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Time for Gifts of Meaning

This article is part of Times Opinion’s 2022 Giving Guide. Read more about the guide in a note from Opinion’s editor, Kathleen Kingsbury.

Hunger spreads in poor countries, American students have fallen further behind since the pandemic, and a brutal war in Ukraine is creating desperate refugees — but here’s the uplifting news: We can ease this pain with modest donations.

This holiday season, instead of giving your Aunt Sue and Uncle Bill one more scarf and tie to languish in the closet, how about making contributions in their names to help children in need?

It’s time for my annual holiday giving guide, recommending nonprofits performing outstanding work. (This week my fellow Times columnists will be suggesting groups that they think your donations can help.)

As in the past, the group I choose as my grand prize winner will receive $100,000 from a foundation, while each runner-up will receive $25,000. These organizations will benefit even more from the much larger sums that I’m hoping all of you will contribute.

You can donate easily through the Kristof Holiday Impact Prize website, and here’s what the sums will accomplish:

Help hungry families feed themselves. My grand prize winner is the One Acre Fund, which works with hardworking but impoverished farmers in Kenya, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Burundi and other countries to boost harvests.

I’m seared by memories of starving children I’ve met — a child dies every 14 seconds somewhere in the world from hunger-related causes — and the optimal solution isn’t rushing in American aid but rather helping farm families increase their output and help themselves.

One Acre Fund helps small farmers like Eunice Wambui Nguu in Sagana, Kenya.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

It’s so difficult being an African farmer. Some of the seed and fertilizer in the market is fake, the climate is changing, land title is elusive, bank loans are almost impossible to obtain, and where can you store your crop after a harvest to get the best price?

One Acre Fund helps small farmers, most of them women, increase productivity with improved techniques, high-quality seeds and effective fertilizer. Each family on average raises production by 45 percent on the land in the project — usually enough to fend off malnutrition, pay school fees and live a fundamentally better life.

The nonprofit was inspired by two women farming adjacent plots in Kenya. Andrew Youn, an American management consultant, was visiting the area and saw that one woman was struggling and had lost a child, while the second had harvests four times as large and could feed her children and send them to school.

Youn learned that farming practices accounted for the difference, and in 2006 he co-founded One Acre Fund as a nonprofit serving just 38 families. Participants saw large increases in production, and One Acre Fund has ballooned and now supports 1.4 million families in nine countries. I like the organization’s emphasis on data and rigorous evaluation, including the use of randomized controlled trials to verify impact.

One Acre Fund also benefits the entire region. Research finds that nearby farmers adopt the “One Acre Fund way” as well, resulting in large spillover increases in harvests even among those not in the program.

Ms. Nguu has started a tree nursery with One Acre Fund’s support.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times
The seedlings were grown with seeds and supplies from the organization.Credit…Khadija Farah for The New York Times

I chose One Acre Fund partly because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised food prices worldwide and as a result will almost surely kill more children in Africa than it kills in Ukraine itself. Even before the Ukraine war, one-fifth of all children worldwide were stunted from malnutrition.

One Acre Fund is now expanding a tree-planting effort, enriching families with fruit and wood to sell while also improving soil health. The cost is just 50 cents per surviving tree. And a $100 donation helps One Acre Fund enroll four additional families in the core program. You won’t find any greater bargain this holiday season!

Get children glasses. About one-quarter of American schoolchildren need glasses, and in middle-class households they typically get them. But look around a school in a low-income area, and you’ll see few children with glasses.

That’s the problem that Vision to Learn addresses heroically and inexpensively. Since its founding in 2012, it has given glasses to about 330,000 children in 15 states and the District of Columbia, helping to turn their lives around.

Karen Payne gave Jordyn Key a pair of glasses in Vision to Learn’s mobile clinic in Detroit.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

Austin Beutner, a businessman who for a time was superintendent of the Los Angeles schools, founded Vision to Learn because he saw that when children can’t easily see the board, they become fidgety and then are labeled disruptive or slow learners. Unable to read well, they struggle in school and are more likely to drop out.

A disproportionate share of young people in juvenile detention centers wear glasses (it’s often the first time they get eye exams and glasses) — suggesting that for want of inexpensive glasses, some schoolchildren end up tangled in the criminal justice system. Wouldn’t it be better and cheaper just to help kids see?

