Thinking Out Loud

October 1, 2015

The Business of Charity

Portions of today’s blog post have been edited to avoid specificity.

Earlier in the week we had a trip into the big city, and Mrs. W. suggested there was a place she needed to go as they are the sole supplier of a particular item she needs for a particular hobby. So after dealing with the necessities that took us there, we ventured into some new territory, only to discover her supplier was across the road from a well known Canadian Christian charity.

Not wanting to miss the opportunity, I dropped in. I’m not sure whether or not this happens frequently or not, but they didn’t seem to have a protocol for this. Nonetheless someone was fetched and she answered a few of my questions, and then I asked her if it was possible to have a quick tour.

Now she could have easily turned us down, but she took the time to show us around the building which was larger than I expected for an agency of this nature. It’s easy to judge from the outside, but I am not aware of all the many facets of their ministry, so I just took it as given that better minds than mine had determined that both the facility and the staffing level were right-sized.

Still, having been around the Christian scene for a long time now, I am sometimes able to sense things. I guess that having worked for Christian organizations that have been forced to operate on a shoestring, I am always surprised at the size and scope of the larger ones, a reminder, as I said when we were walking back to the car, that charity is a business (of a sort) and is part of a larger industry (of a sort) of charities and not-for-profits.

Generally, I was surprised at the number of offices and staff, even though the number is probably conservative by charity standards. I will admit that getting this balance right is probably a science, as indicated by the chart below:

The Business of Charity

I once worked for a Christian organization that paid their staff “based on needs.” As a single, young person fresh out of college and still living at home, I was paid very poorly. (They later faced a lawsuit over this practice, and I was issued a subpoena but was released after I told them I didn’t work concurrent with the woman who launched the suit.)

On the other extreme, a friend of mine once visited the head office of a better-known Christian charity and reported entering the lobby and “sinking in the plush carpeting.” While that person may have been given to exaggeration, I don’t question the report of a grand piano in the “guest reception room.”

I believe that probably fewer people would give the organization I visited money if they saw what I saw, but then again, I’m not sure that some people would continue giving money to their local church if they saw the invoices for floral arrangements sent to funeral homes. Or that the church really needed to lease a third copier/printer which doesn’t do anything that the other two don’t do. One one level, perhaps my tour yielded too much information.

What I do think however, is that the type of “drop in” that I did should be more the norm than the exception. The organization should have a designated person who can deal with spontaneous public relations opportunities that arise, and also be able to offer an apologetic for why the various staff are needed in conjunction with the organization’s mandate or mission statement.

On another level, it never hurts for the people who do the actual giving to be better informed.



September 19, 2015

What if Crowdfunding Set a Different Time Frame?

Filed under: economics — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:54 am


Driving home Friday night a talk radio station was discussing crowdfunding as “the new panhandling.” The hosts were skeptical about the projects, the necessity, the ethics and the fact that it has become all too easy to put your request out there and wait for a response.

That got me thinking (but not out loud, as the drivers in the other lanes tend to worry when the guy in the next car is talking to himself.)

What if instead of crowdfunding people for something they say they are going to do, what if there was a site which allowed people to help someone for something they’ve already done?

Something like, “Last week my wife and I got to participate in a great opportunity to help some individual/group/cause in a special way, but now we are unexpectedly out of pocket to the tune of $3,000 and would like to find others who can share in the blessing of what happened that day.”

The obvious benefit here is that instead of wondering if the trip is going to be funded, the charity album is going to get recorded, the business is going to be launched or the medical treatment is going to be deemed necessary; the thing, whatever it is, is already a done deal. There can be pictures, documentation, links.

It’s a way of saying, “I/we believed in this to such a great extent, that before there was an opportunity to create a web page and ask people for help, we stuck our necks out and wrote the check (or bought the ticket, or booked the flight or studio time or concert hall, or registered the trademark, or started filming). But now we want you to help us in something that is already past the half-way mark in development.” Or, “…something that is already a fait accompli.”

That way you could trust that the project is not a pipe dream or a flight of fancy. You would know that the gears are in motion.

