Cover image courtesy of The Maisha Project.
Written by Antonieta Hernández Urrutia, The University of Oklahoma
The Maisha Project is a non-profit organization based in Oklahoma City that aims to empower individuals and communities in rural Kenya by providing access to education, affordable health care, and economic support. The organization was founded by Beatrice Williamson, a Kenyan woman that was also sponsored as a child and who wanted to provide impoverished children like her opportunities and resources for a better future. According to their vision statement, the Maisha Project seeks to bring “light to the darkness”; similarly, this paper will attempt to shed light on the hidden shadows of child-sponsorship charities. Through a deep analysis of the organization’s methods and practices, and utilizing examples from comparable projects and studies, this paper will uncover the ways in which the Maisha Project can be problematic in its endeavors. Pulling from studies on nonprofit misconduct and fraud, this paper argues for the need for more financial transparency and accountability in the child-sponsorship sector. Furthermore, a discussion of the history of Western intervention in the African continent will provide further insight as to how the Maisha Project and others like it are the legacies of centuries of cultural insensitivity, manipulation, and Western supremacy.
The Maisha Project is a nonprofit organization that aims to support individuals in rural Kenya through a series of programs on healthcare, nutrition, and economic empowerment as well as a child-sponsorship program and short-term missions. This paper will thoroughly analyze the Maisha Project and its programs in order to determine the ways in which it can be problematic and/or harmful, while also recognizing the aspects that the organization is succeeding in. Taking past cases of fraud and misleading information as examples, I will also argue for the need for more financial transparency and accountability from Maisha. Finally, I also touch on the voluntarism debate and compare it to the Maisha Projects’ short-term missions.
History of The Maisha Project
Founded in 2007, the Maisha Project is a nonprofit organization based in Oklahoma City which aims to empower individuals and communities in rural Kenya by providing access to education, affordable health care and economic support . The organization was founded by Beatrice Williamson, a Kenyan woman who as a child was sponsored by a Swedish missionary . Through this sponsorship, Williamson received a quality education and eventually went abroad to study at Oklahoma State University in Oklahoma City.
After having finished her degree and lived in the United States for about six years, Williamson felt compelled to give back to her community as a way to pay forward the gift she had been given. She then began a small feeding program with her mother in the village she had grown up in aimed at feeding especially young, malnourished children. “That small feeding program became the Maisha Project,” says Williamson in a promotional video for the organization . With a mission “to transform lives and empower communities by providing lasting solutions to address poverty, hunger, disease, and under-education,” the Maisha Project leads three independent projects aimed specifically at education, health, and economic empowerment .
The education project consists of sponsoring children in rural Kenya so that they may attend a school and receive a quality education. This project is funded through a combination of sponsorships, donations, and grants which are used to meet Maisha’s children’s “physical, emotional, educational and spiritual needs” . The organization also founded and built the Maisha Academy, where most children sponsored through the program attend school. The health project aims to provide quality and affordable health care to a community that has otherwise no access to any medical attention . The project began with home-based community health workers and medical missions, but now have opened the Maisha Medical Clinic in order to tend for the growing Maisha community. Finally, the economic empowerment project is meant to equip Kenyans with the tools and skills they need to break the cycle of poverty by themselves by providing access to small business loans, agriculture and health education, and small business opportunities .
Maisha’s Lack of Credibility
With a touching background story and a colorful website, the Maisha Project seems to be achieving all the goals they have set out for themselves. “1,979,471 meals served, 946 children have received education, 1781 patients seen at the Maisha medical clinic” claims the About Maisha portion of the website but provides no further information about its impact or outreach . Buried at the bottom of the section appears a pie chart illustrating the distribution of the organization’s expenses. 82% dedicated to the programs, 14% to management and 4% for fundraising—however, when one clicks the Learn More tab, a blank page is returned . At first glance, this could be waived off as an honest mistake in the code or website design, but upon a deeper search through the website, more red flags appear.
