The problem with Protestant giving is less a matter of quantity than of quality. So much Protestant giving is “relational, emotional, and irrational,” laments Fred Smith, who heads The Gathering, an international group of Protestant donors. Although some donors have a strategy for their gifts, many do not, and the result is scattershot grants with no overarching purpose or tangible effect. Rather than devising an intentional approach, many donors just give to causes that friends lead them to, matching their grants as a favor. Others tend to give small amounts to a wide variety of causes in what one wag dubbed the “peanut butter approach”: spread thinly and evenly.
While Protestants give more to their churches than do other American believers, the proportion of all Christians who followed the biblical admonition to devote a tenth of their income to Kingdom purposes was only 7 percent in 2004, according to Barna Research, although that number rose to 23 percent among those counted as “evangelicals.”
Given the state of America’s predominantly Protestant culture, one may wonder whether our churches are producing the transformation of character they are supposed to achieve. On the other hand, careful donors can find remarkable fruits of faith, even if some of them have blossomed in unusual places. In the midst of the most troubled populations, faith-based organizations are helping addicts leave drugs, reducing recidivism in prisoners, diminishing criminal behavior in adolescents, preventing teen pregnancy, offering solid education to inner-city youngsters, sparking renewal through micro-enterprises, and renewing blighted communities. Sometimes the leaders of these efforts are former members of the populations they are serving—addicts, prostitutes, gang members, and prisoners who can say with conviction, “I changed, and with God’s help you can too.”
America has a remarkable array of faith-based organizations that do valuable work in changing human lives for the better. But many of them are virtually invisible to the philanthropic world, which explains why they typically struggle to support themselves on shoestring budgets, instead of expanding their healing to more of those who desperately need it.
There are two compelling reasons for Protestants to support these groups. One is a religious conviction shared with them. The other is an investment in the civic value of what they do. As Kitty Wojcik, then of the Washington Times Foundation, put it at a meeting of The Philanthropy Roundtable, “We don’t care what faith the organization has as long as it’s producing results. We’re investing in faith as an agent of change.”
Every drug addict who returns to sobriety, every prisoner who does not return to a life of crime, every at-risk youngster who graduates from high school has a significant human and civic value. To the extent faith-based groups produce reliable employees and taxpayers, thereby reducing the burden on public support, they contribute directly to the common good.
Keeping Head and Heart Together
Donors are often nervous about the religious content of faith-based organizations, with some donors fearing there is too much, others that there is too little. The former group would never give to an organization that required prayer, while the latter would never give to one that didn’t try to convert the participants. A spectrum of approaches exists between the two extremes, but in practice theological differences between evangelicals and mainline Protestants have produced a bifurcation that has philanthropic consequences. Evangelicals tend to have more interest in funding conversion and Bible literacy than in supporting charitable works like feeding the homeless and providing hands-on services. Fred Smith complains that “evangelicals have lost their head and mainline funding has lost its heart.” He says Protestant donors are doing soul searching because some “evangelicals have focused so much on conversion that they have lost sight” of the call to clothe the naked, feed the hungry, and visit the prisoner. And meanwhile, “mainline funders have lost sight of people in pursuing an agenda of social change”—they have backed political agendas in the name of the poor, in other words, while neglecting the particular spiritual and physical needs of individual poor people.
Dave Worland, who has established Christian Community Foundations throughout the country, says that teaching people how to give is an important task sadly neglected by financial
advisors as well as pastors. He urges donors to consider “where, how, and why” to give:
- Devise a grant strategy to figure out where to give.
- Choose the tools and techniques for how to give.
- And clarify motivation on why you give.
Some donors are stumped by the daunting task of finding faith-based programs worthy of investment. It’s so much easier to give to the bigger organizations that have slick publications and a national reputation, but are they doing effective work? Some are, and their professionalism is a credit to them. But some of the best work is done under the radar screen by small grassroots groups. They may be held together with duct tape, a wing, and a prayer, but they should not be overlooked. Many of them are achieving some of the nation’s most impressive successes in bringing “new life” and Christian mercy to persons bereft of hope.
Questions to Ask Before You Give
What characteristics should a donor look for in choosing a faith-based organization? It is naïve to assume that everything that calls itself faith-based is good, and it takes some looking to find the gems that are good investments. Donors should ask questions like these:
- Does the organization have a proven track record? Start-ups have a high rate of failure.
- In what way is faith a part of the modus operandi of the organization?
- Does their work go deep enough to accomplish lasting change? Transformation is a process, not an event.
- Do the leaders meet the “zip code” test? Those who live among the same population they serve are often the most effective. Parachuting in with outside solutions is seldom as effective as building up indigenous leadership.
- If the program is commodities based—for instance, a food bank—does it also build real relationships with those it serves? Meeting physical needs without addressing spiritual needs is shortsighted.
- Is the organization run as a responsible nonprofit? Many faith-based groups tend to be mission- and passion-driven, with a weak back office.
- Does the organization have Godly leadership that demonstrates integrity? There are spiritual charlatans out there, as well as street saints.
- What does a site visit tell you about their work? There’s no substitute for going and seeing for yourself.
It’s helpful to have a guide to navigate these unfamiliar waters. Generous Giving, The Gathering, and the National Christian Foundation all hold practical conferences for donors to discuss Christian giving strategies, and they serve as repositories of pooled knowledge about faith-based organizations. Philanthropic advisors who specialize in faith-based organizations are useful as well. So-called “intermediaries,” such as Leadership Foundations, work in 35 cities with a number of faith-based organizations and know the local street saints. (See Amy Sherman’s article “Scaling Up FBOs” in the July/August 2002 Philanthropy, and her Hudson Institute study on intermediaries, Empowering Compassion.)
The question of a donor’s motivation is perhaps the most crucial, and the one most gingerly discussed. People of faith have been charged to live their lives with their eyes fixed on eternity, not on this life. While many people devote much time and effort to their investment portfolio, few think about their “eternity portfolio.” Why is it that so few Christians approach their giving with this perspective? Daryl Heald of Generous Giving asked the Reverend John Stott, “Where’s the disconnect?” Stott answered, “It’s simple. The pew will never rise higher than the pulpit. Pastors learn practical ministry, but have had no training in stewardship.” Heald laments that the church hasn’t done a good job in teaching Christians how to give to Kingdom work. “It’s common to be in a small group and talk about faith and character,” he says, “but have you ever talked about giving?”
In his book Eternity Portfolio, Alan Gotthardt suggests that an eternity portfolio invests in meeting the spiritual and physical needs of others through “asset classes” of evangelism, discipleship, and mercy. He challenges investors to think about what has been entrusted to them, and what their investment strategy will yield, from the perspective of eternity. As St. Paul wrote, we must urge people of wealth “to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life.“
Barbara J. Elliott is founder of Center for Renewal in Houston and author of Street Saints: Renewing America’s Cities as well as A Guide to Giving to Faith-based Organizations. She is philanthropic advisor with the Legacy Group.