A few years ago I sponsored three children from three different countries through Plan International, which is also called Plan USA, a charitable organization dedicated to helping children in Third World countries. Plan International, for a monthly donation, is supposedly involved in improving the lives of the children by offering services to the child and the child's community. Donations are used to help the child pay for school fees, creating better living conditions in their towns, like creating a well with potable water for the children and their families to utilize, etc. The sponsors can write to the children, send them gifts, and receive yearly reports on their progress. It all sounds very good, and since I had the money to spare, I sponsored one child in Southeast Asia, one in South Asia, and one in South America.
With the first child I sponsored, I also bought some clothes for her and her sisters and sent them to her through Plan International. Strangely, many months later, I had heard nothing back from Plan, or from the child, about receiving the clothes, so I called to find out what had happened.
It turned out that, although Plan had recorded in their files that they had received "a gift" from me to the child, no further information was available about the gift beyond that. Plan did not know whether or not the child had received the gifts; Plan had not recorded what the gifts were; and Plan had no idea whether the child had actually received the presents!
In fact, according to the woman I spoke with, Plan International did not even have paperwork regarding whether the gift ever left the Plan International headquarters in Rhode Island! And if the clothes had reached their destination in Asia, well, the country where the child lived was rife with corruption, or so the worker told me, and the presents could have been stolen there.
It sounded to me like Plan International ran on simply hideous business practices, since they did not bother to keep track of the gifts that the donors sent to their sponsored children after they arrived at the Plan office, but I let it go. I reasoned that the presents really could have been stolen once they reached the child's country.
A friend told me that her minister had once sponsored a girl for about ten years, though I don't know whether it was through Plan International or another charitable organization, and made a habit of sending the girl gifts. He later met her on a visit to her country, and found out that she had never, ever received any of them.
I also was sponsoring the other two children and after awhile was receiving yearly reports, and yearly photographs, of all three children.
One of the yearly update photos of another child, not the one I'd sent the gifts to, was very disturbing. The child had been dressed up and was wearing makeup. She was six years old, in makeup. She was also glaring at the camera with a look of pure hatred. I had to wonder just who exactly was acting as the Plan International photographer, or who was standing near the photographer as the picture was taken, and who the little girl was glaring at - and why. What would cause such hatred on a little six-year-old's face? I had to wonder what was going on. If a picture is worth a thousand words, that one certainly begged for an explanation.
The yearly reports on the children would not all arrive on a certain date; they came when they came. I received a report on one child that contained details about her - how she was doing in school, her favorite subject, what she did in her spare time, what the health status of her extended family was.
A few months later, an update came in the mail on another of the children I was sponsoring, and it sure looked familiar. I realized that it was, word-for-word, category by category, the same, exact, IDENTICAL report that I had already received on the first child!
To make matters even more interesting, the two children did not live in the same countries. Plan International representatives were supposed to be on-site in the various countries, writing the reports on the kids, but what I was receiving in the mail were two identical reports from two different Plan reps in two different countries. It seemed logical to conclude that the "reports" from the "Plan representatives" had been faked.
When I complained to Donor Relations over at Plan International, they began emailing me and asked if they could call me. I said no, don't call me, since I was at work, just email me. A few minutes after asking that they do not call me at work, the woman I had been corresponding with over email called me at work anyway, saying she knew I'd said don't call but she wanted to call me just the same. I thought that was probably as unprofessional as it could get, but it got worse.
That phone call with the Donor Relations woman was the most incredibly flat-out bizarre conversation I have ever had in my whole life, anywhere, with anybody. I reiterated to Ms. Donor Relations what I had already written via email: that I had received two identical "on-site reports" on two sponsored children living in two different countries and said that something really seemed to be wrong with this whole picture. The Donor Relations woman said, "Oh, that's the format. The format's a template. The reps work from a template of what to update about the children, and then they fill in the answers." I said then how come the answers are completely, word-for-word, identical on the two reports of the two kids in the two different countries? I asked, does the template provide the answers on the children's progress, too? The woman evaded my direct question with, "That's a template. The format is similar on both reports since our reps work from a template."
This went on seven or eight times. Why, I asked, also seven or eight times, are the answers about the two children in two different countries the same on both reports? Her reply? "The format is a template, see, let me explain to you what a template is. You don't seem to understand what a template is."
I said I work with forms all day long, and in my job I created templates, and the definition of a template is not what is in question here. The fact that the written reports on the two children were the exact same is what I am questioning.
Finally Ms. Donor Relations realized that I was not going to be put off by her misdirection about the template and finally she said the Plan International reps use the template forms and write the answers in, concerning each individual child. I said, for perhaps the ninth time, then why are the update answers on the two reports identical? And why was she giving me such endless double-talk instead of directly answering my direct question?
My boss was sitting there listening to all of this, and by that point he was splitting his sides laughing.
Well, the girl said, maybe there was some kind of a problem if the two reports were exactly alike. This I can believe, I said, since I'd found an article on the Internet by an investigative reporter that had accused Plan of some pretty strange tactics. The girl tried to convince me that the author of the article was "negative" and had some kind of a problem. Then, incredibly, once again Ms. Donor Relations began to backpedal - and began to define templates!
I brought up the child whose presents I'd sent had never arrived, and Ms. Donor Relations said, "Oh, we've sat her family down and told the family very firmly that you want more contact with them, so now the family will make more of an effort to communicate with you."
I said, "WHAT??! I have no issue with the letters I receive from the family. I have an issue with the fact that if a sponsor sends a child presents in care of the Plan International office, Plan can't figure out, and track, what happens to them after they arrive in Rhode Island. There was no need to sit the family down and tell them anything - my issue was never with them."
Well, said Ms. Donor Relations, we've told them to communicate with you better, and off she went on another tangent that was almost as good as the one concerning the definition of a template, saying the family now understands that I want to hear from them more, over and over. All I had wanted to do, I said, was find out if the kid got her presents - that was it - and I'd have had my answer about that if Plan International had bothered to keep track of the presents that come into their office, which has NOTHING WHATSOEVER to do with communications from the child's family. Since there was no way to track the presents beyond their coming through the door of Plan International, they could have wound up anywhere I said; they may never have left Rhode Island. And I am not the only sponsor who sends presents.
Ms. Donor Relations repeated that the child's family would be communicating with me better, since Plan had sat them down and asked them to!
At that point I said I wanted to withdraw my sponsorship of all three of the children, and it was due to the blatant fact that there was obviously something wrong, very wrong, seriously wrong, with the whole operation at Plan International.
After the tsunami happened in December 2005, I wrote to Plan International to inquire about one of the kids I had sponsored, who had lived in the area that was hit by the tsunami. To date, and this is October of 2007, I still have not received any reply whatsoever about her.
While I think it is a very decent thing to try to help and improve the lives of children in Third World countries, the donations of the sponsors need to be directed towards decent, well-run charitable organizations, not the Rhode Island debacle that is Plan International/Plan USA.
Brooklyn, New York