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Next time a charity asks for a contribution, ask them what else they're gonna do with it.

One organization has figured out a smart way to succeed that other charities may want to think about.

Charitable organizations often struggle to find the money they need to continue their good work.

Not SmileTrain. Survival's been baked right in.

SmileTrain's mission is repairing cleft palates and lips in children around the world. Without them, these kids would never get these life-changing surgeries.


What's a cleft palate, anyway?

Your palate is the roof of your mouth, and a cleft occurs when the palate hasn't properly formed, leaving a split, a gap, in the palate.

A cleft typically goes all the way out, so there's often a gap in the lip, sometimes a break in the gum line, and there can be nothing there all the way up to the nose.

The thing is, surgery can fix these problems if the child has access to treatment. In lots of places, there aren't doctors or facilities or money to pay for operations.

Without surgeries, many of these kids barely stand a chance.

Their palates and lips make them look different.

And in many cultures, looking that different means you're automatically an outcast.

Even more seriously, they have trouble eating.

Cleft-palate babies often can't take a bottle because they lack the necessary suction because air escapes through their cleft. They don't get the nutrition they need to grow or even survive.

They have trouble talking.

Since cleft-palate kids can't control air in their mouths that well, speech is difficult. In some cultures, they're considered such lost causes that no one even tries to teach them to speak.

They get sick.

Chronic ear infections can be a persistent side effect of having a cleft palate. Having weak immune systems from eating issues doesn't help.

That's where SmileTrain comes in.

Two key ideas keep this charity in business.

First: Don't be a temporary solution.

SmileTrain doesn't just sweep into a country with foreign doctors and operate on whoever they have time for. They train local doctors in the latest techniques and help provide operating rooms. This results in motivated, well-trained, local surgeons who carry on the mission long after they've gone.

Second: Persuade local stakeholders that helping makes good business sense.

SmileTrain figured out how to make a compelling case to local governments that it costs more to have a population of budget-draining castoffs than to provide the care they need to become fully productive members of their communities. This has generated an exceptional amount of local government support — read: money — to pay for surgeries. If an organization has a worthwhile mission, they just have to learn how to make the case.

Putting these two things together may provide a workable model for other charities.

This video digs down into the strategy behind SmileTrain.

FULL DISCLOSURE: A SmileTrain-trained surgeon is probably responsible for my 4-year-old daughter's beautifully repaired cleft lip. (Her palate was repaired in the States.)

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