Oh, those religious fund-raisers

GRETCHEN ASKS:

(Paraphrasing) She attended a fund-raising event for an unnamed organization where a slide show began by saying that “on the 8th day God created” this group and then presented its purposes. She found that “arrogant and self-serving” and it “bothered me beyond belief. Am I being overly sensitive?”

THE GUY ANSWERS:

In The Guy’s eyes, yes, you are. Still, religious offenses are in the eye of the beholder and fund-raising is well worth some examination. The late Henri Nouwen observed in A Spirituality of Fundraising (Upper Room Books) that work for financial support should be seen as a “ministry” of the kingdom, not “a necessary but unpleasant activity.”

Since this question is posed to “Religion Q and A” we can assume the organization is religious. Though The Guy wasn’t present, sounds like it was simply saying God created the cosmos in 6 days and rested on the 7th, while from day 8 forward to the present divinely aligned activities depend upon our human efforts. Understood correctly, that’s no heresy, and seems to The Guy he’s heard a sermon or three saying precisely that. This agency presumably believes it is working to carry forward God’s purposes in the world, which almost any church or religious charity might think or say about itself.

The “8th day” trope, meant to be clever or humorous, is also widely used in secular sloganeering. A quick Internet scan finds that on the 8th day God created, among other things: the Latina women on a dating site, the United States Marines, pricey automobiles, favorite TV shows, rock ‘n roll, football, hackers,  teachers, donuts, and — inevitably — beer (does this offend you Muslims and Protestant teetotalers?) and coffee (does this offend you Mormons?).

Perhaps The Guy’s sensitivities have been dulled by all those media references to religion that are sloppy, stupid, snide, or downright nasty. But he’s seen far worse than this 8th day pitch. Some charities ignore Jesus’ teachings about anonymity and lack of pride in giving (Matthew 6:1-4, Mark 12:41-44). Appeals can be irritating, heavy-handed, or even spiritually suspect. That’s especially a problem with some independent and “parachurch” ministries that get no denominational subsidies, survive by continually raising donations, and may be tempted to justify bad means by good ends. Instead of using in-house believers, groups may hire out-house fund-raisers who pile up profits and are clueless about religious niceties such as humility.

Practical tips from The Guy: Don’t go by emotional reactions to promotions, whether pro or con, in deciding which charitable causes beyond your own local congregation or religious denomination should get those hard-earned dollars. Rather, obtain solid information on financial transparency, how much money goes to executives or headquarters overhead, established reputation, and realistic track record.

Donors can obtain data on such things from sites like www.charitynavigator.org (a non-profit monitor that itself deserves donations). This team assesses the facts on scads of organizations and posts revealing Top 10 lists such as “charities overpaying for-profit fundraisers” (that get two-thirds or more of the donations), “highly-paid CEOs at low-rated charities” (earning $214,000 or more), “highly-rated charities with low-paid CEOs” ($52,986 at one Habitat for Humanity chapter), and “best charities everyone’s heard of” (among well-known religious agencies, Young Life is tops with 68.56 out of a perfect 70 score). Also check out: www.ministrywatch.com, www.ecfa.org and www.bbb.org/us/charity

About Richard Ostling

Richard N. Ostling, a religion writer for the Associated Press, was formerly senior correspondent for Time magazine, where he wrote twenty-three cover stories and was the religion writer for many years. He has also covered religion for the CBS Radio Network and the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer on PBS-TV.


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