Monday, July 4, 2016

Giving wisely to charity

pancaked 4-story building in Haiti
Jonh and Marie Goode
Unless you’re a robot, the tragedy in Haiti a decade ago pulled at your heartstrings. 
Unfortunately, there are people out there who are as soulless as robots, who will use your emotions to rip you off. Here are some recommendations from various watchdog organizations on giving.

• Avoid giving food, clothing or other in-kind gifts unless 1. they are specifically requested, and 2. you know the group has a way to quickly and efficiently distribute them.
• Find out if the group you're planning to donate to already has an on-the-ground presence in the location of the emergency. Transportation in and out is a factor; so if a group doesn’t already have a significant presence there, how are they going to use your contribution?
• Giving online is dangerous. Make sure you know who is operating the site. Spammers have created and/or hijacked what look very much like legitimate sites. 
• Be highly suspicious of claims that 100 percent of your donation will go to victims. Every legitimate charity involves some operating costs. A claim of 60% to 85% of money raised actually reaching Haiti was considered reasonable at the time of their emergency. (Not by me, but it's considered reasonable by watchdog organizations. I'd set the bar a lot higher.) Legitimate costs are salaries for workers and executives, advertising the charity, etc. The problem is that since charities are non-profits, they are mostly unaccountable for what they take in and how they spend it. Do your homework. Google the officers of the charity, see if you can find out how high on the hog they are living.
• Don’t text your donation! I know, it’s convenient, but the money won’t likely get to the charity right away. Why not? (I know you would never do this but) some of your friends may have called a 900 number at some time. Does “900-meet-asian-chicks” get the money right away? No. First, your phone company has to bill you. Then you have to pay the bill. Then the phone company has to forward the portion collected to the 900 Asian Chicks company. The same thing can happen when texting money to charity. It could be a few months before your money is doing any good in the emergency area, and in the meantime, your phone company could be making money off the billing fees and the interest.

What about donating through your church? I don't mean the Pat Robertson/Jimmy Swaggert type of televangelist/con-men, I mean your corner church.
When the Haiti earthquake happened I selected 30 churches at random from the Phoenix phone book, and emailed them some questions about Haiti donations. Not surprisingly, most churches are reluctant to talk about the tons of loot they are raking in. Below is the text of my email, and the very few replies I got.

Dear Sir:
I write a column for I’m currently working on a column about donations for Haiti. I’m sending this email to a couple dozen churches in the Phoenix area. I would like your answers to the following questions:
• How many different services do you have in a week?
• What is your average attendance?
• Do you pass a collection plate at each service? 
• Do you pass it more than once? 
• Do you suggest/require a donation amount? How much?
• Do you communicate by letter, email, or phone call with your members regarding amounts they are suggested/required to donate?
• Besides the upkeep of your facility, what are the donations used for?
• Do you have salaried ministers or other local employees of the church?
• Are you asking your members to give something extra for Haiti?
• If so, are you taking that money from the regular donations, or do you have some special arrangement? (Passing a collection plate again, sending out request letters, etc.)
• If you are making special donation arrangements for Haiti, do you have a target figure?
• What percentage of the funds earmarked for Haiti do you expect to reach Haiti? (For example, the American Red Cross gets less than stellar reviews in several places on the web for spending too much on administrative costs.)
• Where are you sending the Haiti funds? (your organization’s upper management, CARE, United Way, etc.)
• What arrangement do you have for informing members of what they are contributing and how their money is being used?
I look forward to hearing from you.

