Zoe Empowers started as a relief-based organization with short-term, marginal results.
In the early 2000s, the AIDS pandemic devastated communities in sub-saharan Africa, leaving hundreds of thousands of orphaned children in its wake. Globally, there was a push to donate to Africa, support orphan charities, sponsor an orphan, and fundraise for an orphanage.
Zoe Empowers was among numerous Western nonprofits and foundations that responded to the orphan crisis. We, like everyone else, believed orphans needed money, goods, and services, so we arrived in Zimbabwe and dispensed food, clothing, school materials, housing, and other common forms of relief.
But, despite our generosity and good intentions, we realized we were not helping orphans. In fact, our impact was marginal if anything at all.
Zoe Empowers adjusted its charitable model to empowerment after discovering a new way to empower youth led families from Rwandan social workers.
Zoe Empowers connected with a group of Rwandan social workers who related to our frustration in finding effective, sustainable solutions. Following the 1994 genocide, Rwanda had been inundated with Western relief, lasting years beyond the point of emergency.
The social workers noticed their orphaned children had grown so accustomed to receiving aid that they were unable to care for themselves, resulting in another problem entirely: dependency.
Not only did orphaned children rely on outside aid to survive, but the support yielded little sustainable change. Most children were still living in poverty, which created a third problem: donor fatigue. Donors were giving endlessly, and transformation was not occurring.
These Rwandan social workers responded with a skills-based, community approach. Instead of giving away resources, they wanted to help orphans by teaching them how to care for themselves, in the context of a loving, supportive community. And it was working tremendously!
Inspired, Zoe Empowers staff began this approach in Kenya as well, and then returned to Zimbabwe and implemented the empowerment model. When it proved successful, Zoe began expanding the program across country and culture, wherever orphaned children and vulnerable youth lived in life-threatening poverty. Since then, Zoe has honed its implementation in eight countries (Kenya, Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Liberia, Tanzania, Mozambique and India) and impacted more than 150,000 orphaned children and vulnerable youth.
Zoe Empowers helps orphans become self-sufficient, not dependent.
The empowerment model works because it allows orphaned children and vulnerable youth to take the lead in their journey out of poverty while addressing the well-being of the whole child, including health and safety, skill building, and community connection.
An essential part of the three-year empowerment program is that Zoe staff do not do anything for the youth they could otherwise do for themselves. Instead of giving food, local staff assist participants in growing and buying their own food. Instead of providing shoes, we provide a network of local community members who teach participants how to start their own businesses, so that they can buy their own shoes. Rather than provide an orphanage, we assist participants in repairing, renting, or building their own housing.
Zoe Empowers facilitates training to equip participants for long-term success, including education, vocational training, business development, and financial fluency. There is also an emphasis on social and spiritual connections, which is an intangible but critical part of the transformation process, and one that’s often absent in relief-based transactions.
Learn more specifics about how the model works here.
Zoe Empowers works in communities, not orphanages.
The empowerment program is designed for orphaned children caring for their younger siblings and vulnerable children acting as caregivers for compromised adults. Millions of children worldwide are living with this burden.
When orphaned children become head of their household, the challenges of surviving while caretaking makes education and/or vocational training unattainable, further limiting economic prospects. Through Zoe, these young people can break the poverty cycle and build a prosperous future for their families.
The program intentionally keeps orphaned youth in their communities instead of placing them in an orphanage. As a result, the youth foster critical social connections, which serve them well beyond graduation. Furthermore, as the broader community bears witness to their transformation, the orphaned children restore a sense of belonging, dignity, and confidence to reunify with relatives when possible.
Zoe Empowers is led locally, not internationally.
In each country of service, Zoe’s in-country staff is entirely indigenous. As local citizens and trained social workers, teachers, and educators, they bring invaluable cultural knowledge and expertise and understand the specific needs, challenges, and opportunities within their region/country. The U.S. and Western partners monitor results closely and track finances but refrain from offering suggestions from afar about how to improve the empowerment program.
Zoe Empowers measures outcomes, not activities.
We measure the results of the empowerment program on a self-sufficiency index, which evaluates impact across eight areas of intervention: Food Security, Secure Housing, Health & Hygiene, Education, Income Generation, Child Rights, Community, and Spiritual Strength.
Our comprehensive reporting practices, combined with a local, agile staff, allow us to make adjustments quickly and efficiently to maximize every participant’s chance at success.
Our data demonstrates that participants experience an upward trajectory throughout the program, and upon graduation, 95%+ of orphaned children and vulnerable youth are entirely self-sufficient.
Zoe Empowers produces sustainable, generational change, not quick fixes.
The official program duration is three years, giving participants ample time to learn and implement changes. After graduation, the Zoe empowerment groups continue working together and meeting regularly. Participants remain crisis resilient because of their personal and group savings, and ability to solve challenges. Even throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, participants expressed confidence in their skills and ability to support themselves.
More impressively, graduates often become leaders in their community and a resource to other orphans in need. Group participants revel in paying forward their training and skills to help other community members in need, further amplifying the effects of empowerment.
Zoe Empowers believes in time limited partnerships, not endless sponsorships.
By design, Zoe participants equip themselves to never need charity again by the time they reach graduation. Therefore, Zoe Empowers partnerships align with the three-year life cycle of the program. Along the way, donors receive reports highlighting the stories and improvements from their designated group. Supporters appreciate the chance to be a catalyst to changing lives in generational ways.
Because of the focus on empowerment, Zoe’s monthly cost per participant averages less than $8 per person. As of 2021, the three-year cost for one participant to become empowered was $266.04, making empowerment the most effective and economical solution to ending extreme poverty.
Zoe Empowers facilitates travel opportunities to witness change, not mission trips.
Zoe partners are invited to travel to program countries to meet the orphaned children with whom they are partnered. Travelers visit businesses the children have started, see homes they’ve built, learn about jobs they’ve created, and witness the transformation that has occurred in their lives and communities.
Zoe trips focus on showing partners the effect of empowerment as opposed to facilitating relief activities, such as building houses or serving meals. It would be ineffective for travelers to engage in such tasks when the participants have learned to do these things for themselves. Instead, partners get the opportunity to engage in conversation with the orphans, listening as the youth share their experiences, hopes, and dreams.
Zoe Empowers actively shares the lessons we’ve learned with others, creating a better world for all.
Zoe Empowers is leading a growing empowerment movement by sharing what we’ve learned and equipping other NGOs, foundations, and governments with resources to adopt this successful model. We actively assist other orphan empowerment organizations to replicate and manage the program themselves.
Although we did not design this approach (we were introduced to it by a group of Rwandan social workers), we are committed to being good stewards of the model. We believe that investing in the empowerment of orphaned children and vulnerable youth, can ignite a generation of skilled young leaders to leave extreme poverty behind forever.