by Kay Marshall Strom
Over the past few years, a variety of non-profits, including many Christian organizations, have begun to publish lists or “catalogs” of projects which donors can fund for needy people in a particular place. Strom sets out to see for herself what happens to contributions given to charities via these gift catalog programs.
InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, 2007, 204 pages, $16.00.
—Reviewed by Ellen Livingood, president, Catalyst Services, Newtown, Pennsylvania.
Over the past few years, a variety of non-profits, including many Christian organizations, have begun to publish lists or “catalogs” of projects which donors can fund for needy people in a particular place. Strom sets out to see for herself what happens to contributions given to charities via these gift catalog programs. The projects Strom mentions vary from small (such as $9/month to educate a child in Sudan) to quite large (such as $12,000 to fill a 20-foot container with medical supplies for Senegal).
Strom admits she became hooked from the time she received her very first catalog but wondered, as many Western donors do after hearing news reports about failed charitable efforts, if it really works. She decided to find out. Her goal was an uncensored, personal look at where the funds went and what they accomplished. The efforts of sixteen large North American or British organizations are referenced, but the author announces in the acknowledgements that her project was launched with the cooperation of Partners International, which figures heavily in the stories covered.
Firsthand accounts of onsite visits from China to Senegal to Indonesia cover ten types of aid, including micro-enterprise, education, disaster relief, medical assistance, church-planter training and more. In each case, Strom presents individual stories—people blessed and challenges overcome. Heartwarming stories all, they are very similar to what is published by each of these organizations in their own magazines and web pages.
In the first and last chapters, Strom addresses some practical issues of what makes for effective relief/development and how a potential donor can make wise giving decisions. For instance, she advises scrutiny of administrative overhead percentages and what happens to the donor’s gift if the project is already fully funded. She emphasizes the need for local involvement in structuring projects, a goal difficult for a donor to evaluate.
This is a book of reassuring stories, not hard-hitting investigative reporting. Strom reports no failures. Problems mentioned are credited to outside circumstances—school restrictions in China, powerful local Islamic leaders in Senegal or unethical practices of a Thai poultry company. Thorny issues such as dependency, sustainability and the challenge of finding and applying culturally-appropriate solutions are mentioned but not grappled with indepth. The book provides third-party reassurance for donors that at least those organizations mentioned are using contributions conscientiously.
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