by J. David Schmidt
Facing our ethical sloppiness in mission fund raising.
Sitting across the desk from my client, I could hardly believe my ears. We were working on his appeal letter. As we finished it up, he said, "Now let’s go back through it and add ‘Jesus Christ’ here and there for the little old ladies who will read this."
He was a good man, a seriously committed follower of Christ. His organization belonged to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. But when he wrote his appeal, the name of Jesus became an additive, fly paper if you will, to attract older supporters. That was my introduction to evangelical missions fund raising 15 years ago.
Are things different today? Have you read your mail lately? Crisis appeals abound. "Fake the donor" appeals with "emergency grams," personalization, photo inserts, and other "enhancements" stuff our mail boxes. Signature machines hum away "personalizing" letters from busy Christian leaders. Major donors get private time with our presidents; smaller donors get more mail.
In spite of our professed commitment to the Bible as our moral code, keeping our fund-raising practices above reproach continues to be a difficult assignment. Technological advancements and increasing knowledge about how and why donors respond further complicate matters. Sometimes the fund raiser’s "pen" becomes mightier than the Spirit’s sword, the word of God. Here’s an example of the kind of ethical bind we get ourselves into in raising money for missions.
Our agency was commissioned to write a direct mail appeal letter for a radio ministry. Our client was deeply committed to tell the truth, to honor donors’ intentions, and to use the funds to offset radio costs, not other expenses.
We asked for letters showing the impact of the ministry. We scoured through a thin pile of letters from listeners and eventually found two quotes we could use. We also wanted to help potential donors understand the impact of a $30 gift: how many minutes of air time it would buy and how many people the $30 would touch.
We called the network to find out how many people listened to this broadcast. They had not done any significant listener research, so no one could tell us.
The need for funds constrained us to resort to vague generalities: "Your $30 gift will touch literally hundreds of thousands." But we also wanted to be accurate. How many people really would be listening and be touched by the gift? In the end, we took the smallest radio station listenership we could verify and multiplied that by the number of stations airing the program.
This is a fairly typical experience in fund raising. There’s a viable ministry, led by people with integrity, and a legitimate need. Integrity wasn’t the problem. The problem was ethical diligence on the part of everyone making the appeal.
I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen evangelicals in mission organizations and their consultants acting dishonestly, manipulating people from a deceitful heart. Our moral code holds up. We are people of integrity. So where’s the problem?
Psalm 78:72 reads, "And David shepherded them with integrity of heart. With skillful hands he led them." Integrity of heart can still be achieved by inviting God to search our hearts for anything that offends him. Developing skillful hands, however, is a much more difficult assignment. I suspect our problem is with our hands and our willingness to make difficult, even costly decisions to elevate our fund raising above reproach.
Rising ministry costs put increasing pressure on our fund raising. We also face a less than enthusiastic baby boomer generation, the costly, difficult work of finding new supporters, and the challenge of keeping our current donors. We’re caught in tension between integrity in our appeals and telling glowing stories about our ministries. This tension has two aspects, one relating to our tongues and the other to our hearts. When we resolve the tension carelessly, or unskillfully, ethical sloppiness creeps in.
First, we want to challenge our supporters to rise to our organization’s vision, but we don’t want to overstate our progress in achieving our vision. When challenge becomes overstatement, we have not honored our donors the way God intends.
Mission agency appeals are strewn with foggy phrases. You know them well: "We face an incredible opportunity" … "Thousands were witnessed to"… "Hundreds more responded"… "God has set before us an open door" … "Literally dozens of churches were planted"… "The church has grown in unprecedented numbers."
These ill-defined descriptions of ministry vision and results may reflect more on the ineffectiveness of our ministries than on our ethics. Working with a number of agencies over the years, I have seen a significant correlation emerge: A high "fog index" in fund-raising communication usually reflects an ill-defined mission strategy and few, if any, results to report. When we lack a specific strategy and results, our tendency is to fall back on time-tested rhetoric. Can this possibly please God, even if it is his work we are raising money for?
I recently received an appeal letter from a school for a library and classroom building project, which was being touted as a new "center for world evangelism." What does this phrase imply? Curriculum changes. New purpose. Outreach to the city and overseas. Strategies and results. People coming to Christ. Churches planted. Of course, eventually some alumni may do those things, but the clear implication of the appeal was that the new facility was needed now to expand a current strategy. Truth or overstatement? Only the leaders can say.
Our ethical sharpness may be honed in the future because, more than previous generations, baby boomers do not respond to ill-defined visions and poorly documented results. Boomers have a nose for phony, trumped up appeals. If agencies hope to attract growing numbers of donors between 25 and 44, they will have to be specific. A second aspect of the tension between integrity and impact is our propensity to live beyond God’s call. Why else do so many organizations send crisis appeals, live on the edge of survival, use designated funds improperly, create the impression that God is in receivership, overburden staff, have payables at 120 days, and run roughshod over donors with heavy-handed appeals?
A vision of what God wants to do through our mission is one thing. But to live outside the circle God has drawn for us-to live beyond our means- only creates an atmosphere of crisis and confusion in our donors. The crisis appeal becomes not just a one-time event, but a planned annual activity.
Or consider the current "race to Russia." Mission agencies we thought we knew suddenly are distributing Bibles and having ministries in the Soviet Union. Is this sudden emphasis driven by our concern for lost people? Does it arise from long-standing mission commitment? Or have we found a new ministry because it makes good fund-raising sense?
We can say the door is now open, but the doors have been open for a long time for ministry in Gabon, but you won’t see many appeals for Bibles for Gabon in your mail this month. From our human vantage point, Gabon is not a "hot" fund-raising button.
