Financing and Fundraising in Ministry

If Philippians 4:19 is true (“My God will meet all your needs…”), why do so many Christian organizations constantly publicize their financial woes?

“Please be sensitive to God—send us your contribution,” pleads a radio and television preacher. “We must receive $300,000 by the end of the month or we’ll have to close our doors!” (Yet when only $100,000 comes in, the doors stay open. And it never seems to occur to anyone that God might want to close the ministry’s doors.)

Hudson Taylor, a pioneer missionary to China, said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” If a work is constantly in want of money, always begging for donations, either it’s not God’s work or it’s not being done in God’s way. Money is not an organization’s greatest asset. God is. Godly people and the goodness of the cause are additional assets. If a ministry has the right God, the right people, and the right cause, then the finances should also be right.

Should Needs Be Made Known?
Some “faith missions” don’t believe that specific needs should be made known. Instead, they say, God should be trusted to move people’s hearts to give. I understand and respect this position. However, it should be balanced with what Paul says in 2 Corinthians 1:8: “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about the hardships we suffered in the province of Asia.” His missionary team informed their supporting churches about their trials and needs. He saw other believers as participating in his ministry through their prayers (2 Corinthians 1:11). It’s difficult to pray effectively when the facts aren’t known. The same is true of giving. Most often, I give in response to a known need—but someone first has to inform me of it. Paul didn’t manipulate people when he shared a need, nor did he make them feel that without their giving God would not provide (Philippians 4:10-19). Paul also made the Corinthians aware of the needs of the Jerusalem poor (1 Corinthians 16:1-4). Then he went one step further to encourage them to take an offering for that need, to be distributed by his ministry team. He moved from information to persuasion, but never to manipulation.

The abundance of ministries in our society produces a competition for donor funds. For the leaders of these ministries it creates a sense of urgency—an unspoken philosophy that “we must get these funds before someone else does.” Some organizations come up with a new enemy each month, requiring huge amounts of money to combat, giving people a reason to choose them because their cause is more urgent. To undercut this sense of competition and to remind everyone that God has only one team, I recommend that ministries give away a percentage of their assets to support other ministries. In kingdom work, we all win or lose together, and we should rejoice at the gains of every Christ-centered ministry.

As ministries have grown and technology has developed, quality promotional materials are more easily produced—in stark contrast to the products of ditto machines and offset printers that were prevalent decades ago. Some ministries now produce full-color reports with stunning photographs and layout and design that is comparable to those of America’s top businesses. This isn’t necessarily wrong. But what if the money spent on slick, expensive publications was instead spent on the actual work of the ministry? If a television program costs $100,000 to produce and $200,000 to purchase the airtime—and then results in $400,000 in contributions to the ministry—is it a success? The ministry may come out $100,000 ahead, but in proportion to the $300,000 investment, can the expense be justified? What would donors think if they knew that three out of every four dollars given merely paid back the organization for what it spent to produce the invitation to give?

Support Raising
Many missionaries say that support raising is the part of their work they dread. Ironically, some of those who are most effective in doing the actual work of ministry are least effective in raising funds. The best approach to support raising involves prayerfully presenting the ministry, sharing the facts, and extending the opportunity to form a partnership. When it goes beyond that into “selling yourself,” with follow-up contacts pressing for a commitment, support raising loses its innocence. Churches and missions organizations need to become actively involved on behalf of their missionaries so they do not have to become something they aren’t—and shouldn’t be.

As a pastor, I came to believe that the raising of personal support had gotten out of hand. Support is one thing, but the “support mentality” is another. I’ve talked with men attending seminary who expected the church to pay their way. Their assumption was that if they were doing anything for God, his people should pay for it. But who pays an engineer, a physical therapist, or a nurse to get their training? They take a job, work extra hours, and make sacrifices. If God provides another way, they gladly accept it, but they don’t assume that someone owes them a free ride. Why should a seminary student be less willing to sacrifice for his sense of calling than those going into other professions? If he’s working hard and needs help, the body of Christ may well get involved. But he shouldn’t live in expectation of it.