If you’ve ever been unemployed you know the adage that it’s easier to get a job when you are already working. There’s a momentum there, which leads to a confidence. Similarly, I would argue that it’s easier to get people on board for something that has already gained traction, or has already proven itself. Some people like to back a winner; as it stands now, most crowdfunding projects are at best a wish.

What we’re really asking here, is what if some of crowdfunding was about events in the past, not conjecture about a possible future.

Let’s suppose for a minute that the person seeking the funding was required to show the project had some substance? What if the person seeking help was asked to prove that they have also put some of their own capital into the request in question? Wouldn’t that encourage others to get on board?

So what’s a good name for such a website?

images for graphic collage: Plan To Start

September 15, 2015

Imagine 100 Jets Crash Killing 26,000…and the Next Day it Happens Again

World Vision president Richard Stearns in the book, The Hole in Our Gospel: The Answer that Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World (Thomas Nelson, ECPA Christian Book of the Year, 2009)

Whenever a major jetliner crashes anywhere in the world, it inevitably sets off a worldwide media frenzy covering every aspect of the tragedy.  I want you to imagine for a moment that you woke up this morning to the following headline:  “One Hundred Jetliners Crash, Killing 26,500.”  Think of the pandemonium this would create across the world as heads of state, parliaments and congresses convened to grapple with the nature and causes of this tragedy.  Think about the avalanche of media coverage that it would ignite around the globe as reporters shared the shocking news and tried to communicate its implications for the world.  Air travel would no doubt grind to a halt as governments shut down airlines and panicked air travelers cancelled their trips.  The National Transportation Safety Board and perhaps the FBI, CIA, and local law enforcement  agencies and their international equivalents would mobilize investigations and dedicate whatever manpower was required to understand what happened and to prevent it from happening again.

Now imagine that the very next day, one hundred more planes crashed – and one hundred more the next, and the next, and the next.  It is unimaginable that something this terrible could ever happen.

But it did – and it does.

It happened today, and it happened yesterday.  It will happen again tomorrow.  But there was no media coverage.  No heads of state, parliaments or congresses stopped what they were doing to address the crisis and no investigations were launched.  Yet more than 26,500 children died yesterday of preventable causes related to their poverty, and it will happen again today and tomorrow and the day after that.  Almost 10 million children will be dead in the course of a year.  So why does the crash of a single plane dominate the front pages of newspapers across the world while the equivalent of one hundred planes filled with children crashing daily never reaches our ears?  And even though we now have the awareness, the access,  and the ability to stop it, why have we chosen not to?  Perhaps one reason is that these kids who are dying are not our kid; they’re somebody else’s.

pp 106-107

July 12, 2015

The Charity Fundraising Paradox

dollar signAmid last week’s news, you may have missed a small tempest that was created when it was revealed that former U.S. President George W. Bush received a $100,000 fee for speaking at a fundraising gala for the Veteran’s Administration. The charity also paid $20,000 for a private jet to fly him to the event. Interviewed on ABC News, one veteran was particular upset that Bush had sent many soldiers into war, and was now reaping a personal profit from speaking at the charity which assists the wounded assimilate back into society.

The New York Daily News noted this as well:

Former Marine Eddie Wright, who served on the charity’s board and lost both hands in a 2004 rocket attack in Iraq, told ABC he didn’t think it was right for Bush to have been paid to raise money for vets through the group, which provides adapted homes to service members who became disabled in combat.

“You sent me to war,” Wright said of Bush, according to ABC.

“I was doing what you told me to do, gladly for you and our country and I have no regrets. But it’s kind of a slap in the face.”

While you might wish to join the ranks of the outraged, it’s worth noting that this particular gala event tends to raise at least one or two million dollars annually. It’s chairman is quoted at Huffington Post as saying,

“The event raised unprecedented funds that are putting our nation’s heroes into specially adapted homes throughout the United States. His presence was appreciated by the veterans and supporters of the organization.”

