of compassion, making long-term investments in the lives of children to see them released from poverty in Jesus’ name.
Is child sponsorship still relevant in 2021? Here’s what we know: more than two million children and their sponsors would say yes.