Central Valley: Is goodwill enough?

Oct 28th, 2010 | By | Category: Featured Stories

Richard Shermer is a 60 year-old consultant from Fresno, California who spent most of his life in the Bay Area and Central Valley. Besides being a father of four and a soccer fan, Shermer splits his time between his work in real estate development  and his long lasting passion, photography.

It was that passion that took him to Cuba in 2003, and to Africa a few years after that. During a photographic safari in Tanzania in 2005, he met a group of media professionals and photographers involved in charity projects. It was then that Shermer decided to give up photographing wildlife in Africa’s savannahs. He followed the group to the slums of Kampala, Uganda, where he photographed meager living conditions.  The country was in its final days of a 22-year civil war that displaced more than 1.6 million people and killed tens of thousands of civilians.

After visiting the slums in Kampala, he went to the Gulu district in Northern Uganda, one of the most affected regions during the war. There he met a young Acholi woman who took him to see the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps. For a middle class man from California, the IDP camps were a shocking and disturbing experience.

“Most children in the IDP camps were orphans”,  Shermer said. “I saw young boys making bricks and the red earth on their skins looked like blood to me. I was so startled that I had to do something”. The boys told him that they were working to get money for paying school fees.

Now, five years later, Shermer is the CEO of an American non-governmental organization Today’s Children, Africa’s Future (TCAF) that operates in Northern Uganda. As with most NGOs around the world, TCAF has a cause that seems noble: education. His NGO focuses on child sponsorship through a $40 monthly donation that pays for school fees, uniforms, books and supplies.

“I feel good about helping children and it seemed like the natural thing to do when I saw what was going on in Northern Uganda,” Shermer said. In April, TCAF extended its activities to a new project involving water pumps in rural areas. The idea is to sell pumps to small farmers. Each piece of equipment may be sold for approximately $350 and and Shermer said that part of the revenue will be invested in the children’s education project.

However, the reality is much less edifying. Officially, TCAF was founded almost two years ago, when the charity organization got its 501(c) (3) status. This certification exempts 28 types of nonprofit organizations from certain federal incomes taxes. It also implies that all donations are fully tax deductible, meaning that the money that originally comes from donors’ pockets will be paid, ultimately, by Washington.

“I hate to say this but giving money reduces the amount of money that goes to the federal government,” Shermer said.

Even with the deduction incentive, it has not been easy for TCAF to gather donors. Actually, the NGO based in Fresno has about 24 volunteers (20 of them students) and even fewer donors (currently 13). Shermer has personally sponsored 10 children and one of his granddaughters, Adrianna, pays the school fees for one Ugandan girl. The economic downturn has been pointed to as the reason for the shortage of donors. According to the Giving USA 2010, the annual report published by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, the total giving for 2009 is estimated to be $ 303.7 billion – a decline of 3.6 percent compared with 2008.

There is also extreme competition for charity money. In the United States, more than 1.2 million organizations are registered under section 501(c)(3). On the IRS website there are 95 nonprofit  associations in the United States  related to Ugandan issues alone. They are all exempt from federal income taxes – including Today’s Children, Africa’s Future. In one way or another, they are fighting for the same donors: Americans that want to help Ugandan people. Not to mention that there is an intense charity activity around the African continent – with results much lower than expected. The last United Nations’ report listed 3,776 NGOs in 2004, operating in Africa, that’s twice the number of NGOs since 1999.

“I have no experience running an NGO, but I know a lot about business. After my first visit to Africa, I felt I could use my skills and abilities to make important changes in the world,” Shermer said. He believes that his NGO will sponsor 100 kids in the next year. And now his goal is to make TCAF more appealing to donors. The website is being redesigned by a group of seven students from Santa Clara University. A more interesting website could attract potential donors and trigger generosity by what economists call “warm glow” or the sense of self-satisfaction that can stimulate people to give money to strangers.

“Showing pictures of kids and their personal stories is an effective way of inducing people to give more money,” said Clair Null, Ph.D in economics at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor at Emory University. She attempts to analyze the competing influences of rational investment and good feeling in the paper: Warm glow, information, and inefficient charitable giving.

“Donors don’t make their gifts only based on social benefits. There is something else that matters to them and I interpreted it as the warm glow,” Null said.

Shermer’s efforts in getting more donors and financial independence for his NGO has left him no time to go to Africa in the past 14 months. Ideally he would like be able to visit the TCAF activities in Uganda every three months. For now, Shermer counts on his local friends to help watch over the project.

One thing might be true: his work may make difference in the lives of those 24 children that have been supported by TCAF.  But the larger truth is that tens of thousands of children will still go without an education in Northern Uganda this year — despite his efforts.

Maybe, goodwill and hard work aren’t enough.

story by Fabiane Stefano

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