Although it's still September, the make-or-break Thanksgiving fundraising season already has begun for hundreds of Christian inner-city missions to the homeless! Staffers at these missions are often among the most dedicated and self-sacrificial evangelicals to be found anywhere. They show Christ's love to alcoholics and drug addicts and irresponsible men and women who, staggering in from the streets, do not appear particularly lovable. They typically work long hours for short pay and receive neither the honor nor financial support that their work deserves.
The financial battle is tiring, especially since many potential contributors do not understand what the real struggle is. Finding food is often the least of a mission director's worries; plenty of supermarkets donate their surpluses. Helping men and women with good attitudes is also easy; there's almost always a job for someone who can politely say "yes, sir," or "no, ma'am." The tricky part is feeding the souls, not just the bodies, of those who look like they have seven demons inside them. The challenge lies in changing attitudes about God, about work, about commitment-and that's a much more time-consuming and expensive proposition than merely providing "three hots and a cot."
If you were a mission director, seeing what needs to be done, and frustrated at the difficulty in making contributors understand, wouldn't you consider maximizing your fundraising by playing into clich's about the homeless? If you could raise the most money by making a well-fed Christian believe that his contribution will keep a person from going hungry on Thanksgiving, wouldn't you consider sending out such an appeal? You would not be lying, you would merely be moving a potential giver's emotional levers-and the money would be going to a very good cause.
Here is JAY GRELEN's examination of some urban mission fundraising.
The Gospel Rescue Ministry's heart-rending Countdown to Thanksgiving appeal letter has arrived at 100,000 homes in the Washington, D.C., area. The letter, dated August 20, 1997, is signed by Nate Jones, food service manager, who showed up at the mission from New Orleans 29 months ago with pneumonia and a drug addiction. The letter attracted the interest not only of potential contributors but also the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which was in the midst of investigating the fundraising practices of the ministry that runs one of Washington's great institutions, the Gospel Mission.
An ECFA compliance review team visited the mission and will present its findings to the ECFA Standards Committee at its meeting in Colorado Springs in October. While the compliance review team's report and findings are not yet available, ECFA president Paul Nelson said this latest mailing, created by the Russ Reid Company, could not be defended. Mr. Nelson's opinion does not constitute an official finding.
While the ECFA review involves only the Washington ministry, its findings may have an impact on scores of groups, many of which mailed out the same letter. The attention to fundraising practices comes as the crucial but short holiday campaigns begin. During this season missions raise 50 to 75 percent of their money for the entire year. It is the missions' equivalent of television's sweeps week, during which missions bring out their most emotional tales. "If you don't win Thanksgiving," says Gary Millspaugh of the Allentown Rescue Mission in Pennsylvania, "you lose."
The August appeal letter was what's known in the trade as a "fill the pantry" letter. Appropriately, it was sent out over the signature of the food services manager. "It's my job to get the food on the table every day," Nate Jones writes. "I'm concerned because I expect to feed more hungry folks this holiday season than ever before ... and I have a large pantry that needs to be filled."
The letter describes a grocery list for the Thanksgiving meal that includes 300 pounds of turkey, 3,000 rolls, 150 gallons of milk, and 900 pies. The letter does not note that most of the food served at the mission at Thanksgiving-and year round, for that matter-is donated. Edward J. Eyring, ministry executive director, says his appeal letters raise about $800,000 per year, and that he spends about $31,000 for food. The other $300,000 worth of food is donated.
The letter also includes some moving words from Mr. Jones about Steve: "My biggest concern is for the people who will come through our doors during the holiday season, especially guys like Steve ... When you first meet him, you wonder how someone so kind and gentle could lead the kind of life Steve has." Nate describes the horrors and tragedies of Steve's life, how his family didn't want him back after his release from prison.
The letter does not note that Nate Jones did not write it. He told WORLD that it was shown to him, and he only skimmed it. A signature appears over his typed name, but Mr. Jones says he did not sign it. The letter certainly suggests that Nate Jones knows Steve well, but Mr. Jones says he knows no details of Steve's life and is not certain he ever talked to Steve.
Readers of the letter might be further surprised to learn Steve is a well-traveled transient. He shows up in an almost identical letter-different only in the grocery list-in an appeal mailed on behalf of a Russ Reid client mission in Miami. The signature over food service manager Michael's name looks suspiciously like Nate's. An identical person named Alex, with word-for-word the same life story as Steve, has aroused the concern of food service manager Steve Engleman (who signs his letter in the same hand as Nate and Michael) at a Los Angeles mission, which is also a client of Russ Reid's.
Peter Arnold of Russ Reid said he did not know how many missions used the campaign, but acknowledged that the letter using the kitchen chief was the August campaign. He declined to release samples of the letter, or the master copy on which the individual campaigns were based. Steve, in fact, was a client of a mission in Albuquerque, N.M., where his story and full name appeared in a 1993 newspaper story.
When Paul Nelson, president of ECFA, examined a copy of the letter that WORLD sent to him, he said, "ECFA distances itself from this letter."
"As I read the letter, and because of what we know about this issue, as much as we have worked on this issue, this is a letter I cannot defend.... You have what is like a smoking gun here. You've got evidence that appears to be very convicting.... We will probably require an accounting of how much money came in from this letter, and how much of this money was actually used for food."
Mr. Nelson said if donations outrun expenses for food, he believes the letter could possibly be in violation of ECFA standards. "We know from our own investigation, when you get into issues that pull at the heartstrings of the public, and therefore bring money in, food certainly is that." He noted that the letter says, "'Send money so that we can fill our pantry.' We believe that for many of the missions in this arena much of the food is donated, and a lesser amount of food is purchased to supplement that which is donated."
