Category Archives: Approaches to Charity and Development

4 Biggest Myths About Coptic Orphans

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We love the kids we serve, and their families, so it’s important that everyone knows what we actually do.

People get a lot of ideas about Coptic Orphans, some of them reasonable, some of them nutty. Here are the four most common things I hear about Coptic Orphans that make me want to explain, or point to things in our annual report, or tear out my hair.

1. Coptic Orphans runs orphanages.

There’s a microscopic grain of truth to this myth, but you’d have to go back decades to find it. The grain is that I founded Coptic Orphans to support 45 girls in a Cairo orphanage. But that was back in the 1980s, and it didn’t take me long to discover that orphanages aren’t the best solution.

Today, what Coptic Orphans actually does is make sure that a child who’s lost a parent can stay with a family member. In Coptic Orphans, that usually means staying with their mother. That’s the situation we’ve managed to sustain for most of the nearly 10,000 kids we currently serve.

Lately, I’ve been relieved to read the latest research on what’s really beneficial to children. The studies confirm what I could feel in my gut. Everyone from Save the Children to Lumos now agrees that putting kids in institutions, except in extreme cases, is actually harmful. In fact, we’ve seen horrible examples that confirm the damage that institutionalization can do to a child, including a high-profile case in Egypt.

So there are no Coptic Orphans orphanages, for one simple reason: Keeping a child with his or her family is, as a rule, far more healthy than placing them in an institution.

2. Coptic Orphans only benefits Copts.

It’s true that all the children in our flagship program, Not Alone, are Copts. We’re constrained by a lot of factors in who we can enroll in Not Alone, not least by the need to be sure we’re never perceived as proselytizing. Egyptian law strictly forbids that, and believe me, we don’t want to tangle with that law.

Since each child in Not Alone is visited at home by a Church-based volunteer “Rep,” we clearly have a limited pool of children we can serve without risking misplaced accusations that get us in trouble. On that basis alone, we’ve never considered expanding Not Alone to non-Copts.

But there are important ways in which Not Alone benefits not only Copts, but also the wider Egyptian society. It’s hard to contain the positive effects of a program like Not Alone, because the kids we serve grow up to be more productive citizens. No society can function without well-educated, civic-minded adults, and it’s exactly those people that Not Alone aims to nurture and support.

Just as importantly, we also directly serve both Christian and Muslim girls and young women ages 7-22 through our Valuable Girl Project. While the project serves many Not Alone kids, it functions independently and is funded by a different pool of donors. It’s been running for over 12 years, focusing on academic retention, education, and literacy, and it peaked at 15 sites around Egypt. Through it, young women in secondary school, the “Big Sisters,” mentor girls in primary school, the “Little Sisters.” Local coordinators based in partner organizations oversee these mentorship programs.

The project offers a bridge to understanding between Christian and Muslim community members whose paths might otherwise never cross. In this way, we do more than simply stand with disadvantaged girls as they work to break the cycle of poverty. We also increase the overall level of Christian-Muslim understanding and mutual respect in Egyptian society.

So it’s a myth that our work benefits only Copts. In both direct and indirect ways, we serve the wider Egyptian community — and we’re proud of it.

3. Coptic Orphans is a charity.

It’s easy to mistake Coptic Orphans for a charity. After all, like a charity, people give money for a good cause and expect results. What makes Coptic Orphans different, however, is the results we expect and deliver. These results come from taking a “transformational,” rather than a “charity,” approach.

The “charity” approach relates to people as victims who depend on handouts. The “transformational” approach is proactive and defines people as equal partners in transforming their lives and developing their communities. We who are blessed to walk with them on this journey are also transformed, as part of One Body in Christ. When we talk about Coptic Orphans as a “development” organization, it’s largely in terms of this transformation.

What makes our approach “transformational” is acknowledging that God is at the center. All true change comes from the Holy Spirit, and flows from and points to the Kingdom of God.