And therein lies the crux of the problem. In charity, as everywhere else, you have to spend money to make money. Recently here, we wrote about a situation that came to light in the Family Christian Stores hearings, that the bookstore was paid up to $185 for each fresh child sponsor the bookstore chain signed up. At that time we wrote,

Let’s do some math here.  The sponsor is paying World Vision $35 per month per child. That means that for the first 5.28 months, the organization has yet to break even. It’s really into the 6th month that the sponsor’s donation is free and clear, but of course there are also overhead costs in that $35 that we don’t know. 

In charity parlance, this type of thing is known as “development costs.” There are organizations that carry out this function in different ways; one of the most common is having someone on staff available to older donors for things like “estate planning” or “writing a will.” Years ago, I knew one large church that had a staff member for this purpose, though the modern megachurch tends to attract younger adherents, many of whom haven’t totally embraced the possibility they might someday die.

World Vision in particular is known for having a very high percentage of its operational costs committed to fundraising. For charities like them, the George W. Bush story is a no-brainer: You bring in whatever political figure, actor, singer, author, or sports hero that will attract the right crowd. You do it at whatever cost.


April 21, 2015

World Vision Paying Bookstore Up To $185 For Each Child Sponsor

Free Press

An article published Sunday in the Detroit Free Press on the receivership/restructuring of Family Christian Stores (FCS) carried information not seen to this point, including the amount of kickbacks the chain received from World Vision for each child sponsor recruited. 

We can attest to the solicitations personally; going through the FCS checkout there is a litany of pitches including bonus buy offers, but also charitable causes including placing Bibles in prisons, and child sponsorship:

The one which was most shocking was the amount of the “bounty” paid the company each time someone signed up to sponsor a child through World Vision:

Family Christian has also benefited from customers who sign up to sponsor a third-party group called World Vision, which provides food, clothing and shelter to impoverished children throughout the world.

The chain solicits sponsorships from its customers and receives a $150 fee from World Vision for each customer who signs up and pays the monthly fee, according to records obtained by the Free Press. Family Christian receives another $35 if the customer signs up for automatic payments.

Again, you’re encouraged to read it all at The Detroit Free Press

Let’s do some math here.  The sponsor is paying World Vision $35 per month per child. That means that for the first 5.28 months, the organization has yet to break even. It’s really into the 6th month that the sponsor’s donation is free and clear, but of course there are also overhead costs in that $35 that we don’t know. 

In our part of the world, we’ve seen special events like Couples Night Out and Ladies Night Out which are used to attract potential donors to hear a pitch for sponsorship. These evenings feature special speakers, giveaway prizes, and printing costs for posters and tickets. The cost per sponsor recruited is possibly equally high or higher. 

Still, the idea of the charity paying bookstores such a large incentive to get cashiers to make the appeal is somewhat disturbing, don’t you think?


March 12, 2015

Engineering Ministries International: Recent Haiti Project

I mentioned a month ago that I would return to more about Engineering Ministries International. Even if a family member wasn’t intimately involved, I think if I had seen a presentation about their work I would be instantly hooked. Their work is so vital and their cooperation with other ministry organizations is so commendable.

eMi logoIf you know someone who is:

  • an engineer
  • an architect
  • a surveyor

you should get them to do some research on this organization with an eye toward possibly taking a vacation week and serving with this ministry on one of their design trips.

You can read my earlier article about EMI by clicking this link. There’s also a shorter article I posted while the team was on the ground.

In the meantime, today I want you to enjoy a video of the trip that our son Chris was on in Haiti. His team is now in Calgary continuing to do the final design work for the client organization, the Welcome Home Children’s Center. EMI has offices in Colorado, Calgary and Oxford, England and donations make it possible for them to do architectural and engineering designs for client charities at 90% off market rates.

March 9, 2015

Megavoice: One of Missions Best Kept Secrets

I really wrestled with what to post today. After becoming violently ill on Saturday night, I had some catching up to do this morning, and kept shelving today’s article later and later into the morning. Often I’ll go through articles in the same month, previous years and look for ideas or items to reprint.

