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ask the kielburgers


I read about a grassroots group in Kenya making light bulbs out of old water bottles. How do I donate directly to them without going through a government agency?


This remarkable youth group, Koch Hope, has generated a lot of interest since it was featured last November in multiple media outlets with global reach.

They've taken a simple, relatively new technology – an ordinary plastic water bottle filled with water and bleach that refracts sunlight equivalent to a 60-watt bulb – and brought free indoor light to hundreds of otherwise dark homes in one of Nairobi's largest slums. Now they lack the money for materials to expand their project to other neighbourhoods.

But they don't have a Canadian charitable number or a website to take donations. They don't even have a contact number that's publicly available.

It's attractive to donate directly to truly grassroots projects, without the middleman of government or large international organizations. These local groups are more closely in touch with their community's needs, and they don't spend your money on advertisements or fundraising. However, besides not being able to grant charitable tax receipts, they're also less likely to have audited statements, impact assessments or other formal means of oversight to ensure from a distance that your donation is being well used.

For groups like Koch Hope, your options are limited to doing the legwork yourself. It starts with searching online for contact information (sometimes an adventure in itself – we were able to track them down after a few days of e-mails and phone calls) and asking due-diligence questions; it may even require going there yourself to check it out. We have many friends who dedicate one day during their overseas holidays to visiting local charities, and then contribute regularly and directly to those communities: They know the people, they've seen their needs firsthand and they return on occasion to visit their friends and see the fruits of their donations.

If this approach is too involved, seek out similar projects that are easier to access. For example, A Liter of Light is a well-known bottle-bulb project in the Philippines, with a website linked to the MyShelter Foundation that takes donations in U.S. dollars.

If you feel strongly about a specific grassroots group, you may help them find a Canadian charity willing to partner with them to channel donations. Partners in Health (PIH) was recognized on the ground as the most effective and knowledgeable development group in Haiti for years before the 2010 earthquake, but there was no way to donate to them from Canada until we partnered with them just after the quake.

That step made it easy for Canadians to contribute directly to PIH's exceptional work training and connecting community health workers across the ravaged country. Donating to grassroots charities overseas requires a good dose of "buyer beware," but the impact of supporting small groups implementing simple solutions like bottle bulbs can be well worth the extra effort.

Craig and Marc Kielburger co-founded Free the Children. Follow Craig on Facebook and Twitter. Send questions to