Appeals to sponsor a child in poverty tug at our heartstrings, but does sending money to a child abroad actually increase her chances of success later in life?

A first-of-its-kind study of the long-term effects of child sponsorship shows that $1 a day really can change a life.

A study by researchers at the Universities of San Francisco, Michigan, and Washington published in the Journal of Political Economy, shows that being sponsored greatly increases a child’s chances of finishing school and pursuing a professional career.

Researchers examined fist-hand survey data on children sponsored through the faith-based organization Compassion International in Bolivia, Guatemala, India, Kenya, Uganda, and the Philippines. They studied the life outcomes of more than 10,000 children, some of who began sponsorship a generation ago.

They found that, compared to their peers, sponsored children were 27 percent more likely to finish high school, 50 percent more likely to graduate from college, and 35 percent more likely to obtain a white-collar job as an adult.

“Too often we have focused our development efforts on provision for human beings rather than the development of human beings,” said lead study author Bruce Wydick, a professor of economics at the University of San Francisco and a consultant for Compassion International, in a press release.

“Although child sponsorship does indeed provide help with school fees, access to health care, and other tangible benefits, Compassion’s particular approach focuses on the more holistic development of the child, such as development of self-esteem, aspirations, spiritual and ethical values,” he added. “We measure very large impacts in these areas, which we believe play a significant role in what we observe in the difference in adult life outcomes.”

Perhaps the most well known child sponsorship organization is Save the Children. In 2012, the NGO received about $50 million in child sponsorship aid, and with it they reached nearly 7.5 million children and adults in 14 countries, according to Sponsorship Program Adviser Celine Gustavson.

Save the Children has not done a similar study of the life outcomes of children in their programs, but Gustavson says there’s much anecdotal evidence that their focus on early childhood development; medical care for worms, malaria, and other diseases; reproductive counseling and parent education; and school nutrition have a positive impact on children’s wellbeing.

“We have program indicators and that’s how we measure success,” Gustavson said. “For basic education, for example, the higher level result we look at is whether children learn to read. We’re not just ensuring that they have access to school, but also that they’re really learning.”

Each year, millions of Western donors send billion of dollars in sponsorship aid to children in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Some donors see it as their moral responsibility to support a child in poverty, while others use sponsorship as an opportunity to teach their own kids about the developing world.

“[Sponsorship] provides you as an individual in the U.S. a connection with a child and community and country in another part of the world. It’s an opportunity to educate yourself and your family,” Gustavson. “The fact is that the need is so tremendously high in the places where we work, so as the leading economy in the world we have a duty to help.”

Many thousands of dollars in aid money are also lost each year to administrative fees, waste, and corruption, and it may be hard for U.S. families to identify legitimate, effective charities. Gustavson says to find an objective, third party site like Charity Navigator that rates NGOs.

“It’s important to look at the percentage of money that goes directly to the programs,” she said. “Educate yourself as a donor about what the organization is doing and whether you think that’s the right approach.”