When I found this article on Megavoice in my March, 2011 archives, the thing that amazed me was that I haven’t re-posted it since. Megavoice is one of a number of new Christian organizations that are leveraging technology for the spread of the Gospel. Sadly, much of the philanthropy that takes place among Christians involves what I would call old-order Christian charities. The same is true for the missions budget of most local churches; most Missions Committee members simply renew the budget of the previous year.

I think this is so vital, so exciting. This is an organization you should want to come alongside of and be spreading the word about…

I’m a bit of a Bible bigot.

My prejudices have nothing to do with a particular translation. No, we don’t more of those people running around. My bias has to do with the form the finished Bible takes.

I asked someone recently what they think the Bible translation process involves. They gave me the answer I expected, the answer I would have given until just days ago:

  • Missionary translators learn the local language
  • The language is put it written form
  • The native people are taught how to read their own language
  • The New Testament (usually beginning with John’s gospel) is translated into that written language
  • Printed copies of the completed books are given out

Great concept. Sometimes, that’s how it’s done. But overall this view has one problem: It doesn’t match the experience of many people working to bring the story of Jesus to remote tribes.

The problem is with the words: “Read,” “books,” “printed,” “written.”

Many of the world’s peoples are not readers. It’s not that they are illiterate in the sense that a young man living on the streets of Detroit is not able to read in the middle of a culture full of literates. It’s not that they are illiterate in the sense of a woman in Atlanta whose makeshift home is insulated with newspapers containing words she cannot understand.

Rather, it’s because, half a world away, theirs is a culture of orality. No, I’d never heard the word before, either. Simply put, they are oral learners.

We’re talking about people who would benefit much more from an audio Bible than one bound in bonded leather with gold edged pages. Think about it: Once translators had acquired the language verbally, they could immediately produce a verbal (spoken) translation of the Bible, and then disseminate it using some kind of playback device.

But how to do that in an age where cassettes break and CD players skip or wear out?

Enter mp3 technology. The time is right. The time is now.

And that’s the theory behind MegaVoice. The term describes

For me, learning about MegaVoice has been a paradigm-shattering experience that has changed everything I’ve believed about how the translation process and the evangelization process works. I live in a world of text, a world of print media, and the possibility of such a widespread population of oral communicators simply never occurred to me.

If you’re one of the blessed people who is always looking for a project worthy of financial support, consider directly supporting this ministry. Whether in print copies or audio copies, the Word of God is still powerful, and doesn’t just “bounce off the walls,” but will accomplish great things in peoples’ lives. (Isaiah 55:11)

A small sampling of the many languages on file in the MegaVoice library

January 13, 2015

The Changing Face of World Missions

upside-down world

I grew up in a highly-missions-focused church in Toronto, Canada. At The Peoples Church, the annual World Missions Conference was the highlight of the year. I can’t tell you how many missions stories I’ve heard and the number of languages I’ve heard John 3:16 recited in by people wearing multi-colored tunics.

But modern missions is… well… modern. Here are three ways that come to mind:

PartnershipsThe organization we wrote about yesterday is a good example of this. If each devotes itself to its core competencies and subcontracts the rest, there is much efficiency to be gained. In more traditional missions, I suspect there was less sharing and cooperation, and groups were all busy re-inventing the same wheel.

Paradigm Shifting – Organizations like MegaVoice and Galcom are changing our definition of what it means to “give someone the Word of God.” Far from the printed gospels we envision, their miniature audio devices solve two huge problem of portable devices in rainy climates: rust (no moving parts) and battery life (they use solar power.) I wrote extensively about MegaVoice here.

Pragmatism – Typically, missionaries would embed themselves among the tribesmen (there was never mention of the tribeswomen) and learn the language, codify it in print, and then work on presenting the Jesus story. Computers offer the means to multitask: If indigenous speaker from group A also knows languages B and C, and is friends with a person who speaks B who also knows D and E… well you can see how this could get interesting. Wycliffe Bible Translators call this sort of work Cluster Projects.

