If you are looking for a Christian relief organization working in Haiti, let me recommend WFR Relief, located in Louisiana. Led by Don Yelton, WFR has a solid track record for effective compassion in times of disaster, having “provided humanitarian aid and disaster relief in 50 countries since 1981.” They distinguished themselves, for instance, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
In a column in this past Saturday’s religion section, Charles Honey reflects on the second great love commandment in the context of the national health care debate.
Honey’s piece starts out on a very strong note, detailing the perspective of Dr. John Vander Kolk, director of a local non-profit initiative focused on the uninsured:
“Where would we see Jesus in our culture?” asks the member of Ada Bible Church. “He would be down there with his sleeves rolled up, helping the people that don’t have any access (to health care). That’s what we’re being called to do.”
An editorial published this month by George Barna takes a similar point of departure.
In short, Jesus Christ showed us that anyone who follows Him is expected to address the most pressing needs of others. You can describe Jesus’ health care strategy in four words: whoever, whatever, whenever, wherever. Whoever needed to be healed received His healing touch. Whatever affliction they suffered from, He addressed it. Whenever the opportunity to heal arose, He seized it. Wherever they happened to be, He took care of it.
But it is after this shared perspective that the respective pieces on health care and the Christian faith part ways.
Honey’s piece continues to argue, in the vein of the Forty Days for Health Reform, that the gospel imperative is best met through government action. “For many, it’s about treating others as you would want to be treated — seeing to it that they get the decent medical care you and I would expect. It’s just not that complicated.”
Barna, however, ends on a note of personal challenge. He writes,
Government clearly has a role in people’s lives; the Bible supports its existence and circumscribed functions. It is unfortunate that when God’s people, collectively known as the Church, fail to exhibit the compassion and service that He has called us to provide, we are comfortable with the government acting as a national safety net. In a society that has become increasingly self-centered and self-indulgent, we simply expand our reliance upon the government to provide solutions and services that are the responsibility of Christ followers. Some Christians have heeded the call, as evidenced by the medical clinics, pregnancy centers and even hospitals across the nation that were initiated and funded by small numbers of dedicated believers who grasped this responsibility. Imagine what an impact the Church would have on society if it truly reflected the model Jesus gave us of how to care for one another!
This echoes the words of Abraham Kuyper, who in an address on the social question of poverty, wrote, “The holy art of ‘giving for Jesus’ sake’ ought to be much more strongly developed among us Christians. Never forget that all state relief for the poor is a blot on the honour of your Saviour.”
Ron Sider: “If American Christians simply gave a tithe rather than the current one-quarter of a tithe, there would be enough private Christian dollars to provide basic health care and education to all the poor of the earth. And we would still have an extra $60-70 billion left over for evangelism around the world.”
Jim Wallis: “I often point out that the church can’t rebuild levees and provide health insurance for 47 million people who don’t have it.”
There’s more evidence that amidst the economic downturn people are becoming more careful and intentional about the kinds of charities they fund. We’ve seen that those likely to continue to flourish are those that have cultivated a “family-like” connection with their donors.
Often more local charities do well in this kind of climate. And, of course, the focus of the charity matters, too.
Robert J. Samuelson reports (HT: Theolog) that charitable giving was down $308 billion in 2008, and will likely be down even more this year. This will undoubtedly be due to less excess out of which to give, as well as potential changes to the tax code discouraging high levels of giving by the wealthy.
But Samuelson points out an exception to this trend. Feeding America, a group dedicated to providing resources for local food banks, has seen funding jump by 42%. Ross Fraser of Feeding America said, “Charities such as ours do well when times are hard. If you have to choose between giving to the ballet and feeding a hungry child, who’s going to win?” As Samuelson writes this dynamic “compounds the pressure on other nonprofits: colleges, hospitals, and environmental groups.”
Givers can be quite savvy, giving to the areas they perceive to be the most pressing. That’s why giving patterns can change quickly and respond to broader economic and social trends. With unemployment up and foreclosures on the rise, it makes good sense that food banks and other similar aid groups would have a competitive advantage relative to other kinds of non-profits.
Dr. David Murray of Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary investigates the concept of “biblical fundraising,” reasons to continue to give in the midst of difficult economic times, in the latest edition of his vcast, “puritanPod.” Dr. Murray uses 2 Corinthians 9 as the basis for his brief but valuable message.
Check out the video here.
CEO Dr. Gordon Loux cited a “perfect storm” of fiscal hardship: “We have tried to turn it around and we’ve sent out a number of appeals,” he said. “But because of the West Michigan economy and because of donor fatigue of most organizations trying to raise funds, we’ve got the perfect storm.”
In May, longtime CEO and president Myles Fish resigned, citing a restructuring plan focused on handling decreased levels of giving. According to Charity Navigator, International Aid was a model of efficiency in 2007, with 95% of funds being directed to program expenses and garnering a four star rating for both organizational efficiency and organizational capacity.
Founded in 1980, International Aid, “a Christian-based organization known for helping millions around the world, particularly in developing countries hit hard by natural disasters,” received about 40% of its revenue from individual contributions, with foundation support accounting for just over a quarter of support.
Background: “Global Giving and Local Needs”
I had occasion to ask a leader in a denominational global relief agency today whether he had seen any decline in North American interest in addressing international poverty, given the recent economic downturn. He said that he had among some of the major foundations and donors, who were being inundated with more local requests for funds (food banks, and so on). But he also said that among most mid-level and smaller givers, they were matching if not exceeding previous patterns of giving.
When I asked him to elaborate about why he thought this might be, he said that in times of challenge and crisis, those of us in the first “third” of the economic world are able to often gain better insight into just how advantaged we are. What if you were faced with a debilitating illness or unemployment in a country that doesn’t have the resources available in the United States? It’s a truism that economic instability affects those with the least amount of financial cushion.
