From the confines of his easy chair, Warren Schmidt leans forward, television remote in hand, peering at a commercial on the screen. Photos of solemn, ragged children flicker by as a narrator asks for assistance. For $22 a month, Schmidt learns, he can "sponsor" a child in a poor country through a group called Childreach.
"Help the child's family and the community," the narrator intones.
Schmidt scribbles down the phone number flashing across the screen. 1-888-HOPE.
Anyone who has seen the new Jack Nicholson movie "About Schmidt" will recognize this scene from early in the film about a retired insurance actuary struggling to find meaning in his narrow life. Schmidt signs up to sponsor a 6-year-old boy named Ndugu, who lives in Tanzania, and winds up pouring out his heartache in rambling missives to his "foster son."
Warren Schmidt may be fiction, but Ndugu isn't (though that isn't his real name), and neither is Childreach. The Rhode Island-based charity is one of the world's largest nonsectarian children's aid organizations, and Ndugu is a 6-year-old named Abdallah Mtulu, who does live in an impoverished Tanzanian village.
Childreach has hitched its wagon to a Hollywood star vehicle in no uncertain terms. Its Web site features photos of Nicholson and "Ndugu," and its staff is watching "About Schmidt" box office numbers as carefully as the movie's producers are. Interest in sponsoring a Childreach child has shot up since the movie opened. Before "Schmidt," the organization had two or three sign-ups per weekend. Last weekend, it had 80, said Childreach chief executive Sam Worthington.
"People [are] going to the movie, having the experience of a great comedic piece and then, at the same time, asking themselves 'Should I do something?' " Worthington said. "We seem to be benefiting somewhat from that, which we greatly appreciate."
The 66-year-old organization has 100,000 sponsors in the United States and 1 million worldwide. It receives about $20 million annually for work in 43 developing countries.
The priceless publicity boost from the movie landed in the charity's lap two years ago when one of the producers called to ask whether the charity could be used in the film. After reading the script, Childreach officials agreed. The television ad shown in the movie (featuring the voice of Angela Lansbury), the toll-free number and the packet of Childreach literature that comes in the mail are all real.
The welcome exposure has also thrown the spotlight on a sometimes controversial, but remarkably successful, fundraising method used by dozens of international children's charities.
Under the system, donors pay a modest monthly sum -- usually $12 to $30 -- to "sponsor" a child in a poor U.S. community or overseas. In most such programs, sponsors and "their" children exchange letters in a long-distance relationship that can last for years.
Some analysts estimate that these programs collectively raise as much as $400 million a year. With that much money at stake, questions about their operations were almost inevitable.
Indeed, various scandals have stained child-sponsoring organizations through the years. Most recently, a 1998 Chicago Tribune investigation found that some sponsored children received few or no benefits; in some cases, the children had been dead for years while unwitting sponsors continued to send money.
Charity watchdog Daniel Borochoff says the system is an expensive marketing ploy that plays to donors' sense of importance. "People need to get their ego out of it and, really, just look to use their money to help in the best way that they can," said Borochoff, who runs the American Institute of Philanthropy, based in Chicago.
Since the 1998 probe, many such charities have agreed to voluntary ethical standards set up by InterAction, a coalition of 160 humanitarian nonprofit groups. Among the standards, they must ensure that sponsored children benefit in identifiable ways from contributions and that their marketing materials accurately portray children.
This year, the voluntary standards are expected to become part of an accreditation process for the organizations, whose compliance will be monitored. Childreach is leading the effort.
These days, most organizations have scuttled the practice of sending sponsor money directly to the children, whose photos are often used as a fundraising heart tug. Instead, sponsors' monthly donations are pooled and distributed to help communities in which the sponsored children live -- by building a school or digging a well.
Donors are encouraged to send children small gifts such as hair bows or soccer balls. Aid groups discourage lavish presents such as a bicycle.
Although the money in most cases is not funneled directly to individual children, a potential sponsor wouldn't know that from looking at some groups' fundraising appeals, which feature doe-eyed children staring pleadingly from television screens, Web sites and pamphlets. "Sponsor This Child," reads one plea on the Web site for Children International.
Only a few groups point out that the children pictured will not receive a direct monthly payment. Like other organizations, Childreach refers obliquely to its practice of pooling donors' funds.
"The children shown here are waiting for someone like you to be their sponsor," reads its Web page. Elsewhere on the site, the group notes that donations serve a communal purpose and do not go directly to families.
Childreach officials say they are satisfied with their disclosures.
"If people read further and take the time to review the materials . . . we state very clearly everywhere that the money isn't given directly to the child," said Childreach official Carol Donnolly.
Evan Gotlib, a New York City magazine account manager, signed up to sponsor a child after seeing "About Schmidt." Recently he sent his first letter to George, a 7-year-old Ugandan boy. Gotlib said that he can't do more time-consuming volunteer work such as mentoring a child but that he wanted to help.
Besides, he said of Nicholson's character, "I don't want to be like him."