Cover Story

But it's for a good cause...

The ends and means of mission fundraising

Issue: "Urban mission fundraising," Sept. 27, 1997

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.

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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.

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