Vision to Learn’s model addresses real-world problems. Researchers have repeatedly found that many kids who fail school screenings never actually get glasses. Even vouchers for free glasses are often not redeemed. Or kids break their glasses or hide them because they think glasses are for nerds.

So Vision to Learn brings screenings and eye exams to the school, and provides glasses to the students. Prominent athletes show up to convey the message that wearing glasses is cool — to the point that some children with perfect vision clamor for glasses. And when glasses break they are replaced — even for Isaiah, a boy in Inglewood, Calif., who managed to destroy four pairs of glasses in one year while playing basketball!

Vision to Learn brings screenings and eye exams to schools like the Detroit Lions Academy in Detroit and gives students glasses.Credit…Brittany Greeson for The New York Times

A published study found that when Vision to Learn provided glasses to low-achieving students in Baltimore, the impact on learning was slightly greater than from tutoring and significantly greater than from longer school days or new technologies.

The all-in cost of providing glasses to a child through Vision to Learn is about $150 (only $10 is for the glasses themselves). Putting a child on a path to succeed in life for $150 feels like a gift for the ages.

Help a child read. The best metric for where a society will be in 25 years is its education system, and everybody spouts theories about how to improve learning outcomes. But it’s hard to find an educational initiative as rooted in evidence — or as proven successful in its impact — as the Success for All Foundation.

Success for All was founded by experts at Johns Hopkins University based on rigorous research about how to improve outcomes. It focuses on helping children read by third grade as the keystone to educational gains, and it accomplishes this with tutoring, professional development, better materials and more.

More than three million children in 42 states have benefited from Success for All, and it has been the subject of more than 50 studies that have shown striking impact on child outcomes. It works in underachieving school districts, including in Native American communities, and consistently helps get students on track.

Researchers find that by fifth grade, students at Success for All schools on average are a full grade ahead of students at schools in a control group. In just three years, Success for All reduces the race gap by half. Yet after the setup ($300 per student in the first year), the cost per student drops to $70 by the third year. How can we afford not to invest that much in at-risk students? What I admire most about Success for All is its proven record elevating reading performance so children aren’t left behind.

“There is real magic in learning to read,” said Nancy Madden, a founder.

You can learn more about these three organizations at KristofImpact.org and also donate to them there. Focusing Philanthropy, a nonprofit I am partnering with on this project, processes contributions made through the website and will report back to you on results. Focusing Philanthropy will also pay the credit card transaction costs, so 100 cents on the dollar goes to the charity you choose.

For those families long on good will but short of cash, I’m pleased to recommend two nonprofits that need volunteers around the country:

Become a mentor. Countless children in underserved communities would benefit from an adult to talk to and guide them, so consider signing up with Big Brothers Big Sisters. It matches adults (“Bigs”) with young people (“Littles”), and nine out of 10 Littles see their Bigs as very important adults in their lives. But 30,000 children across America, mostly boys, are on a waiting list for a Big because not enough people volunteer.

Sponsor a refugee. Thousands of Ukrainians, Venezuelans and others fleeing bombs or repression need help resettling in the United States — and Welcome.US makes it easy for a group of Americans to provide that assistance. The sponsoring group can be a religious congregation, a book club, a service association, a veterans group or simply a bunch of friends, and it’s based on the extremely successful Canadian model of refugee sponsorship. I see sponsorship as a way of not only helping individual refugee families but also of asserting our compassion in a brutal world.

Welcome.US helps Americans like the Wheelers (from left, Ellie, Charlie, Corey, Kelly and Essie) in Madison, Ala., sponsor refugees like Viktoriia and Artem Kuznietsova from Ukraine.Credit…Charity Rachelle for The New York Times

Seventy years ago this fall, a group of Americans in Portland, Ore., sponsored my dad, then a stateless World War II refugee, so he could come to America. Their help did not solve the global refugee crisis, but for our family that generosity was transformative. That’s what we all have the power to do — transform lives, one by one — so consider joining me in supporting these organizations through KristofImpact.org.

This article is part of Times Opinion’s Giving Guide 2022. The author has no direct connection to the organizations mentioned. If you are interested in any organization mentioned in Times Opinion’s Giving Guide 2022, please go directly to its website. Neither the authors nor The Times will be able to address queries about the groups or facilitate donations.

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