George Müller’s Guidelines
George Müller was a nineteenth-century Englishman who founded orphanages that cared for thousands of homeless children. He was known for not soliciting funds or sharing facts and figures, but believing God would provide for every need of the ministry. For reasons they couldn’t explain, the hearts of people were often moved at particular times”the exact times they were needed—to give funds or provisions for the orphanages. The following are George Müller’s fundraising guidelines. Although I don’t believe the first guideline is universally valid (as I’ve mentioned above), I think the others should be prayerfully considered by any church or ministry:
1. No funds should ever be solicited. No facts or figures concerning needs are to be revealed by the workers in the orphanage to anyone, except to God in prayer.
2. No debt should ever be incurred.
3. Money contributed for a specific purpose should never be used for any other purpose.
4. All accounts should be audited annually by professional auditors.
5. No ego-pandering by publication of donors’ names with the amount of their gifts; each donor should be thanked privately.
6. No names of prominent or titled persons should be sought for the board or to advertise the institution.
7. The success of the institution should be measured not by the numbers served or by the amounts of money taken in, but by God’s blessing on the work, which is expected to be in proportion to the time spent in prayer.7

Fundraising will never rise above the level of character exhibited by Christian leaders, who are not to be lovers of money nor benders of truth for financial gain (1 Timothy 3:3, 8). We must not be “greedy for money” (1 Peter 5:2). Christian leaders and pastors need to take a strong stand for godly fundraising, not asking, “What are other ministries doing?” but, “Lord, what do you want us to do?”

Using Pressure to Raise Funds
In 1995, a charity called the Foundation for New Era Philanthropy declared bankruptcy, unveiling a fraudulent financial scheme that had taken more than $350 million from hundreds of individuals and charitable organizations. The victims had been convinced to deposit money with New Era because the foundation supposedly had a group of wealthy anonymous donors who would match the deposits and double them within six months. The operation was a pyramid or Ponzi scheme. There were no anonymous donors.8

More than two hundred evangelical Christian organizations lost money in the New Era scandal, including relief organizations, colleges, denominations, and local churches. Fortunately, more than 85 percent of the money was eventually recovered. But the scam revealed a disturbing financial desperation among evangelical organizations.

I’m the director of a small nonprofit organization. We receive support from donors. But because my book royalties are assigned to the ministry and we distribute them to others, we give away a large proportion of the amount we receive. You might ask, “Then why not just pay your own way and not take donations?” Because we want and need prayer, partnership, and accountability. We don’t keep a large amount of money in savings because we desire to use and give the money we’re entrusted, not stockpile it. I understand that many organizations have times of particular financial need, because we’ve had some ourselves. When we do, I go back to the seventeen financial principles I wrote when we started our ministry in 1990. The first principle is as follows:
Eternal Perspective Ministries belongs to Jesus Christ. EPM staff are privileged to be his servants (1 Corinthians 3:6-7). EPM will exist only as long as God wants it to. If it becomes evident that his purpose for EPM is finished, we will close our doors. The sun does not rise or set on this ministry. It is simply a tool at God’s disposal (2 Timothy 2:21), for him to use as—and as long as—he chooses.9
When EPM’s financial inflow dropped two years ago, we decided to close our ministry office on Fridays and lay off our most recently hired employee. When our revenues increased again, we realized that being closed on Fridays had saved money without significantly hampering our ministry. Through the shortage, we discovered a better way of operating, and we’ve continued it ever since. Not everything that requires more money is progress, and not all progress means spending more money. Sometimes it means spending less.

Ministries need to learn not to panic at financial crises. Speaking of “all kinds of trials,” Peter says, “These have come so that your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed” (1 Peter 1:6-7). Who brings financial struggles to our ministries? The default answer, judging by fundraising letters, is “Satan, to destroy God’s work and make us less effective.” But the better answer, based on this passage, is “God, to accomplish his work and make us more effective through deepened character and greater dependence on him.” We should not focus only on what measures will get us out of a financial crisis, but what God is wanting to teach us while we’re in the thick of it.

Concerns with Donor Conferences
I mentioned previously an invitation from a ministry active in Third World countries that was offering a luxurious stay at an exclusive resort in the Bahamas. I have in front of me an invitation from another organization to which our ministry made a one-time contribution of $5,000. The offer is for a two-week luxury cruise visiting seven countries. The ship stops at three ports where there are brief opportunities to observe ministries. It offers veranda rooms starting at $2,899. There are a number of extra charges listed, not to mention airfare to get to the port.