This explanation dovetails nicely with what has turned up in the research of Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow. In an interview with CT editor David Neff about his new book, Boundless Faith: The Global Outreach of American Churches, Wuthnow says in part about the possible outcomes of the economic crisis,
It’s very likely that some churches are going to be saying that being involved on the other side of the world is a nice extra, but we can’t afford it right now. We have to focus on the needs at home. Hopefully that won’t be the only response, because when the world economy goes into a slump, people at the poorest end of the spectrum are usually the ones who suffer most, and therefore the giving and relief efforts are needed all the more.
Certainly some churches will “scale back,” as Wuthnow says. But other individuals and churches will keep the scales balanced, so to speak, or perhaps even “scale up.” A great deal of the difference seems to do with the kinds of relationships that are cultivated between all the parties involved.
This month’s Christianity Today features a cover package devoted to the challenge faced by non-profit ministries amidst the recent economic downturn. The lengthy analysis defies any easy or simplistic summary of the state of Christian charity. There are examples of ministries that are scaling back as well as those who are enjoying donations at increased levels.
Compassion International and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship are cited as those bucking the conventional logic that giving to charities decreases during a recession. “So far, many parachurch ministries are not facing the same income declines as other organizations. In fact, some are forging ahead with bold initiatives that seemingly defy the dour economic tone,” writes John W. Kennedy.
At the same time, Prison Fellowship laid of 40 staffers in January as part of a 12% budget reduction. And in a more recent move, International Aid, based in Spring Lake, Michigan, announced the resignation of Myles Fish as president and CEO. Following a sharp decline in donations, the agreement for Fish to resign is part of a larger restructuring plan to deal with decreased income.
Fish reported that revenue fell by about $600,000 in December of 2008. “People are perhaps more focused on the needs of the local agencies than the international ones,” he said.
So while the results reported by CT might well give us a less pessimistic perspective on the landscape of Christian giving, it also seems true that the economic downturn is changing not only spending habits but also giving patterns. Charities with more marginal loyalties are more likely to suffer than those with a “family-like link,” and there also appears to be a correlative move toward local rather than international needs.
This may not be all bad. I’m not in principle against voluntary wealth transfers between citizens in richer and poorer nations, and I support the work of groups like Compassion International and Five Talents. But the ability for givers to be significantly involved in keeping tabs on the oversight and administration of an agency is usually reduced as the focus moves away from local involvement.
Here is quite the unique story from 13WMAZ in Macon, Georgia. The clip highlights what Army Staff Sergeant Jeremy Snow is doing to help those in need during the Christmas season. While serving in Iraq, Staff Sergeant Snow and friends from his unit have been shopping online and sending food, new clothes, and even mp3 players back to his mother, who is retired military. Margie Snow then unpacks and hands the gifts over to the local Loaves and Fishes ministry for distribution. “Everyday he calls about a different box on its way,” she says.
While the story is unique, in light of all the care packages that leave the U.S. for Iraq, it is not surprising when you consider the character of so many who serve in our Armed Forces. One of my first reactions after reading the story and watching the news video is that there is little excuse not to give after learning about Staff Sergeant Snow’s first class generosity. It is of course common knowledge that those who serve in the military do so with a modest salary, especially among the enlisted ranks.
In life, I think it’s always helpful to think about how you want to define yourself, how would you like other people to perceive you, and who would you like to emulate? Giving is one of the clearest examples I can think of that reflects your inner and outward character.
Also always deserving a mention is the United States Marine Corps Reserve and their 61 year program of bringing the joy of Christmas to needy children nationwide through their Toys for Tots Foundation. Below is a great commercial promoting their charity.
We’re a fortnight away from the new year, and that means that you are probably getting a spate of letters, postcards, and packages appealing for your donations in this critical giving season. I want to point out a number of opportunities to help you decide where your charitable dollars ought to go.
Your first stop should always be the Acton Institute’s Samaritan Guide, a project that goes beyond the information available from the standard IRS forms that power other charity rating sites. The Samaritan Guide focuses on charities that take little or no government money and attempt to integrate faith into their works of love. You can use the Guide to focus on charities by location, type of service provided, and a variety of other factors to find one that suits the kind of work you feel called to support.
You should also keep your eye out for non-traditional ways of giving, which may make your dollar stretch further than usual. One way to integrate giving into your daily activity is by using a service like GoodSearch, which gives money to a charity of your choice every time you use their Yahoo-powered search engine. And of special note during the gift-giving season is the related GoodShop service, which partners with online merchants to shift a portion of the money you spend online to your selected charity. You can assign the Acton Institute to be your GoodSearch and GoodShop recipient by clicking here.
Other ways you can get more bang for your charitable buck is by looking for matching grant opportunities, and the Acton Institute has an incredible chance for you to double or even triple the amount of your contribution. Thanks to the generosity of a stalwart supporter, the Acton Institute has the opportunity to triple donations received from now until January 15, 2009 through a very generous 2-to-1 matching grant (for renewing supporters, the grant will match the increase from last years giving).
Please act quickly to help us leverage your contributions to the Acton Institute. To donate now via our secure online form, please click here. With your involvement, and the help of others, we can realize the full potential of this matching grant opportunity. As always, your gift will help us continue to promote a free and virtuous society. If you have any questions related to this extraordinary giving opportunity, please contact us at (616) 454-3080.
If the recent financial crisis teaches us anything, it should be the value of the institutions of civil society that depend on the charity of the people. With tools like the Samaritan Guide, you can give smarter and more effectively. But this Christmas season, be sure to give as you have been given.