The technical term for raising money in these ways is "oversubscription," with money raised above the specific need spent on general ministry expenses.
"There's nothing wrong with spending money on general expenses," Mr. Nelson says, but he is disturbed by "the premise upon which they raised that money. They created a restriction that says this money will be used to buy food for the Thanksgiving season."
A disclaimer printed on the back of the letter, at the bottom of the page, in small type, did inform readers that surplus money would be spent throughout the year to "care for the hungry and homeless."
Mr. Nelson contends, however, "that's not enough. If you go into an issue where you almost know before this letter is sent out that that's what's going to happen, a disclaimer doesn't get it done.
"We are long-suffering and will work with organizations, but truth is truth, man," he added. "If we can't uphold that without cleverly worded things ... then we're not doing our jobs. The standards committee, I'm sure, will look at this very seriously"-including the question of Nate Jones's signature.
Stever Burger, president of the International Union of Gospel Missions, is a member of the committee that approves the Russ Reid letters that go out for participating IUGM ministries. "I think that that could be said better than the way it's said. Let me tell you that I am sure that it will be. Somethimes I think that we need somebody on the other side of the fence to say, 'Look, is this clear?' We have worked real hard to be clear and to use words that give the sense that this person was helped by a mission, but not necessarily that one. This obviously is in the gray area. I'm committed to making sure that this gets fixed."
In an effort to gauge the popularity of fundraising as practiced by Russ Reid and the Gospel Rescue Ministry, WORLD contacted more than half of the missions who are members of ECFA. Among the 25 who responded to the survey, fundraising philosophies varied greatly, although all said appeals should be honest and not manipulative. The survey found that six of the missions use a fundraising company exclusively to prepare letters. Eight create their own letters. Four use a combination of both. Six missions, including three who employ Russ Reid, say they create composite characters for their fundraising letters. Twelve say they do not.
Here's how the syndicated approach works: First, a company like Russ Reid creates a stock letter. The letter is printed on each mission's letterhead and bears the computer-stamped signature of the director. Minor tweaking is done to tailor the letter to the missions, such as adjusting the grocery list in the "fill-the-pantry" campaign, but the same anecdotes are used. Seven missions approved of the use of such letters. Thirteen said they would not use them.
Russ Reid, who went into fundraising more than 30 years ago, defends use of stock stories because it is cost-efficient for his clients. "From a cost standpoint, if we had to write individual stories for every mission, it would raise the cost to make it prohibitive," Mr. Reid says. "We do it honestly." When a mission wants a letter specific to itself, the Reid company will produce it for an extra $1,500.
The Washington mission's Edward Eyring agrees that the approach is acceptable. "The stories are examples. It takes time and effort, as well as money [to customize] ... ," he says. "I'm really not concerned with the method we're doing now. Those people come and go. There's no possible way if you wrote a story about ... particular persons for it to be completely accurate. You have to take people's word. One story is just about as likely to be accurate as another story."
Even if readers knew the same stories were being told about the same people in all the cities where he mails letters, contributions would not be adversely affected, Mr. Reid says. "I don't think they give diddly-twit.... It's irrelevant, any more than donors to the American Red Cross would care that the same letter that goes out in Syracuse goes out in Tucumseh." The letters aren't always exactly the same, he says, but the anecdotes generally are.
Randy Brewer of the Hemmings, Birkholm, Grizzard agency in Los Angeles, who spent seven years with Russ Reid, does not mind that the same stories go to different missions, as long as they are true and are typical of the homeless. HBG also allows personalization of the stories, for a flat fee of $150; a mission wanting to personalize completely the letter and use different photographs pays an extra $450.
Barry Durman, president of the Atlantic City (N.J.) Mission, and a member of the ECFA standards committee, thinks readers do believe the stories are taken from the mission that sends the letter. "The big integrity question is, when you say, 'Johnny came through the front door with these problems... ,' is that really a true, real person, or are you going in on a cookie-cutter approach where you're saying, 'Men like Johnny come in every day'? I have a problem with that." Nor does Mr. Durman believe that small-print disclaimers are sufficient. "Most of the readers of these letters are older people. They cannot read small type, and their heart is going to get caught up in the emotion of the letter. They're not going to read official-looking disclaimers. I think the intent of the letters needs to be clear.... Otherwise, you're becoming manipulative." '
Richard Shannon, who brought the Washington situation to the attention
of the ECFA, believes that if a letter says a "guy like Steve" came to the mission, then Steve should have been there. "We have plenty of stories without making them up," he notes. (Four times during 1995 and 1996, WORLD profiled actual Gospel Mission clients, based on interviews conducted at the mission itself, and used the clients' real names.) Mr. Durman says he has no trouble finding clients willing to be interviewed and to have their name printed with their story in a fundraising letter.
Mr. Shannon, who was director of the mission's School of Tomorrow, which trains formerly homeless individuals to move into good jobs, felt so strongly about the fundraising matter that he resigned his position when he felt the mission didn't change its tactics. "It goes beyond whether this is legal," he says. "It's a phenomenal and profound moral issue."
The concerns that Mr. Shannon raised are nothing new, says Mr. Nelson of ECFA. Even before ECFA received the Shannon complaint, the agency had sent out an advisory to all its members stressing that organizations should use contributions for the purpose for which they were solicited, and that "communications must be truthful, current, complete, accurate and not misleading."
Bottom line, Mr. Nelson says, is that for ECFA to have any value, it must be vigilant: "We are not adversarial to our members. We're not going to play 'gotcha.' We are all believers. It's peer regulation. We're trying to say, 'Here are our standards. Truth is truth.'"
WORLD executive assistant June McGraw provided additional reporting for this story.