Home Non-profit Is Sightsavers a Good Charity?

Is Sightsavers a Good Charity?

Sightsavers was named one of GiveWell's top charities in 2017 once again for its work on treating children for parasitic infections all over the globe.

Each year, GiveWell, an organization run by hedge fund managers and people well acquainted with charities, updates its list of top organizations to donate to. Being run by hedge fund investors concerned with the continuity of money invested by big and small-time donors, the company itself surveys the use of donor money in all these organizations. Their goal? To utilize funds for the greatest good. This year, Sightsavers made their list of the top 9 best organizations to donate funds to.

The vetting process is not easy. GiveWell takes a lot into consideration when awarding top status to charity institutions. First, they looked into the overall depth of the programs. Sightsavers works with underprivileged parts of the world on deworming programs, as well as working against widespread vision loss. This is something that impacts not just individuals, but also the region overall. Because this was deemed to be a versatile use of money, evaluators then considered how their group performed – first their overall use of funds and next their ability to use their funds in a certain amount of time. Sightsavers was quoted as having a “strong track record and excellent cost-effectiveness” by GiveWell after rigorous attention to its charities.

Here is a look into what goes on at this international organization and why GiveWell considers Sightsavers to be one of the worthiest charity operations in the world.

How Sightsavers was Started

Recently, Professor Stephen Hawking gave a speech at a Sightsavers event that talked about the efforts that his own father had put into correcting world blindness. While his father was completely invested in the impacts of waterborne disease, he recognized, as Sightsavers has recognized, that preventing waterborne illness in struggling communities worldwide was crucial to putting an end to blindness and other ravaging diseases. It was with this same compassion and keen awareness of the impact of unclean water that Sightsavers was started.

As many stories begin, Sightsavers was started after a personal interaction with Blindness. The founder, Sir John Wilson, lost his sight after a chemistry accident as a child. Fueling a passion for saving sight worldwide, he began to work with the National Institute for the Blind. However, Wilson was unimpressed by the way that the National Institute for the Blind interacted with and treated blind people, so he knew that there was a way to counteract that sort of backward thinking that was displayed there at the time. He saw that blind people could do most of the same things that seeing people could, so during the war he sought to employ blind people in the jobs that drafted men normally had. It was just after this that he met his wife and that Sightsavers was born.

After marrying his wife, they both saw the devastating impacts of blindness on some of Britain’s territories. They confronted the National Institute for the Blind, but they did not feel as though the territories fell under their responsibility. So, Sightsavers was started as a way to both address and treat blindness worldwide (and especially in British territories) as well as rethink the framework around blindness. If curing blindness was not possible in a person, it was a worthy cause to show that blindness didn’t need to inhibit other parts of their life. As well as beginning medical programs in regions impacted by widespread blindness, Wilson put together programs to dispel common beliefs about the “utility” of blind people. One of the most famous missions was sending seven blind climbers up the side of Mount Kilimanjaro. Breaking stigma and fighting for the rights of blind people was the foundation of Sightsavers. The organization continues this mission today.


How Sightsavers Operates

The ultimate goal Sightsavers has is to “see that all of us are out of a job”. Sightsaver’s CEO want to eradicate blindness and waterborne diseases in vulnerable regions around the world to the point that the charity no longer needs to be in operation. A lofty goal. How they operate is relatively simple. Sightsavers tries to distribute funds equally over their platform. In the time since they started their mission, Sightsavers has given 437 million treatments for river blindness, have given support to 180,000 people with disabilities, allowing them to live independently, and have provided 6.9 cataract operations, which have restored vision to those without it. While they believe that the money that is donated to them is well spent, they do go even further to maintain transparency for their donors.
As part of their commitment to donors, they follow requirements to show that they’ve met standards for operational spending, meaning that they must show that they are able to spend the money that has been raised for them well. Part of the way in which they accomplish this is through holding governing boards in different countries worldwide — including in some of the regions impacted by waterborne illnesses. This provides global perspective on these illnesses, rather than a nationality-biased view. Additionally, the team has been part of Accountable Now for nearly a decade. According to their website, Accountable Now is “a global platform that supports civil society organisations (CSOs) to be transparent, responsive to stakeholders and focused on delivering impact.”

For the average user, navigating their website can show a lot about how the company operates. At many points, there are links that guide users and donors to learn more about Sightsavers’ operational management of funds. Additionally, there are directions to their call-in line that make it easy for anyone with questions about the way that Sightsavers works to call in and get more information.

In the end, the “goodness” of an operation is personal. The initial focus of Sightsavers has shifted over the years — as an organization based solely around the rights of the blind to an organization that fights against blindness and other debilitating diseases. As can be seen with the recent plastic straw bans, people can always find the good and the bad within a movement. However, when looking at Sightsavers overall, it’s plain to see that the charity has the best intentions of millions at mind.
Sightsavers, the international non-profit, has been in operating since 1950. In a June 6, 2018 UK news article published in The Telegraph, Joanna Lumley summed up one of Sightsavers’ core missions in the following way:

“Nobody, no matter their wealth or what country they live in, should go blind from a disease that can be avoided, or watch a loved one endure the pain of an easily preventable condition.”