In today’s mail I received an invitation from another major evangelical ministry to a gathering called “Realities of the World’s Children in the Twenty-First Century,” centering on the plight of poor children. Enclosed is a picture of where the conference will be held—a gorgeous hotel sitting on a lake, described as “a world class destination…a beautiful resort with a blend of casual elegance, superb service, and world-class recreation. Throughout your stay, winding walkways will lure you through stunning displays of lush fountains and manicured courtyard gardens.…The resort offers breathtaking golf courses, smashing tennis facilities, a wonderful spa with staff to pamper you.” Then there’s the dinner cruise on a boat that’s no less than “exquisite.” True, some people are already taking such trips. So, why shouldn’t ministries offer them in a way that can stretch people’s vision for ministry? A great deal of money will likely be contributed by those going on these cruises and staying in these luxury hotels. Does the end justify the means?

Isn’t there something fundamentally inappropriate about using places steeped in luxury for people concerned about helping dying children, when the costs for the weekend, if spent on helping children instead, would keep thousands alive? Isn’t feeding into the allure of excessive lifestyles a problem rather than a solution? How can we wish our supporters would forgo luxuries to support kingdom causes, then turn around and offer them luxuries to support kingdom causes? Why are we appealing to—and justifying—something in donors that Christ may be seeking to overcome in them? (And in us?)

It’s appropriate for ministries to express sincere gratitude for acts of generous giving. What seems inappropriate is pampering these givers to motivate them toward further giving. (There’s also the effect on those in the ministry who start living a rich lifestyle vicariously through their donors.) Are expensive tours, chartered fishing trips, and exotic vacations necessary?

I sometimes speak at donor events in very nice surroundings, realizing that Paul says, “I have become all things to all men” (1 Corinthians 9:22). He also says, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Philippians 4:12). There are many wealthy people who need to be reached with the liberating truth of joyful giving. To reach them, we must go where they are or invite them where they will come. Yet perhaps we are doing a disservice to many, assuming that we must have the nicest possible accommodations to win their attendance at a conference, when if we focused on the opportunity to use money for God’s kingdom they might come just as willingly—and perhaps more so.

Shouldn’t we teach donors through our words and deeds that God is their rewarder, not us? The giving of good books and helpful gifts can be appropriate, but churches and ministries should be careful not to overshadow the biblical reasons for giving.

Ministries should not allow donors to determine policy. One mission was offered the free use of a beautiful luxury ship to take its donors up and down the coast of Africa so they could see their work among the poor. Fortunately, the ministry president saw that this would be inappropriate. But anything that a donor offers to pay for—including weekends in extravagant resorts—can be tempting. “We can’t really refuse something if it’s offered us, can we?” The answer is “Yes, we can.” And in some cases we certainly should.

Just as donors need to speak up and challenge ministries to spend their money more carefully, ministries with long-term relationships with donors earn the right to gently challenge them. Certainly we should not allow some donors’ expensive tastes to change how the ministry operates. Churches and ministries should offer mature spiritual leadership rather than follow the agendas set by every wealthy donor.

A delightful twenty-two-year-old woman came to me. She had suffered a disfiguring accident, followed by dozens of painful surgeries. Then she became wealthy through an insurance settlement. In a newspaper interview, she was asked, “What will you do with the money?” She said she wanted to support Christian ministries. In tears, she told me of the phone calls that followed from ministries and a Christian college. Suddenly everyone wanted to take her to lunch. Then she told me she’d been serving on the board of an evangelical mission. I asked her, “Do you think they’d have asked a twenty-two-year-old to be on the board if you weren’t wealthy?” She sobbed and said, “Since the money came in, I don’t know who really cares and who just wants to use me.”

Many donors have become cynical toward churches and ministries, believing that they are being courted only because of their wealth. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s true. (What more effective way to ensure significant giving than to put a wealthy person on the board?) Many ministries and a fair number of local churches do it, but courting big donors seems like the favoritism of the rich that Scripture explicitly condemns (James 2:1-5).

Relationships between Ministries and Donors
Psychiatrist and lecturer Dr. Roy Menninger states,
Having money to give away and the power to decide to whom to give it is intoxicating, and foundations can be irritating examples of the “narcissism of the righteous.”…We all need to be aware of some of the darker sides of human views of money and of giving and receiving, if we are to keep from exploiting the power position of the donor or the dependent position of the seeker.10
Ministry representatives and donors should conduct their interactions in a way that’s biblical and honest. Communication should be open, and false expectations should be avoided. We should commit ourselves to no game playing, hidden agendas, or unfounded assumptions.