For example, the Maisha website also claims that their organization is reviewed by two third-party organizations, the Better Business Bureau (BBB) and GuideStar . Nevertheless, when searching the Maisha Project in either of those organizations, one finds that none of them have performed their reviews yet. Furthermore, all information available about the project on the GuideStar website was said to be self-reported by Maisha members themselves. In the past, these red flags might have been ignored, but when put within the context of the many previous scandals of fraud and misconduct in the nonprofit and for-charity world, it becomes imperative for charities to becomes as transparent as possible to gain the trust of the public.
An article published in The New York Times titled “How to Choose a Charity Wisely” provides the public with a list of straight-forward ways to decide which charities to donate to. The purpose of the list is to allow individuals to make informed decisions about their donations so that “your charitable dollars are well spent on causes you care about” . One of the ways for individuals to determine whether a charity is trust-worthy or not is to use the reports published by third-party organizations. The resources provided included the third-party organizations mentioned above and adds the Charity Navigator, which focuses on financial health, accountability, and transparency . According to the navigator, the Maisha Project has a score of 65 out of 100 which constitutes a failing score according to their parameters. The article also suggests comparing the charity’s 990 tax form with its annual report and audited financial statements to ensure that there are no discrepancies or oversights between the documents. Though one can easily access the Maisha Project’s 990 form, their annual reports or financial statements are nowhere to be found on their website.
Fraud in Nonprofit Organizations
In the past, charitable organizations have been purposefully misleading about their work and impact, which has caused issues for donors and the communities they were trying to help. An example of this is the many problematic cases of Christian families adopting Liberian orphans through programs such as Acres of Hope and the West African Children Support Network (WACSN). In an article written by Kathryn Joyce, a writer and journalist based in New York City, she describes the phenomenon dubbed “orphan fever” in which Christian families in the West, particularly white Evangelicals, rushed to adopt African orphans . Though international adoptions in of themselves are not problematic, the issue with these adoptions was that none of the charities were accredited as adoption agencies in the US at the time .
Having just emerged from a recent civil war, the already-struggling Liberian government was overwhelmed by the sudden increase in international adoptions, making it impossible for them to keep track of the children being adopted . This was difficulted even further by the fact that the organizations were intentionally vague when talking to the parents about the terms of the adoption, making it seem more like a sponsorship or temporary education arrangement rather than a permanent placement . Even more worrisome, the government was unable to discern between licensed adoption agencies and those that only held a nonprofit status, thus putting the legality of the adoptions in question .
Another example of problematic child-sponsorship programs is the story of Lisa Anderson Ober. In May of 1995, Ober began sponsoring a girl from Mali called Korotoumou Kone through the Save the Children Federation . After sponsoring Korotoumou for two years, she decided to visit Mali without alerting SCF so that she could see the impact of her donation by herself. Sadly, instead of finding the success story SCF had claimed in its brochures, she was faced with painful truth: Korotoumou had died in August 1995, merely three months after her sponsorship had begun . Upon further investigation, Ober found that SCF officials had in fact been informed of Korotumou’s death and, therefore, had purposefully failed to relay the information to her . For two years, SCF banked her sponsorship checks and deceitfully continued to send progress reports of a child who had already passed away. To make matters worse, Ober turned out not to be the only person to sponsor a dead child in Mali.
As it happens, withholding information about a sponsored child’s death was not the only case of misconduct in the SCF. Though the brochures claimed that a child “begins benefiting from your support right away” the reality was that not even SCF health and education workers knew if the children were receiving any benefits at all; in fact, they did not even know which children were sponsored . Furthermore, Save the Children intentionally bent the truth behind their inoculation program, making it seem as though they were the pioneers and architects of the effort. The truth, however, is that UNICEF provided the vaccines and that the Malian government ran the program, while SCF only refrigerated the vaccines and provided gasoline for motorbikes .