I’ve seen the transformational approach make huge changes in people’s lives. One example is our B’edaya initiative, which provides the widowed mothers of our Not Alone children with loans and skills to start businesses.

In B’edaya, income generation for the widow’s family is important, but it’s just the beginning. The big picture — and what’s transformational — is each widow’s change from passivity and hopelessness to feeling fulfilled, valuable to herself and others, and in control of her own destiny. This contrasts with the charity approach, which would involve simply giving the widows money or material goods.

So with Coptic Orphans, there are no hand-outs. We work so that people’s lives are transformed, by God’s grace, and they can stand on their own two feet.

4. Coptic Orphans has insane overhead costs.

This is both a good laugh and my least favorite myth.

Here’s a related story: Once, I heard that a particular individual was telling people that Coptic Orphans spends some ridiculous sum on things that don’t directly benefit the kids, like administrative costs, fundraising, and so on. I got so ticked off, I went to his house and knocked on his door to tell him what I’m about to tell you (but here, I’m going to sound a great deal calmer).

The truth is, in 2014, the last year for which we were audited (and we’re independently audited every year) 90% of what we spent went directly to program expenses for the children. Only 7% went for fundraising, and only 3% for management and general expenses.

For the nonprofit field, this is excellent. Research on nonprofit overhead finds that 20% is considered the norm. And as for ordinary people’s perceptions of what’s normal — “the average American believes that a charity should spend no more than 23 percent on overhead.”

In other words, Coptic Orphans spends far, far less on overhead than what is considered normal by the experts, or by the average person. That’s a key reason why Charity Navigator, North America’s largest independent evaluator of nonprofit financial effectiveness and accountability, has given us their highest 4-star rating for two years in a row.

I’m proud of that. We accomplish this low overhead by all kinds of cost-saving measures. The main one is that there are no luxuries associated with working at Coptic Orphans. People who work here believe passionately in spending everything on the kids, so they go through all kinds of contortions to save money. So, for example, when we travel to make a presentation at a church or partner organization, if there’s any way possible, we stay at the home of a supporter rather than at a hotel. Over time, these savings add up to a large sum of money that goes for the kids.

So that’s the myth about our overhead. The bottom line is, don’t apply for a job here expecting to ride around in a limo, fly around in the company blimp, or stay at the Cairo Sheraton. The biggest perk anyone gets from working at Coptic Orphans is an occasional bowl of my shorbet el ads.

Those are the four biggest myths about what Coptic Orphans does. Thanks for reading.

Great News from Egypt This Mother’s Day

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Love, healthcare, better education… these are things we all pray for for our families on Mother’s Day.

Good news about Egypt is precious these days, so I wanted to share a few wonderful developments that give me a feeling of hope.  

I came across the following news this morning in Save the Children’s new State of the World’s Mothers report, and I thought,  “What a perfect Mother’s Day gift for someone who loves Egypt as much as I do!”

To make a long story short, Egypt still has a long way to go to improve healthcare. But if you’re a mother or child in an urban area, there is extremely good news. The report reveals (emphasis added):

Egypt has made good child survival gains among its most affluent urban residents (47 percent reduction in under-5 mortality between 1995 and 2008) but even better gains for the poorest (66 percent reduction over the same time period). As a result, the poorest urban children in Egypt have gone from being 3.7 times as likely to die before their fifth birthday (in 1995) as the urban best-off to 2.4 times as likely to die (in 2008).

The report (the section on Egypt is a good read — I recommend it) also describes successes in immunizations, family planning, and clean water.

What’s most interesting about this news is that it points to Egypt’s potential to solve problems. For some people, it’s fashionable to talk about Egypt as hopeless. Well, this kind of progress shows that it’s not.

So how did this progress come about? The report asks that question:

How did Cairo achieve success? The city’s remarkable progress is the result of national health system reforms, specialized programs and the persistent efforts of civil society organizations.

I want to bite on that last bit again. Not only does Egypt’s health ministry deserve some long-overdue respect, but some of the thanks for this progress are also due to non-governmental organizations. Partnership!

