Inventing Child Sponsorship

The man behind the person-to-person approach

“For about 70 cents, you can buy a can of soda…. In Ethiopia, for just 70 cents a day, you can feed a child like Jamal nourishing meals.” Those lines from the beginning of a commercial featuring actress Sally Struthers will be familiar to people who watched television in the 1980s. But the name of the organization that produced them—the Christian Children’s Fund—does not come to mind so quickly.

The Christian Children’s Fund began as China’s Children’s Fund in 1938, a relief organization to help children in that country displaced by war with Japan. Its founder was preacher Calvitt Clarke, the subject of a new biography, Fifty Years of Begging, written by his grandson and namesake. This family history offers insight into the evolution of twentieth-century American Protestantism, and how attitudes toward helping the destitute overseas have changed.

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Clarke was born in Brooklyn in 1887 but his ancestors were Southerners. His great grandfather was Mississippi’s first chancellor, who ruled in favor of certain legal rights for slaves while serving on the state’s first supreme court. By the time Calvitt was born, money was short in the family, but education was valued. After his father died young, Clarke went to work to pay for his own religious education.

He took a pulpit in Pennsylvania in 1914, but it became clear he had greater ambitions, regularly traveling the country giving speeches on everything from the Merchant of Venice to “Luther and Spiritual Idealism.” With the end of World War I, Clarke felt called to serve abroad. He joined an organization called Near East Relief, which was devoted to supporting “orphans and destitute Armenians, Syrians, Greeks and other people.” In 1920, he helped to organize a “bundle day,” a nationwide collection of donated clothes, which was a huge success.

Clarke toured war-torn countries and came back to tell Americans what he had seen, the thousands of orphans who needed food and shelter and education, and the ways individuals could help. On International Golden Rule Dinner Sunday, Americans were encouraged to serve a meal in their home similar to one served in orphanages, and then give the difference in cost to Near East Relief. There was a “celebrity element” to these fundraisers that has since become commonplace. Calvin Coolidge and Henry Morgenthau publicly pledged to participate in the Golden Rule Dinner.

As his grandson points out, “Clarke’s work did not end with the solicitation. He was extraordinarily good at writing letters to thank those who had contributed—and seeing those letters published in local newspapers.”

Perhaps these seem like familiar philanthropic strategies now—clothing drives, public thank yous, the idea of giving up something small in your daily budget to contribute to a much larger cause. At the time, however, these methods were unusual. Clarke appealed not only to his audiences’ sense of Christian duty but also to their practical side.

“Altruistic pleas for the sake of humanity were never enough,” notes his biographer. “He also stressed the self-interested need for Americans to repay debts owed to another people for services rendered against a common foe. Like China battling the Japanese during World War II. During the Cold War Clarke argued that the “misery of human beings…was the most powerful weapon in the hands of Communists.”

Clarke eventually left Near East Relief to found an organization that eventually became the Christian Children’s Fund. By 1951 it was managing 61 orphanages in ten countries. Three years later, the group was caring for 51,000 children in Korea alone. Clarke rejected corporal punishment at these orphanages, and favored a “house mother” model with small groups of children supervised in family-like settings. Eventually CCF turned to supporting children who stayed with their families whenever possible.

Clarke emphasized family values among the group’s American supporters too, promoting the model of individual sponsorship. He didn’t want donors to see a teeming mass of indistinguishable kids. He wanted people to help and attach to other individuals. Sponsoring a child could bring the “pleasures” of parenthood to even childless and unmarried sponsors, he said. (In recent years his group founded a network of child-sponsorship organizations and changed its name to ChildFund International, reaching beyond its Christian roots to a broader pool of donors.)

Clarke’s grandson notes that debates surround this individualized form of charitable aid. Some argue that individual sponsorship is “inadequate to heal a world where so many children will never get the opportunities they deserve”—and promote governmental solutions instead. But government agencies have not made the kind of impact that critics imagined they would. Vast portions of governmental aid are eaten up by bureaucracy, sucked into graft, or simply misdirected to not-very-effective places.

Meanwhile, other critics clamor that Americans don’t take enough personal interest in the fate of impoverished persons in other parts of the world. Which makes you wonder whether Calvitt Clarke may have had the right idea after all.