With School Children Raising Money for Nonprofits, What Is the Line Between Engagement and Exploitation?

Please, do not lose faith in nonprofits or the ability of American youth to change their communities and the world. Instead, elevate your expectations and demand more from nonprofit leaders.
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The allegations made in the 60 Minutes piece about the veracity of Three Cups of Tea left many of us with a feeling of betrayal and a sense of doubt. The CBS story raised important questions about transparency, integrity and even the feasibility of actually building schools in impoverished countries. The accusations regarding Pennies for Peace and how donations from children may not have been put to good use are most troubling. With thousands of school children across the country raising money for non-profits, the situation raises larger questions about the line between involvement and exploitation.

Having founded (and still leading) an organization that mobilizes urban youth in the U.S. to contribute intensive local community service while building schools in developing countries, I feel compelled to weigh in. Through BuildOn, American youth, from some of the toughest high schools in the U.S., are transforming their own communities through service and are changing the world by building schools. A bold statement, but it can backed up with verifiable metrics and outside evaluations. Allow me to explain, using BuildOn's after-school programs as an example.

Over the last 20 years, BuildOn youth have contributed more than 750,000 hours of service to lift up elders, homeless people and younger children in their own neighborhoods. These students have also united with communities in some of the poorest countries on the planet to build schools -- both by raising funds and, most importantly, by physically helping to construct them. Together, we have built 395 schools that help educate more than 60,000 children, parents and grandparents everyday.

Having said all that, it is important NOT to define success only by the number of schools built. It is even more important not to define success by the amount of dollars American youth raise. Instead, BuildOn's goal is to empower urban youth in America and people in the poorest developing countries, to break the cycle of poverty, illiteracy and low expectations through service and education. Is this truly achievable? Absolutely. Not only is it achievable, it is simple and replicable. Let me elaborate on the premise for the BuildOn model and how it works.

In many of our toughest inner-cities and in countries suffering from extreme poverty, people have lost a sense of control over their own destiny. Restoring that sense of control is essential and achieved first by education and then by taking action to make change. Through BuildOn after-school programs and curriculum, American youth map out their communities to identify the deficits and issues that they wish to address.They become educated about their cities and then take action through intensive community service and civic engagement.

Learning about issues in developing countries is just as important. Through BuildOn curriculum, American youth also learn about extreme poverty and its direct correlation with illiteracy.They conclude that education is the first step out of extreme poverty and then take action by sponsoring and building schools. Yes, youth from the South Bronx physically build schools in West Africa.

We strongly believe that it is critical for youth to have a real stake in changing the world. So every penny American youth raise is restricted to the construction of a school in Haiti, Mali, Malawi, Senegal, Nepal or Nicaragua. BuildOn then sponsors a two week journey so that at least two students from every after-school program travel to one of the countries where we build. They live with host families (usually in mud huts) and work side-by-side with the parents to dig the foundation, mix concrete and actually lay the bricks. The American students then return from the project to report on the construction progress and inspire more youth to join the program.

So it is fairly simple. In order for youth to be truly empowered and not exploited they must fully understand the project and they must own it. BuildOn achieves this through education about local and global issues. Students then take the lead and dedicate themselves to achieving real change through community service and by building schools in developing countries. The combined experience helps youth regain that sense of control over their own destiny and elevate expectations they have for themselves. It is truly transformational, but don't take my word for it. Outside evaluations from Brandeis University confirm this.

One of the important lessons from the 60 Minutes piece is that you should NOT place your trust only in the word of a nonprofit CEO. Visit the projects and verify the results for yourself. If that's not possible, look at the metrics, study outside evaluations of the impact, study the results and scrutinize the financial statements. If that's not possible, you should not contribute to that organization.

Please, do not lose faith in nonprofits or the ability of American youth to change their communities and the world. Instead, elevate your expectations and demand more from not-for-profit leaders. If you don't, the children and communities who are in greatest need of education will pay the price.

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