As you know, here at Coptic Orphans, we see everything through the lens of using education to break the cycle of poverty. So this report has big implications.

We all know the bad news about Egypt’s schools — overcrowded, underfunded, in decay. But we have to stop thinking of education in Egypt as being in unstoppable decline, and start thinking big.

Solutions are out there. If they’re anything like the ones for healthcare, it will take smart and strategic partnerships between Egypt’s government and civil society. Not to speak of the force behind all transformations — God — and our willingness to let Him guide our work.

This is something Coptic Orphans has given a lot of thought to. With your support, we’ve accumulated decades of experience in supporting kids, both in and out of the classroom. Where lessons can be learned from our experience, we’re ready to step up. The gains that we make will be for the kids, and the benefits will  reach the mothers.

On future Mother’s Days, if we want good news like this for moms and children, we’re going to have to make it happen. It will take partnership, support, and good will from everyone in Egypt and the diaspora who wants to see progress. If it could be done for healthcare, let’s do it for education! 

The Faith We Have in Common With Those About to Die

A ship overloaded with migrants drifts in the Mediterranean. Photograph: Italian Navy/AP
A ship overloaded with migrants drifts in the Mediterranean. Photo: Italian Navy/AP

Flying over the Mediterranean this week, it was hard to forget the sight of the 21 martyrs’ blood mixing with the sea as they gave up their souls to Christ.

During this Feast of the Resurrection, I was struck by another sea image. It was one of a boat, which I saw with this headline: “Record number of migrants expected to drown in Mediterranean this year.”

Nearly 500 people have drowned already, I learned, trying to reach a dream of work and safety in Europe. Thousands more will die as 2015 goes by.

Later, I came across another article — this one by a researcher who says Copts and other Christians are among the unlucky people who attempt this dangerous journey.

Reading both articles, I was struck by how the sea, already red with our blood, could turn redder. And I understood what I have in common, besides our faith, with those about to die:

My family, too, journeyed across the sea.

The journeys weren’t the same. Not at all. By God’s grace, my family didn’t travel in an overcrowded boat that capsized. We didn’t struggle with choking waves that finally closed over our mouths.

We flew. We passed over the water. Perhaps your family’s story is the same.

So when I read that a record number of precious human lives will disappear into the sea this year, and contemplate the fact that Copts may be among them, I’m haunted by this question:

Did we do everything we could to save them?

It’s not an unfamiliar question to me. In response to a deep, aching need to be able to answer such questions “yes,” I founded Coptic Orphans over 25 years ago.

And I wrote, not long ago, that desperation is driving millions of Egyptians abroad to earn a living for their loved ones. This new Exodus is born of a lack of bread to fill a hungry child’s stomach.

It’s a crime that these Egyptian men end up dead, because they aren’t lucky enough or wealthy enough to secure a visa to work abroad, and because they love their families enough to risk their lives.

I wish I had been more aware of the people who are about to drown. And I wish we could use more of God’s gifts to save them.

By that, I mean that there’s more we could do — we who live in the diaspora, surrounded by abundance and success, enjoying lives we owe to Him who spared us from the waves.

What more could we do? To begin with, we can mobilize our diaspora’s wealth. What could our collective millions do if invested wisely in Egypt’s development? We could be fueling for-profit enterprises that create jobs and non-profit projects to improve education. In the long term, our engagement would enable many fathers and sons to choose life at home, rather than death abroad.

We could also recognize that we ourselves benefit from taking part in Egypt’s development. We could be taking service trips to Egypt — trips that not only help transform communities, but also reconnect us and our children with our Church and our rich heritage.

Yet, all across Egypt, more work remains. The same people who will drown this year are the same people who await our extended hand. Will we reach out to capable, hard-working Egyptians before they’re drowning?

Or will we continue as things are now: Our brothers and sisters in Christ sinking in the water, as we watch from the safety of the shore?

“If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” — I Corinthians 12: 26,27