May I recommend ...

Summertime thoughts about simplifying your life

Issue: "Keep the faith," June 23, 2001

If your mailbox looks anything like mine these days, you're probably bewildered at the volume of mail you're getting from nonprofit organizations asking for your financial help. Such mail typically picks up in June, as many organizations scurry to end their fiscal years in the black. But something else is also at work this year. The downturn in the stock market has left dozens of good works seriously behind in their funding needs. So how, in the face of such a barrage of requests, do you sort out priorities for your own giving? Here's one practical suggestion: Reduce the number of organizations you choose to support, and increase your giving to that smaller number of targets. Whether it's your church (where I hope you aim to tithe your income), a school, a homeless shelter, a radio ministry, a crisis pregnancy center, or a public policy think tank, they'll all do better with fewer but larger donors. In fact, if you're in the habit of sending a token $25 gift once a year to an organization, it's likely your gift may actually cost that organization more than it produces. By the time the organization has receipted you, thanked you, and tried half a dozen times through the rest of the year-both by direct mail and by phone-to get you to repeat your gift, they've pretty well exhausted your $25. Efficiency in the use of your gift is by no means the only factor for you to keep in mind in choosing where to send your charitable support. I've known and supported organizations that might well have been better run, but that had heart-bursting vision and passion behind all they did. I don't think Christians should ignore such works just because they don't measure up to some mathematical formula. Always ask yourself: Do I trust those people? Should I trust those people? Having said that, though, donors should also be well informed. Now a new Internet service offers helpful tools to that end. Wall Watchers (www.ministrywatch.com) has just started making available-free of charge-stacks of vital information about nearly 400 of the nation's largest evangelical charities. How much do they take in? What are their assets? How much does it cost them to raise a gift dollar? Wall Watchers and Ministry Watch are the brainchild of Rusty Leonard, a former investments manager with the Templeton organization. Mr. Leonard noted several years ago how the popular "Morningside" ratings, which compared and rated hundreds of mutual funds, had boosted interest among investors and multiplied the dollars poured into the various funds. "With the same kind of focus on charitable causes," predicts Mr. Leonard, "better informed donors will increase their giving to those ministries." He has put close to a million dollars of his own money into his effort to make such details available to curious donors. With one small exception, I'm very grateful for what Mr. Leonard has done. Transparency by those who manage charitable organizations has long been a passion of WORLD magazine. The old journalistic saw that a reporter should "follow the money" still holds. Those who handle big resources have to be constantly nudged to be accountable to those who provide the money. Wall Watchers and Ministry Watch help stimulate such accountability. Take a look at the chart on p. 8 of this issue for a sample of the data available. My single concern is with a rating system devised by Mr. Leonard and his colleagues, awarding five stars to some organizations down to just one for others. I'd prefer just the raw data, leaving it up to readers to draw their own conclusions. The criteria for awarding stars is of necessity complex, and I fear that the implied simplicity of the star system glosses over nuances that are worthy of deeper study. Even so, the new service deserves the attention of thoughtful donors everywhere. I urge you to give it a try. ----- While I'm passing out recommendations, let me also suggest for your summertime reading a little memoir called Sons of the River. It comes from Norm Bomer, who joined me here 20 years ago this month as editor of the current events magazines for children that actually were the forerunners to WORLD magazine, launched five years later in 1986. Sons of the River goes back to a Bomer boyhood in small-town Nebraska. But it is much, much bigger than the Midwest landscape it sketches so deftly. Readers from dozens of backgrounds will find themselves riveted by Mr. Bomer's recollections. Former Nebraska governor Kay Orr says the book reminds her of the "rich bonds of simple community and divine care." Long-time InterVarsity Press director James Sire applauds it as an "elegiac prose poem." To me, the book is a prize example of a Christian worldview in art form. Sons of the River is available through bookstores everywhere. But since I started this column talking about fundraising, let me end with a special offer. World Journalism Institute expects to welcome 25 students next month for its third, four-week summer session in Asheville, N.C. Your gift for WJI (send it to me, Box 2330, Asheville, NC 28802) will get you a copy of Norm Bomer's book and a copy of Ministry Watch's summary report of our own organization. That's so you can be assured that we appreciate your gift, but also that we intend to stay accountable.

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Joel Belz
Joel Belz

Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.

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