Are There More Effective Ways of Giving Back?

Find out how one organization in the D.R.C. has worked towards implementing the best practices for lasting change in war torn communities below!

Written by Cassandra and Edison Lee, Founders of Justice Rising

If you have spent any time watching the news, it’s plain to see that we live in a world facing endless challenges. For many of us, the constant onslaught of breaking news leaves us feeling paralyzed, not knowing how to respond. Oftentimes, when we are ready to act, it’s easy to respond by giving to well-known organizations and conventional programs, such as child sponsorships. And why not? As people, it’s in our nature to relate to stories and connect to individuals on a personal level. Furthermore, we can rest easy knowing that our donation is going to impact a specific child. But are child sponsorships always the answer, and are there more effective ways of giving back?

There are many great organizations that approach child sponsorship programs with great care and thoughtfulness. When following best practices, child sponsorships can be of great benefit to both children and families. It can provide children from low-income communities with long-term financial support, giving children basic necessities such as clean water, education, and health services.

At Justice Rising, however, we looked at the pros and cons of child sponsorship and evaluated whether it was the most appropriate way for us to respond within the communities we work. Our goal isn’t simply to get kids in school. Instead, we are looking to empower individuals to become agents for change within their own war-torn communities.

We feel that individualized giving models can sometimes perpetuate a paternalistic attitude (or “white savior” mentality) in the donor-beneficiary relationship. Parents may even feel they’ve been forced to abdicate their role as legal guardian, leading some to ask why they cannot use the sponsorship money to care for their children themselves.

In areas of conflict, the root causes of war and poverty are often complex and difficult to diagnose, making it harder to determine what the “right” solution is. Over the past 20 years of conflict, the Congo has suffered the loss of over 5.4 million lives, leaving millions more without homes. Additionally, there are over 3 million out-of-school children in the Congo today, where 1 in 5 have never even stepped foot inside of a classroom! In this environment, it might make sense to sponsor individual children and families, who through no fault of their own, have endured unimaginable suffering. In fact, it would likely be easier if we ran a conventional sponsorship program: (1) meet a child; (2) get their story; (3) connect Western donors to said child; and (4) rinse and repeat. In practice, however, things can be bit more complex in the Congo.

Over the years, foreign aid money has poured into the country with little to no effect. The constant influx of cash has created a culture of dependency, discouraging some from taking responsibility for their own lives. However, in our experience, we’ve found Congolese people to be some of the most resilient, resourceful, and industrious people on earth. Why not coax and leverage existing potential instead of snuffing out latent talent and ability through handouts?


We have come to realize that the last thing the Congolese people need is another handout. For us, free education isn’t the answer. If we want to create value for the education we provide, parents need to feel empowered in their ability to provide for their children’s education. When we ask families for basic tuition, it allows parents to invest in their child’s education – to get some skin in the game. Taking parents out of the equation, by simply sponsoring their child’s education, is not the right approach. Parents need to be financially involved in their student’s education to ensure that the child is getting the most out of his or her schooling.

When we begin working in a new community, our first task is to listen. We invite parents, children and other education stakeholders to participate in a town hall to voice their thoughts and opinions, share about their experiences with education, and why they value it. If we don’t have community buy-in, it’s a non-starter. Only after we obtain community buy-in can we move forward in partnering with community members to build a school, hire teachers, and open education opportunities for their children.

What we’ve learned from this approach is that families are willing to take ownership for their children’s education if they see value for it. If the value is there, parents will find a way to pay for their student’s tuition. When parents are unable to pay the tuition, we are then able to provide scholarships and financial aid to support those particular students and families. In this way, families take responsibilities for their children and share in the work of effecting long-term change in their community.

If our goal is to raise up a generation of community leaders, the path getting there should focus on opening up opportunities for individuals and families, and walking with them along the journey (even when there are many obstacles). Even while the Congo has endured decades of war, the people remain some of the most hopeful people we’ve had the privilege of working with – they never cease to believe for a brighter future in their nation. What we’ve seen the Congolese people need are opportunities, not handouts.

So instead of offering photos and letters of individual students, we’re asking donors to join our greater mission to see education transform entire communities by becoming a monthly donor through our ROOTS program. Through this initiative, we’re able subsidize our school programs and provide quality and affordable education for even some of the poorest families in war-affected communities. Whether $10, $50 or $100 a month, ROOTS partners can sign up to give monthly and invest in the lives of future community leaders. When you become a ROOTS partner, you will get behind the scenes news about our programs and even get a front row seat to the stories of transformation that we’re seeing through the education you’re helping to provide.

Join us today as we continue to transform war zones through education.

-Cassandra + Edison Lee, co-founders of Justice Rising

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