From his easy chair, Warren Schmidt leans forward, TV 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 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 fictional, 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 child has shot up since the movie opened. Before "Schmidt," Childreach 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 ... asking themselves, 'Should I do something?' " Worthington said.
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 if the charity could be used in the film. After reading the script, Childreach officials agreed. The ad shown in the movie, the toll-free number and the packet of Childreach literature that comes in the mail are all real.
The exposure has also thrown the spotlight on a sometimes controversial, but remarkably successful, fund-raising 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 years.
Some analysts estimate that these programs collectively raise as much as $400 million annually.
But scandals have stained child-sponsoring organizations through the years. A 1998 Chicago Tribune investigation found that some sponsored children received few or no benefits; some children had been dead for years while unwitting sponsors continued to send money.
Since that probe, many charities have agreed to voluntary ethical standards set up by InterAction, a coalition of 160 humanitarian nonprofit groups. The charities must ensure that sponsored children benefit in identifiable ways from contributions and that marketing materials accurately portray children.
This year the standards are expected to become part of an accreditation process. Child- reach is leading the effort.
These days, most organizations have scuttled the practice of sending sponsor money directly to the children. Instead, sponsors' monthly donations are pooled and distributed. 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 he can't do more time-consuming volunteer work but that he wanted to help.
Besides, he said of Nicholson's character, "I don't want to be like him."