So many nonprofits seem to be after your money these days. Even if you are eager to give it away, you want to be convinced that a given group is the most deserving.
But how can you tell when a charitable group is effective, making the best use of your donation without wasting it on big salaries and lavish fund-raisers? Should you choose a giant outfit like the Red Cross or Oxfam, with lots of experience and infrastructure in needy places, or a small outfit that can ensure every cent goes directly to goods and services?
Consider Fred Eckhard, a longtime United Nations staffer who started a charity in 2010 to help girls in the poor West African country of Burkina Faso get an education. Eckhard had held different posts at the UN over 20 years, the last eight and a half as Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s spokesperson. After retiring in 2005, Eckhard, an American, expected to settle down in northwestern France with his wife, a former UN veteran, Kathryn Gordon.
But he soon worried he might be getting too comfortable. He admired the work of an association run by the woman who had sold them their house, in a tiny town in Brittany, Saint Quay-Portrieux. Her group helps several-dozen girls in Burkina Faso get a secondary-school education; Eckhard thought he could assist the girls to move on to university. So he formed his own nonprofit and started small, helping two girls in 2010.
While it now has fund-raising arms in France, the United States and Switzerland, his initiative is still modest, assisting 31 girls this year. In all, it has helped 63 girls gain a higher education and start down the path toward a job.
Now, at age 75, Eckhard is striving to ensure that his charity will continue operating once he becomes unable to keep up with the work.
To an outsider, his success appears rooted in his personal commitment and direct approach, which includes traveling to Burkina Faso several weeks a year to visit each girl and each school in the program and to interview candidates for the next year. He has made nine such trips, each documented with photographs that he enthusiastically shares with donors via email.
Eckhard runs all the fund-raising activities and covers the cost of his travel and other personal expenses himself, so that his work has minimal overhead. But Eckhard plays down his efforts and insists the biggest help has been mainly just luck.
“It all has to do with networking and chance,” Eckhard said in a recent interview. “I had never run a nonprofit, I was just flying by the seat of my pants. But I happen to have bought a retirement home from a woman who had lived many years in Africa, who met this Burkinabé priest, made friends with him, visited his home in Koudougou and said, ‘Wow, people here are really poor, let’s do something about it.’ And she started her association. And I watched her and how she did it, and I modeled what I did on what she did.”
“At Christmastime, she would sell chocolates in the market in the freezing cold, a very old woman, standing behind this little folding table, selling chocolates to raise money for the girls,” he said. “She traveled to Burkina Faso every January to ensure the money was well spent and the girls were succeeding in their studies. And she just got such an enormous benefit from this. And the benefit is going down there and hearing, ‘Thank you.’ So that is the gold at the end of the rainbow.”
The woman, Gilberte Saint Cast, was helping provide a secondary-school education to disadvantaged Burkinabé girls when Eckhard began following her work.
“I went with her in 2009 and I watched her meet the girls and visit the schools,” Eckhard said. “Madame used to send 7,000 euros a year [about $9,800 then] to Burkina Faso, and with that money she supported about 45 girls at a time in secondary school.”
Eckhard thought of enabling the girls continue their studies at a university or a professional school once they finished secondary school. “But a university education was more money. So I went down again with her in 2010 and I started to raise money.”
He began by knocking on embassy doors in the Burkinabé capital, Ouagadougou. Then he hit up Kofi Annan and began making the rounds of friends and former work colleagues, eventually raising 25,000 euros.
The three associations he has set up to raise money for the project — the Burkina Women’s Education Fund in France, Chance for Change in the US and BWEF-Geneva in Switzerland — allow donors to deduct their gifts from their taxable incomes. This has helped Eckhard attract a circle of about 200 supporters (including myself), who typically give $100 to $1,000 a year.
“Basically, I know every donor. And so I feel I am taking money from a friend and I’ve got to put it to good use,” he said.
But it seems the work is never done. While some help comes from friends and volunteers, he finds that there is always a new way to improve things.
A Burkinabé management expert and an assistant have been hired to help keep track of the money and write the checks. A health program has been set up to vaccinate each girl against typhoid, yellow fever and meningitis as well as provide the girls with crucial medical services and supplies. After reading an article about the group’s work, a computer technician in France donated enough secondhand computers to provide one to each girl, so Eckhard is organizing a program to teach the students the skills they need to use them. Last year, he initiated a three-part seminar on sexual health and family planning. An annual seminar on career planning and the job market is in the works.
Fund-raising has also kept Eckhard quite busy. As his project grew, he began worrying he might die or become incapacitated before the girls in the program had completed their studies. His annual budget had climbed to 30,000 euros, but his treasurer suggested he raise an additional 10,000 euros a year as a reserve for the future.
He also began searching for eventual replacements, casting about in New York, France and Geneva.
“I have to prepare for that moment. It’s unfair of me to start sending girls to university who are in their first or second years, if I don’t have the money in the bank to pay them until the end,” Eckhard said. “So that is what I am doing. I am also looking to shift down at least a generation in leadership.
“I think I have to keep going to Burkina Faso every year for now, but I want to start bringing someone with me. And I have someone in mind for that as well. It all comes back to the network.”
To keep things running smoothly, Eckhard’s visits to every girl and every school ensures that the girls are succeeding in their studies, have access to basic necessities and a bicycle, if needed.
“It’s very personal,” Eckhard said. “When I go in January, I visit each of the girls, I visit their homes and I say: ‘O.K., so this is the living room. Do you cook in this room too? What do you sleep on?’ And they bring in a little grass mat that they put on the concrete floor. And I ask, ‘Are both of your parents alive?’ And invariably, one of them is dead. ‘And what is your income?’ And they don’t have any income. That’s the profile of most of the girls we have.”
“And then I start doing reports to the donors, based on my photographic journey through Burkina Faso. And each year, it gets harder because there are more of them.”
Other future risks exist that are difficult to gauge. Terrorism has been rising in Burkina Faso, punctuated by an attack in March on army headquarters and the French embassy in Ouagadougou; 60 people were wounded and eight soldiers killed. Eckhard says the US State Department now warns against travel to some parts of the country. Since January 2016, more than 200 militant attacks have killed at least 263 people in Burkina Faso.
Yet Eckhard keeps a positive outlook.
“The striking thing for me is that poor people are the most optimistic in the world. There was an international survey on optimism, and Burkina Faso was near the top. France was near the bottom. So the more you have, the more problems you see around you. The less you have, the more you think tomorrow has to be better than today.”
“I feel like I have an enormous extended family down there,” he said. “And through the fund-raising, I stay in touch with all my former colleagues. And when I pursue activities in France, I get to know all the people in my community. So there are huge benefits for me personally in doing it this way. It’s all kind of small scale and personal, and I’m just lucky. It’s worked.”