OrphFund goes from vision to reality

Ebola's spread a concern for OrphFund founder

It was not long after Steve Argent arrived in Australia he had the change of heart which would see him create OrphFund, a volunteer-based organisation which raises funds for orphans in different parts of the world. 

The former UK resident, who now lives in Campbells Creek with his wife, Leah, and daughter, Aya, was brought out to Melbourne in 2003 by the large aid organisation he worked for at the time.

He came to the conclusion there was not much money from the "big ones" - the large charity organisations - getting to the people they were meant to be raising money for.   

"I was getting paid, living like a rock star, was getting paid silly money," he says.

"That world made me question everything about charity."

In the UK, Steve had about 80 staff working under him representing about 40 charities.

In Melbourne he represented about 15 to 20 charities which would see him responsible for liaising between charities and training people.

It always stuck in my head, how can this be happening on my planet. - Steve Argent

Seeing how much money went towards this became his biggest issue.

"You’d be motivated by the charity, but then you realise why are you billing this granny?," he says.

"I got to a point where I realised I was overpaid, had a lovely office and apartment being paid for, and there were many people ahead of me.

"I realised it could be done a lot more efficiently and directly and started saving enough money to fund my vision."

A decade on, that vision is now a reality.

OrphFund, which he founded in 2005, helps build traditional homes, primary schools and secondary schools for vulnerable children, mostly orphans, in poor parts of the world.

"We started working in Sierra Leone in 2007, it was our second major project after our first in Cambodia," Steve says.

The country had been on Steve's radar since about 2001 when he learnt about the atrocities committed during Sierra Leone's civil war. 

"It always stuck in my head, how can this be happening on my planet," he said.

"Seven years later, I went and met a stranger in a remote village in Kamakwie, Sierra Leone, a full day's travel from Freetown, where I met some kids in this home.

"It was an existing orphanage, but the funding had run out.

"We basically found a built house, gave the owner money for the house, and started housing kids in it.

"Since then we've been donated land by the community to work with."

One of the biggest challenges came early, when he needed the backing of local village chiefs and needed to work out who to trust to help get some of the projects off the ground. 

OrphFund now cares for about 2000 children across Sierra Leone alone, having started off with 40 children in that first village. 

With the community's help, the organisation goes into villages to run registration days to find the children in most need.

"Hundreds come, but we need to find the most vulnerable 50," Steve says.

Teams of unpaid Western volunteers then help with the building phase, after which it employs local care workers and teachers to work. 

People could be certain all money went directly to the projects, Steve said.

"If someone’s given us $10;  it’s $10 towards our project," he says.

"We want people to have faith in charity. People have now become very sceptical."

OrphFund's main funding model is a sponsorship-based one.

"We have 350 kids with our projects that we sponsor, about 80 desperately need sponsorship.

"It’s a dollar a day. That dollar goes straight to that kid's home – it pays for food, health and living expenses."

Unlike other child sponsorship models, OrphFund doesn't allow the sponsor to choose the child.

"It's not as glossy as World Vision for example, you do get updates, but not a letter every three months or so," Steve says.

"(But) without going down the sponsorship route, we wouldn’t have a third to a quarter of our donors. It means people are connected." 

Still, the organisation offers alternatives to direct sponsorship, like a $5 a month feeding program for a school child's lunch for a month.

Back home in Australia, Steve and Leah also find extra revenue for OrphFund selling photos on wooden blocks and running fundraisers.

The blocks, which mainly feature pictures Steve has taken of street art around the world, are sold at the popular Rose St artist market in Melbourne, at Castlemaine's artist market, and via an online shop.

"We’ve sold tens of thousands of blocks over about a 10-year period," he says.

"People love them and seem to keep coming back for them and it generates a lot of money to send back."

Steve thinks the success of OrphFund is also in part thanks to a large number of supporters in Melbourne.

"People are very proud to be an OrphFund supporter, people respect we do what we say," he says.

He said the organisation was currently sending $9000 a year to fund all its projects globally - not bad for an organisation ran out of the family backyard.

"OrphFund has until recently been on the kitchen table, now I've converted a shipping container out the back into an office, I can work out of there," he says.

Running the not-for-profit on a low-income with a young family to look after was not without its challenges, but Steve is clear he wouldn't change a thing.

"It’s taken over my life, I set it up at a time in my life when I could but I have been living off savings from selling my house and money from UK," he says.

"I went back to Uganda recently, I hadn't seen the kids since we opened the orphanage.

"I remember the initial interviews with kids with rags on their backs, and we went back and there are these confident, happy kids, all excelling at school.

"That’s the most addictive drug you can find." 

To find out more about OrphFund, email sponsorship@orphfund.org or visit the website www.orphfund.org

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