Unbound’s Pen Pal System Fights Poverty Through Connections


SEATTLE, Washington — When donating to a charity people often wonder where their money is going. Is the charity using the money to help build a school or proper housing? Is the money feeding a family or going towards someone’s education? Donating to an organization or nonprofit is a great way to help alleviate poverty, but building a connection with others also helps. The nonprofit, Unbound, started an innovative way to show people the impact their donations make by creating friendships around the globe through pen pals. Unbound’s pen pal system has created lasting change in children and families in Central and South America, Asia, Africa and Mexico.

Unbound’s Pen Pal System

Unbound allows individuals to sponsor someone who is suffering through poverty. Every month, each donation goes directly to the individual that the person sponsors. At Unbound they “offer a hand up – not a handout” so families can meet basic needs such as healthcare, education, food or proper living conditions. The pen pal system creates a bond between the donor and sponsor. This way, they become a friend instead of charity.

Through exchanging letters and photos donors can see the impact $40 a month can make in someone’s life. The goal is to provide support, and understanding for families so they know they are not alone and there’s someone who believes in them. Unbound encourages the families to become active members of their communities and think long term so they can eventually start a business. Unbound’s pen pal system is not only helping others rise out of poverty but it also empowers people to make a change. The Borgen Project interviewed Unbound’s Director of International Programs, Dan Pearson, and Director of Media Outreach, Andrew Kling.

Interview with Unbound’s Dan Pearson and Andrew Kling

The Borgen Project: What is the main goal of Unbound?

Dan Pearson: We’re truly following the voices of the families that we serve. We’ve evolved to a model where we’re putting the money directly in the hands of the families and creating community structures so that they can reach their own goals and community goals.

TBP: Does Unbound do fieldwork?

Dan Pearson: Pre COVID, I was traveling about 120 days a year because we feel we need to really listen to the families; it’s hard to do that from a distance. Unbound has 2,000 staff around the world, all local. Many of our field staff are graduates of the program. They’re kids who have finished high school and college. Instead of going on to do something else they wanted to come back to Unbound and give back to their community. It’s powerful for the kids who are in the program now to see someone who understands their reality and is successful.

TBP: Do more kids stay in school through your programs?

Dan Pearson: We compare the educational levels of kids in our program with the national levels. We are at or above the national averages of educational levels. What that means is despite all the marginalization and disadvantages the kids have faced, they are reaching educational levels that make them competitive.

Andrew Kling: It starts out with paying for school fees, but over the years it’s evolved. Everything is centered around how we can break the cycle of poverty and give those kids the best shot possible of staying in school. All the programs and all these efforts are aimed to keep kids in school as long as possible. Our staff works with the families and asks: what do you want, what do you need, what are your dreams and how can we get you there with a little help.

Unbound’s Success

TBP: What are the results you see from Unbound’s pen pal system?

Dan Pearson: From the one-to-one dynamic, we’ve learned that it’s a different dynamic when a child receives something from a faceless fund versus someone real. The kids we work with are from communities that no one sees. They drive by it or walk past them – the whole community is invisible, especially one kid. So, to be seen and valued by someone and to get that encouragement through the letters is life-changing. We also want to change the donors’ minds about their perspective or understanding of people who live in poverty. You only get that from a personal relationship.

As of 2019, Unbound has helped 268,400 children get an education and aided more than 9,000 students with scholarships or tuition assistance. Through Unbound’s pen pal system and its efforts, 51% of sponsored children are more likely to stay in school.

Jessica LaVopa
Photo: Flickr


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