My wife and I spent a night last week learning about Smile Train, a non-profit that provides free cleft surgery to poor children throughout the world. We’ve made donations to them in the past (including this one), but we never really knew much about them. All we knew was that a $250 donation could pay for an operation that would transform a child from this:
and that seemed like an awfully good way to spend $250. (You can read about this little girl Shiva’s story here.) I had never thought at all about how Smile Train managed to make this happen.
A night with Smile Train convinced me that this is one of the most amazing organizations around.
Consider these two facts:
1) They have a total of 24 employees worldwide.
2) They are responsible for over 190,000 cleft repair surgeries since the year 2000.
How in the world can so few people accomplish so much good? By approaching their problem in a way that is very different than others have thought about it before.
The typical model for cleft repair in developing countries has been to convince U.S. doctors and nurses to volunteer a week’s time, fly to a country, and do 80 surgeries. This turns out to be an expensive way to get the job done, and it also isn’t easy to find doctors to volunteer. Smile Train instead partners with and trains local doctors to do the surgeries, which turns out to be far more efficient.
Smile Train isn’t just smart about how it delivers the surgeries, it is smart about how it attracts donors. It covers all of its non-surgery costs through contributions of its board members. So every dollar that a donor provides goes directly to surgeries. As a donor, this feels really good. I like to think about my money going for surgeries, not office parties. Being able to link a $1,000 donation to four lives changed is a powerful motivator. (One thing they don’t do, but maybe they should do, is literally link each $250 donation to a particular child and send before and after pictures.)
They also have created amazing software to teach doctors how to do the surgeries, you’ve got to take a look at it to believe it.
There was one thing that impressed me more than anything about Smile Train. I sat at a table with one of the people from Smile Train, DeLois Greenwood. A nurse by training, she has been involved with cleft surgeries for 25 years. One could easily imagine that, by now, she would have become jaded or hardened. But when they showed a video about the life’s work of one of their partners, Dr. Hirij Andewalla, tears were streaming down her face. That more than anything convinced me that was a charity worth supporting.