A Baptist church replied: “We have 3 Sunday Worship Celebrations. And then a Wednesday evening Service that is a little different than Sunday's. Our total Sunday worship attendance is slightly more than 200, and we have Sunday small groups for all ages with attendance of about 150. Yes, we pass a collection plate at each service. No, we do not pass it more than once. We do not require a donation amount.” However, he followed that up with, “We do believe that a Christ Follower will be generous in giving and that the biblical minimum standard goal is the tithe, which is 10 percent of their income.” (For the record, tithing was a Jewish arrangement to support the Levites, who were not allowed to own land. It is not and never has been a Christian requirement. If it were, Jesus would not have died with no possessions other than the clothes on his back.) The minister hedged a bit on the question about sending collection letters. “To date 'no' to the suggested donations, and we do not 'require' donations.” His reply to how the money is used was also a bit vague: “Ministry, Missions, Personnel.” As to salaries, “1 full time pastor, and other part time staff.” Yes to the question of asking for something extra for Haiti. As to the question of special collections for Haiti: “Last Sunday all of our undesignated offerings (normal offerings not marked for a specific purpose) went to the Haitian Disaster Relief efforts. And now we will encourage our people to give if they wish to give more. We will have information in the Sunday bulletin and on our website that directs people to a trusted site for supporting the work.” 
On the question of what percentage of funds earmarked Haiti will be put to that use, he replied, “100%.” But the next question, where are you sending the Haiti funds, he answered, “It is going through our Arizona Southern Baptist Convention or through the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention.” But he already acknowledged that “pastors” and “staff” collect salaries, so how could “100%” be reaching Haiti? On the question of advising members about how the money is used: “We keep confidential records of all contributions that come through [our] Church, and give a report back to individuals who contribute. Regarding the Haitian Relief efforts the agencies through which we contribute will have various measures of reporting.”

Next reply was from a Lutheran church:
“This time of year we average 3000 [in attendance], average weekly for the whole year 1350. We pass the plate once each service. We do not suggest or require a donation amount. No requirements, all strictly voluntary.” His reply to how the money is used was also a bit vague. “Salaries of staff, program costs, mission trips and outreach, community service.” He also acknowledged that the ministers receive a salary. (I keep mentioning that because, as previously noted, Jesus died poor, Paul made tents to support himself, and Jesus told his followers, ‘You received free, give free.’ Since none of us have paid Jesus for our biblical education, how can anyone justify charging parishioners for his services?) To the question of asking members to give something extra for Haiti he answered, “Absolutely.” The next question about how they were collecting the ‘something extra’ for Haiti he answered vaguely, “special donations.” How? He already said they only pass the plate once, and that they don’t send dunning letters. As to a target figure, he said they have no target, but that when the tsunami hit southeast Asia, they raised over $30,000. As to the percent of the funds for Haiti he expected to reach Haiti, he too replied, “100%.” On the question of where the funds are going he answered, “We send them through our national church office, to a related organization set up to handle disaster relief around the world: Lutheran Disaster Relief. No overhead, all to direct aid.” That sounds great! However, I searched for “Lutheran Disaster Relief” and found no such organization. I did find an organization called Lutheran Disaster Response, probably what he meant. When I clicked on that, it took me to the website of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, where asking for money for Haiti is clearly their top agenda at the moment. At the bottom of the page, in really tiny letters was this caveat: “Any funds not needed for this relief effort will be used for other disaster purposes as determined by LCMS World Relief and Human Care.” As with the Baptists, if their ministers and staff are salaried, they are not sending 100% to Haiti.

The next reply I got was also from a Lutheran church. "We have 3 services per week with an average attendance of a little under 500. We do pass collection plates in each service and that offering supports the overall ministry of [our church.] We have some staff people including myself (Senior Pastor), an office staff, and we operate a pre-school.” (Wait a minute, I’m just guessing here, but isn’t it likely that parents who make use of the preschool are required to pay for that service, rather than it being supported by the collection plate? Hmmm.) “We continue to encourage our members to contribute financially for the aid of the people of Haiti by supporting LC-MS World Relief and Human Care. This organization has had workers on the ground in Haiti from very early on after the disaster helping with food, water and medical needs, emergency housing and spiritual needs in many ways.” I finally got an honest answer regarding the percentage of donations that would actually reach Haiti. “I don’t know the exact percentage of administrative costs verses dollars directly to services and resources but you can likely find such information through their website.” No, actually, you can’t. What I did find, in addition to the warning already noted about how they can use your funds however they see fit, was some salary information.