Overstatement of vision and living beyond God’s will force us to need more money than God will supply. That’s when sloppy ethical practices can occur, as we pressure the system to deliver more income than it can. The result is the same as if we had no ethical moorings.
To avoid abuse and to raise our ethics above reproach means we must develop nimble, skillful hands in applying Scripture to fund raising. When we apply God’s principles we free ourselves from these tensions. The following four principles will bring freedom to our pens and keep us in line with God’s word.
1. The giver is more important than the gift. Proverbs 24:15,16 warns us to treat God’s people with respect, not to raid their dwellings, or wait for them like outlaws. Manipulative appeals that create larger than life impressions donors cannot verify make us tantamount to outlaws.
Missiologist John Gration says some missions fund-raising letters may be accurate, but like mirrors at an amusement park, they distort the image. Appeals, newsletters, and especially videos may not be entirely accurate representations of reality.
For example, it’s widely reported that 16,400 people come to Christ every day in Africa. It first appeared in a Christianity Today headline in 1983. I’ve seen this "fact" in any number of appeals from Bible distribution agencies, para-church ministries, and relief agencies. Every agency working in Africa claims a portion of this number as its own. People in the churches and our donors get the impression that because of our evangelism 16,000 people make decisions to follow Christ every day.
What we don’t report is the fact that 12,560 of these supposed converts are babies being born into Christian homes. The best estimate is that 3,840 people make decisions every day, and of those only 780 join the evangelical community. Capricious use of numbers and stories creates inaccurate impressions.
We respect our donors by creating accurate impressions with our pens. Consider this fairly common inaccurate impression from a newsletter I just received. Not once in the eight pages did I find any reference to the national church, or to ministry partnerships with local churches to disciple converts. My recent review of several publications yielded the same misleading picture. Why must we paint word pictures for our constituents that inaccurately depict our denomination or mission agency as the only one doing ministry in a certain place?
We respect our supporters by reporting income results back to them after our appeal has been made. We respect them by planning to avoid crisis appeals at all costs. We respect them by educating them, rather than appealing to the lowest common emotional denominator.
Whose heart is being expressed in our appeals? The staff writer’s? The consultant’s? Executive directors could at least write their own first drafts and have fewer letters ghost-written. This insures that donors really hear from those responsible for the ministry.
The home office people often lament the lack of good stories and hard facts from the field. Ultimately, the donors suffer because of this lack. Leaders could respect their donors by getting tough with missionaries who fail to pass on strong stories and testimonies from the front lines.
2. Everyone’ s gifts are important. Exodus 25:2 indicates that everyone, whatever the financial position, is invited to participate in funding God’s work. The prompting to give must come from the donor’s heart, not from external pressure.
Does this mean we should keep our large, unproductive mailing lists of people who used to give but don’t any longer? Hardly. Cleaning our lists of unresponsive people is good stewardship. But where do you draw the line?
Some consultants argue that we should remove anyone who doesn’t give what it costs to keep them on the list Is it really good stewardship to stop mailing to donors who give, but don’t give "enough"? I think not. By whose standards is enough enough? Can you imagine a pastor behaving like that?
Segmenting our lists to match donor interest and giving potential with needs is a common practice. But how far should we take it? Is it right, for example, to invite only major donors to receptions with the executive director, or to go on fishing trips with the president? How does this square with James 2 and the denunciation of favoritism for the rich?
3. Honor the donor’s free will. Second Corinthians 9:7 states that people should give of their own free will. No one forces donors to write checks, but we cross the line between proper motivation and manipulation when we play on a donor’s desire either to do God’s will or to meet human needs. Increasing the frequency of our appeals, the shrillness of our tone, segmenting lists, urgent phone calls, and special delivery letters may not be wrong, but when taken together they inhibit the donor’s exercise of his free will.
4. Treat the Lord’s offerings with respect. 1 Samuel 2 warns us we are to treat the Lord’s offering with respect. Automatically, we think of material excesses, but is that really where abuse occurs?
Can there be any greater ethical breach than to take donors’ gifts and then not pursue strategies to produce results? I’ve worked with mission agencies that were far more interested in perpetuating existing forms than in moving ahead, thereby losing the cutting edge of their effectiveness. I’ve worked with leaders who were far more interested in maintaining consensus than in being leaders. Conflicts were submerged and money came in, but ministry results were sketchy at best.
We may pride ourselves in driving Chevrolets instead of Cadillacs, but we never take a hard look at our church-planting strategies, or whether our organizations truly make a difference.
It’s important to observe once more: The new generation of donors, those under 44, will not tolerate ethical sloppiness. People want to see results and know with confidence that their gifts are respected-used wisely to advance God’s work.
We say there are places where we cannot show immediate results. True, but people are willing to wait for results, if they trust the leader’s integrity, and if leaders are willing to develop the donors’ understanding of the long-term strategy and goals.
Psalm 40:6-8 illustrates that God does not need us to save money for him. Decisions that bring our fund-raising practices under the lordship of Christ are far more important.
APPLICATION, NOT WISHFUL THINKING
In spite of increased difficulties in raising money, and with higher costs, we cannot allow our ethical practices to slip even a tiny bit. Perhaps each agency needs an impartial observer to study how its practices square with these four principles. Such an exercise would raise our standards and sharpen our skills.
Ethics is about right relations with God and his people. It is about respect for the giver and the gift. It is about taking care how we ask for money and how we use it.
It is not enough to belong to the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. Under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, we have to take regular looks at our practices. It is possible to belong to the ECFA and be a leader in mission circles, and still lack the skills needed to be above reproach in fund raising.
Only as we take steps to have integrity of heart and strengthen our skills in making ethical choices can we make the "sword" mightier than the "pen." Then we can shepherd our donors and treat them with the tenderness and watchful care that characterize the Great Shepherd’s care for us.
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