Donors should understand and respect the ministry’s representatives and not take advantage of them from a power position. Donors and ministry representatives are both God’s slaves, his errand boys and girls. Both should be humble and transparent. Ministry representatives who constantly pump up donors, telling them how important and wonderful they are, forfeit the right to complain when donors turn around and act in a way that’s self-important. If you want someone to act humbly, feeding his pride isn’t the best strategy. We shouldn’t tempt donors toward the very things from which God seeks to deliver them—including pride (craving recognition and status), control, independence, and materialism.

Ministry staffers can fall into the trap of ingratiating themselves and flattering donors. This is manipulative and explicitly violates Scripture: “A lying tongue hates those it hurts, and a flattering mouth works ruin” (Proverbs 26:28); “He who rebukes a man will in the end gain more favor than he who has a flattering tongue” (Proverbs 28:23). Flattery never serves the interests of the person we’re flattering—it serves only our interests. Any relationship with a donor is unhealthy if a ministry leader or a pastor will not raise concerns about character or choices. Withholding the truth in the interests of not losing someone’s support is a disservice to the donors and to the Lord. Instead, we should speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).

Some donors see through flattery and don’t appreciate it, whereas others soak it up. Sometimes, genuine and healthy friendships develop in this context, but most donors aren’t looking for more close friends.

Someone told me he’d called a well-known leader on a matter of some urgency. A few weeks had gone by and the leader hadn’t called him back. He said, “I’m used to calling the ministries we support and having everyone know my name. People step out of meetings to take my calls. Now I know how people feel when they’re waiting for me to return their calls.”

This lesson in humility was healthy. It’s one reason I’m grateful to be part of a ministry that both receives substantial gifts and also grants them. I know what it’s like on both sides.

I’ve suggested to ministry representatives that they send us no-frills information letting us know about strategic projects. I will read these. There is no need for me to go on fishing trips or sightseeing tours or even regular lunches. If I spent my days and nights having dinner, traveling, and vacationing with people from all the organizations we support, I would have no time to write books and therefore would have much less to give to kingdom causes. Once I explain my perspective, most ministry representatives understand. I’ve found the majority to be gracious and kingdom-minded.

Ministry representatives shouldn’t presume to know whether it’s God’s will for a donor to give to a project. Likewise, donors shouldn’t presume to know God’s will for exactly how the money should be used once it’s given. When giving, we need to truly release funds into the care of stewards we trust.

Paid Celebrity Endorsements for Ministries
One of the most disturbing recent fundraising developments is paid celebrity endorsements of charities given at conferences and concerts. A speaker or musician might give an appeal for a ministry’s child sponsorships. For every child sponsored as a result of the appeal the performer receives $25 to $50. (In the secular world, this is called a kickback.)

A pastor’s wife attending a popular conference heard a speaker strongly endorse a ministry that works with needy children. On a hunch, the pastor’s wife asked the speaker afterward if she or the organization had been paid an endorsement fee. “Of course,” the speaker replied.
Speakers have been paid as much as $10,000 for a single large-event endorsement. Someone learned at a ministry board meeting that the organization was “negotiating” with a popular musician to get his endorsement. “What’s there to negotiate?” he asked. “Either someone believes in this ministry and is willing to give his money and time and name to it, or he doesn’t.” If someone is paid money by a ministry for asking an audience to give money to that ministry, it doesn’t qualify as a heartfelt endorsement. It seems more like a bribe or a payoff.

Satan is a master at twisting good things and perverting acts of grace and kindness into profit-seeking ventures. It’s commendable when speakers or musicians believe in a mission so much they would sacrifice to support it. It’s wonderful that they’d take an offering for that ministry. But to be paid for doing so—to take for themselves any amount of money given by those intending it to go to help poor children—is unethical. (If the audience knew, they would be heartsick and perhaps angry. God does know. Is he heartsick? Angry?)