As of 2006, the President of the LCMS received a salary of $158,870. The First Vice President, $129,160. The Secretary: $147,263. Vice President/Treasurer: $147,263. Chief Administrative Officer: $129,160. Executive officers of major legal entities (Corporate Synod, CPH, CHI, Church Extension Fund, Foundation) received an average annual salary of $133,864. Executive directors of Corporate Synod, WBP, other boards, commissions and departments including LCEF and LCMS Foundation) and CPH VP and other officers received an average salary of $122,350. 
The Lutheran minister continued: “We have published [the website] information for our members and encouraged them to give personal donations in addition to what we do collectively as a congregation.” (You might want to be careful about that… if your members start poking around like I did and discover where their money is going your donations might dry up.) “We do not require specific amounts of donations but we do know many of our members are quite generous in giving for a number of needs.” Let’s do some math, shall we? 1500 visitors a week. Since I’ve never been to a Lutheran church service, I have no idea what a ‘generous’ contribution is, but If each one drops $5 in the collection plate, that’s $18,000 a month, $216,000 a year! I hope someone from the Arizona tax office reads this column. Taxing churches could quickly balance the budget.

The next reply I got was from the executive assistant to the pastor of City of Grace Church, who declined to answer the questions herself, and advised me that the pastor was unable to do so as he was in Haiti with the City of Grace Disaster Relief team.

The last reply I got was from an elder at a Jehovah’s Witnesses Kingdom Hall. 
He wrote: 
“Our kingdom hall is used by four congregations to avoid crowding and to allow us to get to know each other better. Each congregation meets twice a week, attendance averages 110 per meeting. No collections are ever taken in any kingdom hall anywhere in the world. No plate is passed, no dunning letters are sent out. We do not tithe. We have no paid ministers or staff. Each congregation is presided over by an unpaid body of elders, none superior to any other. We have a box at the back of the hall with a slot in the top where people can anonymously contribute what they can, if they wish, to pay for the utilities and maintenance of the building. We keep costs down by all of us – elders and publishers – jointly working together on cleaning and maintenance projects. We have another box where people can drop a contribution, if they wish, to the worldwide work of Jehovah’s Witnesses. That money supports the printing of millions of copies of The Watchtower and Awake magazines, Bibles, and other study aids. These publications are not sold; they are given freely to any who agree to read them. 
"The brothers and sisters who live and work at the world headquarters in New York and in branch offices around the world are all volunteers. None – from the newest laborer to the members of the governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses – receive a salary. The funds sent in for the worldwide work also support thousands of missionaries in other lands. Our missionaries are not school teachers or social workers. They devote their full time to teaching people the Bible. As all our meetings are about studying the Bible, money is not mentioned. Occasionally a letter is read thanking the congregation for contributions received. Every penny contributed is scrupulously accounted for, and every member of the congregation can see an accounting of what the money was spent on. 
"There is no special collection for Haiti; there is no need to urge anyone to help. Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide consider ourselves a brotherhood, and the problems of our brothers in Haiti are the same as if they happened to our literal family members. Jehovah’s Witnesses in Dominican Republic were on the road to Haiti with relief supplies within hours after the quake hit. Several Witness doctors from Dominican Republic and elsewhere have been working almost nonstop since the quake. Money and other supplies from the Watchtower Society headquarters in Brooklyn, New York, were sent immediately to Haiti and Dominican Republic, and supplies and money are still pouring in. Of course, no repayment will ever be asked for or expected… we know they would do the same for us.”

Well, that was refreshing. I went to and searched it for references to money, donations, charity. All I found were Watchtower articles such as “Is money your master or your servant?” and “Is pursuit of money making you sick?” The only mention of money I found in connection with Haiti was in a public news release at entitled “Witnesses’ relief efforts well under way for victims of earthquake in Haiti.” A single line at the bottom read, “The Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses is caring for these expenses by utilizing funds donated to the Witnesses’ worldwide work.”

For more information on safe giving, Check out
 Bill K. Underwood is a columnist and author of several books. You can help support this channel by following this link to

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