by David Befus
At a recent conference of Christian organizations, my roommate told me of a donor retreat his agency had just sponsored where the two-day cost, including golf, was $50,000. It reminded me of a conversation I had recently had with someone I met at an Urbana missions convention.
At a recent conference of Christian organizations, my roommate told me of a donor retreat his agency had just sponsored where the two-day cost, including golf, was $50,000. It reminded me of a conversation I had recently had with someone I met at an Urbana missions convention. In his words, “A luncheon with a millionaire is worth more than a month of church meetings.” And yet, we don’t have millionaires supporting our missions. Why is this the case?
The faithful support of donors who give sacrificially for their sponsored missionary is one of the most efficient ways to channel resources in Christian ministry. Yet this mechanism is not well-known in fundraising circles, partly because missionaries and organizations are more focused on the cause supported than on the individual receiving support.
Deputized fundraising, as it is called by the United States Internal Revenue Service, allows the person involved in ministry to present their case to donors. Missionaries develop their own support team, which may include individuals, families and church groups. Recipients stay in contact with their partners primarily through email, letters and visits, and secondarily through visiting their ministries on partner trips. Support extends far beyond the financial component. Many mission agencies offer a network of services which offer opportunities for other types of interaction. And, of course, prayer is also a vital support link.
The mission agency recruits missionary candidates for service, often using screening filters to qualify potential missionaries. The agency connects the needs of the church with the calling of the individual or couple in ministry. After initial training and preparation, the agency oversees both the service activity and the well-being of the family. Many missionaries are often assigned to difficult contexts that involve intense cross-cultural interaction, so direct communication is necessary. The agency also receives and receipts funds, resulting in donor reports which detail the missionary’s financial accountability.
However, since the mission agency delegates primary responsibility for funding to the missionary, all of its services must be offered at a controlled cost. A percentage of gross revenues are allocated to cover all services (in Latin American Mission it is thirteen percent). This means a significant portion of donor funding is channeled into ministry.
Of course, the statistic “percentage channeled to projects/ministry” is not a common criteria used in evaluating the efficiency of non-profit organizations. Were it popular, faith missions would be doing very well by anyone’s standards. It is quite easy to see on the Form 990s (www.guidestar.com) that expenses of non-profit organizations can be easily re-defined to lower overhead or administrative costs. Promotional costs are labeled “education of the donor” and are part of the “Program.” But do donors know that when they send in a check, a good portion goes to advertising costs used to solicit their donation?
Yet this is also why donors will never hear of the efficiency of faith missions. Whereas the fundraising community sees no problem in spending up to fifty percent of revenues on advertising and promotion, the faith mission agency is restricted to a small percentage for its total costs of services. This has been encouraging.
However, a one-issue, full-page advertisement in a popular Christian magazine costs $20,000. Using the assistance of a fund raiser in writing donor letters costs thousands. Hiring a full-time fund raiser may cost in the hundreds of thousands. Many faith missions have been “selected” for television spots but have no idea how to pay for those spots.
Sadly, it is not simply money which is the issue. At a Christian conference for “tele-ministry” (phone solicitation), a fundraising professional told me of the benefits to having a phony postmark, tri-color underlining and individualized insertion of one’s name in creating a donor letter. Although the cost was an issue, I was baffled on how to make the missionary donor the center of the appeal. The good news is that missions do not have the money for any of this. Faith missions are required by the percentage limitation to send the major portion of revenues to ministry. The donor receives two additional benefits:
1. Oversight required for projects is offset by administrative office personnel who raise their own support. The true costs of managing projects are greater than the assessment charged. However, this is paid sacrificially by others!
2. Oversight required for projects is offset by the involvement of others who raise their own support. Latin America Mission manages many overseas health, education and economic development projects without any overhead costs. Other Christian agencies can either fund international and national staff or use their network of missionaries and ministries.
The truth about faith missions and the allocation of resources will forever remain a secret, simply because we have no funds with which to articulate it to donors. In fact, the reality is that in our financial reports, we do not present a lower, competitive overhead rate. Instead, we add the cost of donated services to the actual assessment, which results in an even higher overhead! Promoting ministry in the complex international environment in which we work is costly.
Special thanks to the thousands of donors who faithfully support missionaries through faith missions. We cannot offer you a golf party—most of us do not even know how to golf. However, we can offer you an efficient way to use your resources in expanding the Lord’s kingdom.
Dr. David Befus has worked in economic development in many countries and is currently president of Latin America Mission.
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