08/06/2012 05:04 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

From Harm to Help in Ghana and Beyond

I grew up understanding the importance of giving. My family donated to our church every week and my school typically had a monthly fundraiser or project to help the less fortunate. Growing up in a community that valued the use of time, energy and resources to the service of others, it should come as no surprise that I, too, wanted to help with the problems I saw in the world. To me nonprofits, NGOs, charity, etc. could do no wrong. All I had to do was find an organization that interested me and with time and dedication, I could have a positive impact on the lives of others.

It turns out, I was very wrong.

Through my work with an organization called KaeMe.Org, I began to learn that various charities' and foundations' efforts to help were often misguided, and even detrimental to the very populations they wanted to aid. To be more specific, I learned about the problems in Ghana, where Western charities had built more than 200 orphanages in areas where there were not enough orphans to fill them, and filled the orphanages in ways they should not.

Research from the Bucharest Early Intervention Study shows that children who grow up in orphanages acquire over a 20-point IQ hit, delays in emotional and social development, and aggressive behavior problems. Visiting many orphanages across Ghana, I can attest to the fact that the children in orphanages simply do not receive enough attention. Consider a few adults watching over 30 children. Though not desirable, this was the case in the majority of the 20-some orphanages I visited.

More shockingly, I learned that only three decades ago Ghana had only three orphanages, all official and run by the government. The truth is, is Ghana did not need many orphanages. The country has a relatively prosperous economy and a culture that relies heavily on community and extended family structures. Yet, in the '90s it became a fad in Western giving circles to create or sponsor orphanages in Ghana without asking if they were ever needed. By 2005, more than 200 orphanages were created. The number of orphans did not grow during this time, but orphanage directors began offering incentives to families to give up their children such as schooling or money. Families simply wanted to provide a better life for their children.

The rising number of orphanages did not go unrecognized by the Ghanaian government because of a Department of Social Welfare official named Helena Obeng-Asamoah. Helena was the director of one of the few original government orphanages in Ghana who understood the problem with the rise in the number of orphanages in Ghana and fashioned a plan to fix it called the Care Reform Initiative. She reached out to international partners who could energize her solution and later found Dr. John Stevens and his wife, Marci Stevens, Dr. Michael McCullough, Ghanaian Stephen Abu, Dr. Jennifer Miller, and the BeAGoodDoctor.Org incubator. These Silicon Valley doctors and entrepreneurs together founded the organization KaeMe to assist Helena and partner with the Department of Social Welfare.

Working together the DSW and KaeMe aim to find a loving home for every child living in Ghanaian orphanages. To do this we are interviewing every single child in every orphanage in Ghana. Every child in every orphanage. Because of this partnership, every undocumented orphanage will be screened within a few years. The final plan is to only have four main homes in every region of Ghana: a transition home where true orphans will stay for no longer than six months before finding them a permanent home, a mother and babies home, a home for children with special needs, and a home for abused women and children. Children will be documented into an online database that the DSW can use to better facilitate reunification, foster care or adoption. Our hope: for every child a home.

Although my work with KaeMe changed my previous perceptions on the worth of orphanages, it also taught me important lessons on how to give. It's very easy for us to give a check or start a nonprofit without ever trying to understand the problem or the community in which we place our money and time. In spite of our good intentions, we have to realize that we can harm people.

I also learned about the importance of finding local leaders in the world like Helena. Living in the Silicon Valley, it is common to want to become a founder and create solutions to the problems we see. We even ask the question in a way that centers around us, "How can I fix this?" Such an attitude can be extremely dangerous when we want to fix problems in countries and cultures vastly different from our own. We shouldn't always look to create our own solutions but rather find the individuals who are unlocking their own communities. We should find the Helenas of the world.

Robert D. Lupton, in his book Toxic Charity, says that almost 90 percent of Americans adults are involved personally or financially in the charity industry. Imagine the impact we can have if we focus on the right problems and find the best local leaders.