Joanna Lumley, a well known British actress and outspoken human rights activist, has committed time and talent to a number of charities over her long career. From sticking up for the rights of indigenous people to helping children in the poorest nations get an education, Joanna always seems to be fighting for people who are disadvantaged. She became involved with Sightsavers about twenty years ago after seeing a newspaper ad about the tremendous work the organization does.

In her article, Joanna recalls a trip to Bangladesh thirteen years ago where she watched with amazement a five year old boy see his own mother for the very first time. Sightsavers had performed cataract surgery on the boy and they weren’t sure if he would see until the very moment the bandages were removed. Joanna’s heart-felt account of this precious moment was made even more vivid as she recounted how she bonded with the boy’s grandmother who explained to her how very worried she was about her grandson. Being a grandmother herself, Joanna’s heart melted.

This is just one example of the thousands of miracles that the people with Sightsavers perform every day. Their global reach is astounding. Sightsavers works tirelessly on eliminating neglected tropical diseases (NTDs), with a focus on trachoma and river blindness (onchocerciasis). It is estimated they have saved more than two hundred ninety-five million people from going blind due to river blindness. They’ve helped forty-three million people save their sight from river blindness and performed more than six million cataract operations that have restored sight like the one that Joanna observed.

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Trachoma is an infectious tropical disease spread by insects and human contact with those who already carry the disease. It is completely curable and preventable with the proper treatment. However, if trachoma is left untreated, the upper eyelid curls inward causing the eyelashes to scrape against the surface of the eye with every blink. This is very painful and causes permanent scarring and eventually complete blindness. The infection can be cured and prevented with the use of simple antibiotics but in many of the one hundred forty-two tropical countries where the disease is found, most people do not have access to these medications.

In 2012, Sightsavers led a consortium of partners around the world to map out the distribution of where trachoma was present, where it was at epidemic proportions, and where it was wanning due to intervention. This effort was called the Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP). The data was collected by those in the field who would have the best first hand knowledge of the trachoma situation in their area. It was then relayed via smart phones. This broad scale data collection effort has helped and continues to help Sightsavers and its glocal partners know exactly where to allocate resources.

Sightsavers and SAFE

The Global Trachoma Mapping Project (GTMP) was the biggest collection of disease data the world has ever seen! Sightsavers and their fifty-three GTMP partners pioneered a method that will be used in the future to accurately map and eliminate other neglected tropical diseases, and in doing so, help them (and others) achieve their broad mission. They were able to collect data from 2.6 million people. By all accounts it was a huge success and they showed what’s possible when motivated people have a noble global mission that attracts many volunteers and resources.

To control, reduce, and eventually eliminate trachoma, Sightsavers follows a SAFE strategy. SAFE is an acronym which stands for:

1. Surgery

This eliminates the problem of the eyelashes scraping the surface of the eye. Surgery also reduces pain and helps to stop reinfections.

2. Antibiotics

An antibiotic called Zithromax, manufactured by Pfizer, is used to treat the disease and prevent it from progressing to the point of blindness. The antibiotic is also distributed to people who live in high risk communities to stop the spread of the disease.

3. Facial Cleanliness

People in high risk communities are taught the importance of washing their face frequently to prevent the spread of the disease, such as when mothers rub tears out fo the eyes of their children or couples kiss.

4. Environmental Improvements

This step addresses various environmental sanitation issues such as access to clean uncontaminated water and eliminating or reducing the breeding grounds for insects that serve as a vector for the disease.

The SAFE strategy is currently employed in Chad, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Tanzania and Zambia but will likely spread to other countries where trachoma is prevalent as well. Sightsavers estimates they have supported 47,600 people affected by trachoma in the first two years the program has been in place. More than nineteen million antibiotic treatments have been given. One hundred and twenty surgeons and more than twenty-five thousand volunteers have helped to implement the sight saving Sightsavers’ program.

Sightsavers is able to attract the help of big-hearted people like Joanna Lumley because their mission is all about helping people. There is no profit motive. The people who volunteer with Sightsavers tend to be people with a purpose driven life who love making a positive difference in the world — the bigger the better. There is a certain fulfillment and self-satisfaction in participating in one of Sightsavers’ missions that no amount of money could ever buy. In many ways, Sightsavers operates with a currency of love and a compassion to lift the spirit of our fellow humans.

However, it does take actual money and supplies to fund Sightsavers’ humanitarian programs. Luckily, Sightsavers has been blessed by donations from many partners and sources. In fact, their resources have gone up dramatically. Civil Society Media reported that the organization’s income went up by fifty-two percent in 2016, mostly due to an increase in the in kind donations of antibiotics used to fight the infections diseases causing avoidable blindness.

These antibiotics came from Merck and Pfizer, setting a good example for other corporations. Monetary contributions also increased from £41 million to £48 million. Obviously, there are a lot of people, organizations, and businesses who applaud the work of Sightsavers. They do so with both their pocket book and their time.

The title of Joanna Lumley’s Telegraph article was, “No one should go blind from a disease that is entirely preventable in this day and age.” Her article revealed the heart and soul of Sightsavers, as shared by one of its biggest cheerleaders. It’s also a sentiment that virtually everyone can agree on.

Once Sightsavers and its partners eliminate trachoma and river blindness, they will no doubt turn their focus to eliminating other neglected tropical diseases that the profit-driven medical community does not usually address. May the generosity and miracles provided by Sightsavers continue for many more decades to come!

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