Unfortunately, charities manipulating and withholding information from the public is a disappointing but very real trend. A common way in which charities mislead the public is by promising to use donated funds in certain earmarked activities or resources, and then not fulfilling this obligation . This lack of transparency in fund allocation then causes harm to the donors, charities, the public and the nonprofit sector as a whole . Organizations that use dishonest means to attract larger donations also end up drawing away resources from the truth-telling charities that are transparent about the use of their funds and impact . In this sense, lack of financial transparency lends itself to the abuse of funds, thus further misleading the public about their donor dollars and preventing aid from reaching its targeted impoverished communities.
Why Financial Transparency is Key
Attracting donors to make an initial donation is an easy feat for many nonprofits, however, to keep their interest and encourage them to continue to donate, the organization must first earn their complete trust. This has become increasingly difficult in the light of recent cases of fraud and misconduct that have tarnished the reputation of the nonprofit sector . Moreover, a study conducted by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) even showed an inverse correlation between charitable donations and news of nonprofit scandals . Because of this, donors are now forced to be especially careful about where they put their trust. As CAF’s head of research Susan Pinkney explains: “If people lack trust, that means they worry that their hard-earned money is not being well spent when donated to charities” . In this sense, nonprofit organizations must become more transparent and honest about their funds’ allocation in order to regain donor trust.
Though not exchanging services or products for money, donation solicitations work essentially the same as any other financial transaction . Nonprofit organizations advertise their impact and promote their values to seek larger donations while competing with other charities for donor contributions . Because of this, charities must employ different tactics to increase their competitivity; for example, recent studies have shown that financially transparent organizations receive up to 53% more contributions than those that withheld information from the public . Furthermore, transparent organizations performed better in governance, financial, and operational dimensions, thus being perceived as stronger by the public .
Maisha Missions or Voluntourism Disguised
According to their website, another way to support Maisha’s mission is by serving in their short-term missions, which can last from one week up to three months. There are six separate missions conducted by Maisha: the feeding project, the living positive homecare project, the medical missions, the empowerment project, the sustainable agriculture garden, and the Maisha Academy tutoring project . Each of these missions correlates to and helps attain the three main projects organized by the Maisha Project. Calling them Team Maisha, mission volunteers can work in any of the available projects and help the organization “achieve its goals and missions” . Anyone that wishes to serve can become part of Team Maisha simply by filling out the application and paying the mission fee—an estimated cost of $3500 to cover airfare, ground transportation, accommodations, and food . It is that very same fee which begins to raise questions about the credibility and impact of these short-term missions by making them more akin to voluntourism rather than genuine volunteering.
The difference between these two forms of service is mainly in who does the volunteering, the purpose behind it, and the impact it has on the communities served. On one hand, volunteering is often carried out by “seasoned professionals who are either pursuing a career break or seek to give back by using their skills to help communities” . These professionals include medical practitioners, educators, social workers, engineers, and other practitioners working in crisis zones . On the other hand, voluntourism is mostly targeted at high school or university students and gap year takers. The appeal of the volunteering experience lies in the opportunity of travel as well as the “personal growth…invaluable skills and new perspectives” acquired at the end of the trip . The question is then raised about who exactly benefits from the experience, whether the volunteer that seeks personal and professional growth, or the communities that are supposedly being served.
A concern within the voluntourism debate is about the extent to which these missions bring positive impact for the target communities. To this point, professor of anthropology Andrea Freidus, claims that the ability of voluntourists to elicit real change, alleviate poverty or support children is limited due to their lack of skills . Not only do they not have the skills, but they often cannot even speak the language of the people they are supposed to be serving. The reality is that voluntourism initiatives are fundraising ploys at best, and widely problematic at worse. Another commonly cited problematic is that of the emotional ties formed between the volunteers and the children they meet during their trip, as well as the subsequent breaking of these ties at the end of each mission. Because of this constant making and breaking of relationships with temporary volunteers, the children at tourist orphanages tend to develop anxious attachment styles which make it harder for them to develop a healthy relationship with adult caregivers .
Adding more insult to injury, the high demand for tourist orphanages and orphans has resulted in organizations pressuring parents to institutionalize their children by claiming their institutions to be a better place for them . Similar to the Acres of Hope and WACSN cases previously mentioned, the orphan industrial complex intentionally deceives parents about their programs and profits from the institutionalization of vulnerable children. Moreover, even in cases of orphans with living relatives, reunification hardly occurs. The harsh truth is that “the orphan rescue discourse is more powerful, and adoption proponents more moneyed” thus preventing children welfare systems from thriving .
