Shakespeare warned us to "beware the Ides of March." Technically, that's March 15, but in the nonprofit world this year, the week surrounding that date was as ominous and promising as it was in Caesar's day.
Events began to unfold on March 10, when Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, finally broke his silence on what he is thinking about new regulations with a speech to a forum of nonprofit executives. While not specific about his plans for legislative reform, he made it clear reforms are coming.
"This year marks the 40th anniversary of the enactment of the 1969 private foundation rules," Grassley said. "In these 40 years, we've seen explosive growth in charities and charitable giving. What we haven't seen, though, is the law, and the enforcement of the law, keep up with that growth."
He then broadly spelled out the improvements he is hoping to bring about, including greater transparency for both charities and foundations. "I believe that sunshine is the best disinfectant," Grassley said. "So, I will continue to . . . conduct hearings and I will continue to write to specific charities to better understand their activities. I also expect my staff to continue drafting legislative proposals. Finally, I will continue to press the Internal Revenue Service to improve reporting requirements for charities."
Some of Grassley's targets are paying attention. Just a couple of days later, on March 12, Joyce Meyer Ministries, one of the organizations Grassley has been investigating, was accepted for membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA). The acceptance followed years of public scrutiny-and what Joyce Meyer called "significant" changes in the way the ministry does business. While the ECFA's welcoming of Meyer into its membership took many by surprise, ECFA President Dan Busby told us, "I personally visited Joyce Meyer Ministries, and they were completely transparent with us."
Also accepted for membership in the ECFA was Oral Roberts University, which was not the object of a Grassley investigation. However, ORU has been for the past two years embroiled in a very public fight for financial survival that included the ouster of most of its board and its president, Richard Roberts, the son of the founder.
Ole Anthony, founder of the Trinity Foundation, a ministry watchdog group, called these developments "steps in the right direction, but only first steps." The Trinity Foundation and other donor advocates have supported Grassley's call for the updating of nonprofit regulations, even while notable evangelical nonprofits-including the Family Research Council, the Liberty Legal Institute, and Focus on the Family-have criticized the investigation.
"I'm not normally in favor of increased government regulation," Anthony said. "But we've been investigating fraudulent Christian ministries for years hoping that reputable Christian leaders would rise up and call them out. But they didn't."
Jill Gerber, Grassley's spokesperson, said Grassley's staff is "still working on the review" of four televangelists in the so-called "Grassley Six": Benny Hinn, Randy and Paula White, Eddie Long, and Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. Their organizations have supplied "incomplete responses" to Grassley's repeated requests for information.
But the ministry that is likely in the center of the Grassley bull's-eye is Creflo Dollar's World Changers Church International and Creflo Dollar Ministries. According to a March 12 statement released by Grassley praising Joyce Meyer, Dollar was ominously singled out as having "declined to provide any of the requested information."
All of that to say this: While the mainstream media were focused on the gyrating stock market and Bernard Madoff's March 12 "perp walk," for donors and ministries desiring greater integrity the events in the days just before and after the Ides of March 2009 might end up being propitious.