Guidance on Stewardship of Donations

BY JOHN MONTAGUE

Over the past year, I have written several articles and blog posts encouraging Christians to think more carefully about stewardship when they make donations. (See here and here.) Unfortunately, my writing on this subject has occasionally been misunderstood. A few readers have also confessed to me that they do not understand the urgency of stewardship, that they do not see why it is so important.

For these reasons, I am going to make yet another attempt to explain why I think stewarding our donations carefully is important and why I think it is imperative that all Christians, even those who are only able to give a little, make an effort to investigate whether the organizations to which they give actually use their donations wisely.

I think there are several reasons why some have struggled to understand my arguments.

First, many of us feel that our own contributions are so insignificant that our influence is but a “drop in the bucket.” These thoughts make us feel powerless and voiceless. We may even believe that we are excused from culpability for donating unwisely: after all, what difference could we really make?

The problem is that if every donor thinks this way, no one will ever investigate what a charity does with its contributions, and charities that misuse their money will never be held accountable. I hope we can agree that there are ministries that do misuse contributions. For instance, in recent years, there have been news stories about a pastor who drives a $350,000 Bentley and receives a salary of almost $1 million per year. Or about another pastor who receives a similar salary and owns a private jet. In addition to their financial excesses, one of those pastors has been credibly accused of sexual misconduct and the other of taking illegal “kick-backs” from a housing program associated with his church. If no one did any investigation before making donations, such ministries might continue to flourish while those whose leaders are so committed to their missions that they live in poverty so that they can serve the poor might receive nothing.

On the other hand, if all donors believed that their voices did matter, donors could profoundly influence how organizations steward their contributions. As I have suggested, donors who discover that an organization does not use its money wisely should consider several courses of action:

  • Write a letter to the organization expressing concerns about how it uses its resources.
  • Spread the word. Write a blog post informing others about how that organization uses its money. Encourage others to also express their concerns directly to the organization’s leadership.
  • Withhold donations in favor of other organizations that make better use of such money.

Over time, if all donors followed these steps, organizations that misuse donations would either reform themselves or cease existing. At the same time, organizations that steward their donations well would flourish, bearing much fruit for the Kingdom of God.

Even if the ways some organizations “misuse” contributions are less extreme that the examples I give above, I still think Christians should follow these suggestions when giving. These suggestions will help keep organizations accountable to their real missions: serving God by meeting the unmet physical and spiritual needs of a hurting world and thus spreading the gospel. When we consider that almost 3 billion people in this world live on less than two dollars a day, we realize that small decisions about how organizations use their money really do matter. Even several dollars can make the difference between life and death for people who are living in extreme poverty. Likewise, small amounts of money can go a long way toward spreading the gospel in such areas.

Second, some misread my arguments because they do not understand the concept of “opportunity cost.” Opportunity cost is a term borrowed from economics to describe a simple concept that we all apply every day, whether we are conscious of it or not. The basic idea is that we all have a limited amount of resources (time, money, etc.). Whenever we use a given resource, we are forfeiting opportunities to use that resource to do something else. The opportunity cost of a given choice is the next-best alternative that we pass up in order to make that choice.

For instance, think about what you did last Saturday night. What would have done had you not been doing what you actually did? The answer to that question is the opportunity cost of doing what you did. So, if you watched a movie instead of going to a party, going to the party was the opportunity cost of watching the movie.

This concept applies when we think about donating money because the choice we make is not simply a choice about whether or not to give to a certain organization. Rather, the real choice we often make is whether to give to Organization A or to Organization B. Therefore, it is necessary that we not just ask whether Organization A does some good. We must instead ask: is giving to Organization A a better use of my money than giving to Organization B (or C, or D, etc.)? This question is unavoidable: every time we give to one organization, we are forfeiting the opportunity to give to another. There is no way around this fact.

As I have argued before, Jesus gives us a clear command that we are to think wisely about how we use our money. [1] (See Matthew 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27.) I therefore believe it is sinful to blindly give to an organization without conducting at least a cursory investigation of that organization’s ministry. Such an investigation should include questions about how the organization spends its money, what its mission is, how it accomplishes that mission, how central its mission is to the gospel, who its leaders are, etc.

Third, I think a few have objected to the application of the principles I advise because of a gut reaction: well, I know this ministry, I’ve seen that it does good in the world. For instance, I have criticized Franklin Graham for taking a salary of $1.2 million. People may object to my criticism of Franklin Graham because they have been to his crusades or participated in Operation Christmas Child. I’m not denying that such ministries may do some good. I’m saying: let’s help them do more with the resources they have.

How? Well, the pressure that the Charlotte Observer put on Franklin Graham led him to cut his compensation in half and to restructure other parts of his ministries’ finances, including eliminating such wasteful expenditures as spending $1 million per year on lawn care. That’s a lot of money that the Charlotte Observer freed up so that it could actually go to the real mission of those ministries. If Franklin Graham’s organizations now spend $900,000 less on lawn care and $600,000 less paying him, then they have $1.5 million to use for their ministries. It’s as if the Charlotte Observer gave the ministries a check for $1.5 million.

On the other hand, if the Charlotte Observer had been unsuccessful at persuading Franklin Graham to spend his organizations’ money better, donors may have decided to give to other organizations instead. Eventually, that financial pressure may have influenced Franklin Graham to make the same decisions. In the meantime, those donations could have gone to other organizations that were already devoting much more of their money to support the same work. Either way, more money would end up going to the real missions that presumably motivate people to give to Franklin Graham in the first place.

I hope that this post facilitates an understanding of why I think stewardship is important and how we call all take part in holding Christian organizations accountable for the money we give.

In case my argument is still unclear, I have also provided an example here of how these suggestions might work in practice. If you still have questions after reading my example, please post a comment.

Footnotes

[1]In Matt. 25:14-30 and Luke 19:12-27, a master entrusts his servants with money, goes away, and then comes back and asks them for an accounting. In each case, the master rewards those servants who have used well the money entrusted to them, earning more money. These two parables are often taught in churches, typically with the admonition that we must use our gifts to serve God. Although this teaching is surely faithful to Jesus’ intent, it misses out on the original, more direct application: we are to be careful what we do with “our” money, which is not really ours at all — it is God’s.

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