While the Maisha Project may have good intentions behind its mission projects, it is also true that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. Whether their missions truly have a positive impact on the communities served or whether volunteers help Maisha achieve its goals, is unknown, but the context and problematic of voluntourism endeavors should be enough to at the very least question it.
What Maisha is Doing Right
Having discussed the possible problems in Maisha’s missions, projects and credibility, it is also important to recognize what the organization is doing right. For example, the fact that Maisha was founded and run by a Kenyan woman in her home village reduces concerns about cultural sensitivity. Where a foreigner might have failed to serve the community well, Beatrice Williamson knows firsthand what her village and her people needed, thus being more likely to accurately fulfill their needs. Furthermore, because she can relate to the children the charity tends to, as well as understands the intricacies of the village’s culture and social structures, donors can rest assured that the organization is at the very least culturally responsible.
Another example of good practices done by Maisha is the logical progress and growth of their different projects. As told by their founder, the organization initially started as a small feeding program for children because that is what the village needed. Then, following the growth of the organization and its funds, the feeding program grew into the health and education projects which then resulted in the building of the Maisha Medical Clinic and the Maisha Academic. Nearing the 15th anniversary of its conception, the Maisha Project has now begun the economic empowerment program, a long-term solution to the community’s financial struggles .
According to Jennifer Whitener, a Team Maisha partner, the education and health projects “have stemmed the ties of systemic poverty in the first ten years.” Now that the community’s basic needs have been met, they are ready to begin the economic empowerment program which will “launch [Maisha] into the next ten years” . The program operates under the idea that communities have the power within themselves to break the cycle of poverty, thus empowering individuals to support themselves and transform the economy of the region as a whole. In this sense, Maisha is building sustainable, long-term solutions to remedy generational and cyclical poverty by targeting the growing needs of a specific community.
Having conducted a throughout and objective analysis of the Maisha Project, it is safe to say that the organization has come a long way from its humble inception, but still has a longer way to go. While it is true that Maisha is among the more culturally sensitive and socially aware organizations out there, there are still many causes for concern and donors should think carefully before deciding to give their donations away.
If the Maisha Project wishes to become a respected and successful nonprofit, then it must begin by remedying its lack of financial transparency and seek approval from a recognized third-party reviewer. Furthermore, Maisha should make their financial reports and notarized financial statements readily available to the public on their website. This should raise the organization’s credibility and therefore lead to more charitable contributions and increase the charity’s perceived strength. Maisha should also seek to better their accountability by setting a list of milestones and goals for them to achieve and publishing annual reports outlining the progress made on those goals. This would also help with the organization’s credibility issues and will increase donor trust by showing them the real impact of their donations.
Finally, Maisha may have to rethink its short-term mission program. Though the website claims that the missions help them attain their goals, the literature reviewed shows that this is rarely the case. More often than not, missions are just disguised voluntourism trips which are known to cause issues with emotional attachments in children and even encourage the growth of the orphan industrial complex . Voluntourism also perpetuates the problematic idea of a poor Africa in need of saving by benevolent hand of the West, thus feeding the pervasive white savior complex. Furthermore, because volunteers often only address superficial problems, they tend not to address the real underlying causes of suffering. Even more so, they fail to understand the structural issues that lead to humanitarian crises or the systems that continue to create poverty and inequality .
This post may have been edited by admin for clarity and length.
Anderson, Lisa. “THE MIRACLE MERCHANTS.” Chicagotribune.com, 15 March. 1998, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-03-15-9803150063-story.html.
Brindle, David. “Fewer Britons Donate to Charities after Scandals Erode Trust.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/07/fewer-britons-donate-charities-after-scandals-erode-trust.