I know a fine group of young musicians who were approached by a major missions organization asking them to promote its ministry. The mission offered them a 20 percent cut of all funds collected at their concerts. Suppose the lead singer made the following public statement: “Eighty percent of tonight’s offering will go to feed the hungry in Haiti; the other 20 percent will go to us as payment for bringing this to your attention.” If the truth was divulged, people would be able to act in light of it. But most ministries, musicians, and speakers wouldn’t agree to such a disclosure. Why? Because it would look bad for everyone. But if it looks bad, isn’t that because it is bad? If those involved would be embarrassed by disclosure, isn’t that an indication it shouldn’t be done in the first place? I think that veteran ministry leaders should be ashamed of themselves for putting this kind of temptation in front of young Christian musicians. They need examples of integrity, not offers that would compromise their integrity.

I have no problem with a ministry asking to present its vision to a speaker or group and then asking them to pray about calling attention to their cause. I have major problems with offering them a percentage of “the take” (once known as the offering). Unless this is done with full disclosure, unless clear verbal or printed recognition is made of this financial arrangement, the offering is a deception. Anything less than full disclosure to potential donors constitutes fraud. Such arrangements will inevitably promote abuse, and sometimes lead to public scandal. Consider the temptation to overstate or misrepresent needs or to speak with artificial enthusiasm for the poor, while thinking of the larger kickback they will get for doing so. Our enemies dish out enough temptations without us dispensing them to our friends. Think of a Christian speaker appealing to people to give to starving children, knowing what the audience doesn’t—his personal wealth will increase directly in proportion to what he says and how well he says it.

Imagine your pastor asking the congregation to dig deep and give to a mission to plant churches and give medical aid to the needy in rural Columbian villages. Hearts are moved. The church takes an offering and $50,000 is given. Praise God! Now imagine it’s a week later, and a church board member mentions that the pastor was paid $10,000 for making the plea and only $40,000 actually went to the mission. How would you respond? It may sound absurd—but that’s exactly the deal arranged by some Christian ministries with musicians.

Some say, “We don’t publicly disclose this arrangement, because even though we know it’s right to spend money to raise money, people would get the wrong idea. They’d misunderstand.” The real danger isn’t that people would misunderstand—it’s that they would understand. If they understood that part of the offering was going to the celebrity, not to the cause, they would see it for what it is, and probably not support it. (If I believed in the cause and knew of these arrangements, I would send my check directly to the organization, so more would go to needy children instead of to the celebrity. Shouldn’t I be given the information to allow me to make that choice?)

Taking an offering should be an opportunity to serve the needy, not a means to make money off the cause of the needy. The only way to know one’s motives are right in making the appeal is not to profit from the arrangement. Those in ministry should seek to serve, not to be served. (Isn’t that what ministry is about?) They should look for the right organization to support—which would presumably not be the one that offered them the kickback.

“But speakers are paid an honorarium—what’s the difference?” The difference is that people assume the speaker is being paid. If you attend a seminar, it’s understood that part of the cost goes to the speaker. If you pay for a concert, it’s understood that the funds go to the music group. No one’s being lied to or misled. But in the case of paid celebrity endorsements, people are being misled. Poll those attending and you’ll find that most believe the speaker or musician is voluntarily endorsing the ministry because God has touched his heart by it. The audience has no clue that the first several thousand dollars given, or a percentage of the total, goes not to the cause but to the speaker or musician.

The ministry may argue, “It costs money to make money. If we put a full-page ad in a magazine, or if we produce an infomercial, it will cost us a higher percentage of what’s given than if we pay 20 percent to a music group. If people realize it’s okay to spend money to advertise in a magazine, why isn’t it okay to pay to get the endorsement of a speaker or music group?”

The operative word is “realize.” Everyone knows that it costs money to put an ad in a magazine. But unless it’s explicitly disclosed, they have no clue that a speaker or music group is being paid for its endorsement.

“But the poor get more help than if we didn’t do this.” Who says we have to choose between misleading people and helping the poor? Believing that honest fundraising can’t be productive is an insult to God and his people. Personally, I believe that speakers or musicians who are endorsing a ministry and receiving nothing in return should make this clear. Doing this would be a great example to other speakers and musicians and would reassure the audience (who might otherwise become cynical as they learn about deceptive practices). Best of all, the speaker or musician’s reward would then come not from the ministry but from the Lord. We’re not to do things for those who can benefit us, but for those who can’t—and then God himself will reward us in heaven (Luke 14:12-14).

(this article was written by and used with the permission of  Randy Alcorn, Eternal Perspective Ministries, 39085 Pioneer Blvd., Suite 206, Sandy, OR 97055, 503-668-5200, www.epm.org)