Personnel Placement – There’s a sense in which we’re all missionaries. We live busy lives, and in the process develop relationships with extended families, neighbors, fellow students, co-workers, the woman at the library, the stock clerk at the grocery store, the weight trainer at the gym. So it is also that people with specific technical training can enter an otherwise missions-restricted country, but in so doing they take Jesus with them, and the sharing of their faith, while it may be low-key, is often strategic. However, the process carries with it certain risks.

Persecution – Even if the nation is not restricted, people serving vocationally in missions ministry often find themselves somewhat out-of-step with both the nation in which they serve and the people back home. Yes, persecution can even come from within the church family. Even if it isn’t as overt as the systemic persecution in many countries, it impacts the individual who has already given up any hope of an affirming salary or equity in the real estate market. Some days, the smallest thing can break you. For the children and teens who exist as “Third Culture Kids” life is equally bewildering. These people need our friendship and personal support.

…Missions is not a big deal in some churches, with very token, very limited budgets given to ensure that the small handful of people who got a donation last year get one this year. While the capital ‘C’ Church is becoming more aware of the plight of the poor, many times the appeal is for a project in their own city. Few Americans know what the face of world missions looks like. Missions books are among the poorest selling categories in Christian bookstores.

Still, the world of world missions — as opposed to the relief and development ‘industry’ — is an exciting environment. Learning more will stimulate your own faith in your small corner of the world, and will accelerate your prayer life.


November 28, 2014

The Audience Ambush

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 5:49 am

Of all the times I’m counting on the fact that my blog readership lies outside the local area, this is one time really counting on that…

So tomorrow night my wife and I are going out to a dessert night at the church which also includes a worship music component from a musician and band which are known regionally if not known by some nationally. Based on a sponsorship line that appears in the advertising, there is probably going to be an opportunity at some point in the evening to partner with a fairly high profile parachurch ministry organization.

fundraisingI have no problem with that. First of all, I have given to this organization in the past, and we have at least one family member who gives generously to them. They do good work. It’s not one of those cases where I see the ministry’s logo and roll my eyes. But the second reason I have no problem is that I can plainly see the fundraising appeal coming. I’ve been around enough Christian events. I know the drill.

Others may be surprised, especially when there’s already an admission charge.

In times like these I’m always reminded of the time when myself and girl named Carol were invited to the home of a guy named Steve for what we thought was going to be a social evening. Instead, the whole thing was about Amway. Carol was livid. “When I see him next, I’m going to wring his neck;” is I think how she put it. People don’t like being ambushed. People don’t like to go to “A” only to find it’s about “B.”

Thursday night my wife and I discussed this, and I noted that eventually, people will simply be ambushed too many times and they will simply stop turning up for similar events.

A few months ago we attended another event where we were fully expecting the high-pressure fundraising to kick in near the end. Instead, it was all rather low-key. The event was advertised as an information session, and as it concluded, they affirmed that this fulfilled their expectations. Yes, if you wanted to give there were forms and envelopes and a basket into which to place the envelopes, but for the most part this aspect of the night was fairly easy-going, even though they made it clear that the field worker in question did rely on 100% on donor support.

Maybe it was the cranberry punch, but I felt they handled this superbly. Some people gave. Some did not.

But when you go to see your favorite CCM or Modern Worship artist in concert, and you pay $30 or more for good seats, you don’t expect that 20 minutes of your time will be spent watching a slide show of starving or diseased children.

Yes, we need to be aware of these situations, and we all could do more and we all need to do more. But we need to find ways to accomplish this goal that avoid the entrapment situation that essentially says, ‘Now that we have you all as a captive audience, we’d like to make those of you who don’t sponsor a child feel really guilty.’

We need to change the paradigm, or people will either simply stop coming, or will find themselves urgently needing to use the restrooms en masse as soon as the fundraising appeal begins.


November 19, 2014

Wednesday Link List

Rowan and Rowena - The Bishop Bears

Stay here to read classic Wednesday links, or visit PARSE to view nine selected stories with more preview info.

The above image from the Ship of Fools archives seemed appropriate given that women can now officially be bishops in the Church of England.


With all the many challenges that gay couples face, I honestly didn’t think of this one:

Name Problem


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