Cheer, Joseph. “The Characteristics and Impacts of Voluntourism.” Geodate, vol. 32, no. 2, May 2019, pp. 3–7. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=136854891&site=ehost-live.
Cheney, Kristen E., and Karen Smith Rotabi. “Addicted to Orphans: How the Global Orphan Industrial Complex Jeopardizes Local Child Protection Systems.” Conflict, Violence and Peace, 2014, pp. 1–19., doi:10.1007/978-981-4585-98-9_3-1.
Fiedman, David Adam. “Bringing Candor to Charitable Solicitations.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 78, no. 4, 4 June 2019, pp. 709–765. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=138261641&site=ehost-live.
Freidus, Andrea. “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care.” Children & Society, vol. 24, no. 4, 2010, pp. 293–303., doi:10.1111/j.1099-0860.2010.00313.x.
Freidus, Andrea. “Volunteer Tourism: What’s Wrong with It and How It Can Be Changed.” The Conversation, 8 Nov. 2017, theconversation.com/volunteer-tourism-whats-wrong-with-it-and-how-it-can-be-changed-86701.
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Harris, Erica E., and Daniel Neely. “Determinants and Consequences of Nonprofit Transparency.” Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance, vol. 36, no. 1, 2018, pp. 195–220., doi:10.1177/0148558×18814134.
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 “Maisha Project – Maisha Project: Maisha Means Life.” Maisha Project | Maisha Means Life, 18 Apr. 2018, www.maishaproject.org/.
 “THE MAISHA PROJECT INC.” THE MAISHA PROJECT INC – GuideStar Profile, www.guidestar.org/profile/46-4992172.
 Wasik, John F. “How to Choose a Charity Wisely.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 7 Nov. 2013, www.nytimes.com/2013/11/08/giving/how-to-choose-a-charity-wisely.html.
 Joyce, Kathryn. “Orphan Fever: The Evangelical Movement’s Adoption Obsession.” Mother Jones, 15 Apr. 2013, www.motherjones.com/politics/2013/04/christian-evangelical-adoption-liberia/.
 Anderson, Lisa. “THE MIRACLE MERCHANTS.” Chicagotribune.com, 15 March. 1998, www.chicagotribune.com/news/ct-xpm-1998-03-15-9803150063-story.html.
 Fiedman, David Adam. “Bringing Candor to Charitable Solicitations.” Maryland Law Review, vol. 78, no. 4, 4 June 2019, pp. 709–765. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=138261641&site=ehost-live.
 Brindle, David. “Fewer Britons Donate to Charities after Scandals Erode Trust.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 7 May 2019, www.theguardian.com/society/2019/may/07/fewer-britons-donate-charities-after-scandals-erode-trust.
 Harris, Erica E., and Daniel Neely. “Determinants and Consequences of Nonprofit Transparency.” Journal of Accounting, Auditing & Finance, vol. 36, no. 1, 2018, pp. 195–220., doi:10.1177/0148558×18814134.
 Cheer, Joseph. “The Characteristics and Impacts of Voluntourism.” Geodate, vol. 32, no. 2, May 2019, pp. 3–7. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com.ezproxy.lib.ou.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=136854891&site=ehost-live.
 Freidus, Andrea. “Volunteer Tourism: What’s Wrong with It and How It Can Be Changed.” The Conversation, 8 Nov. 2017, theconversation.com/volunteer-tourism-whats-wrong-with-it-and-how-it-can-be-changed-86701.
 Freidus, Andrea. “Raising Malawi’s Children: Unanticipated Outcomes Associated with Institutionalised Care.” Children & Society, vol. 24, no. 4, 2010, pp. 293–303., doi:10.1111/j.1099-0860.2010.00313.x.
 Cheney, Kristen E., and Karen Smith Rotabi. “Addicted to Orphans: How the Global Orphan Industrial Complex Jeopardizes Local Child Protection Systems.” Conflict, Violence and Peace, 2014, pp. 1–19., doi:10.1007/978-981-4585-98-9_3-1.
 “The Maisha Project Inc.” Rating by Charity Navigator, www.charitynavigator.org/ein/464992172.