Charitable giving for fun and profit

Warning: Sermon ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

As I was surfing the TV landscape last night, I landed for awhile on ABC’s Primetime Live where I watched “Glitz, Glamour Affecting Charitable Giving?” — a thoughtful and provocative report by Brian Ross on the state of charitable giving in the U.S. This is a subject that’s close to my heart, so I found myself adding to the story as it was unfolding. Here’s a portion of the Ross report:

“Americans are giving more and more and more to charity, they’re giving less and less and less to the poorest citizens in this country,” says Trent Stamp, who runs a non-profit Web site called the Charity Navigator, which evaluates and tracks where America’s charitable contributions go.

“There’s no doubt that American donors have abandoned the poor in terms of their philanthropic decision-making,” says Stamp. “These are not the right types of charities that are endorsed by celebrities. These are not the types of charities that send you a tote bag when you make a gift.”

Last year, contributions to charities working with the poor decreased to 8 percent of all money given, marking the third consecutive year of decline.

“For the most part, the large donor, the wealthy donor has turned away from these types of charities,” says Stamp. “Nobody wants to be seen at the local homeless shelter, but they would like to be seen at the Symphony Hall.”

Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a former New York City social services commissioner, attests to that. She works with many of the city’s smaller charities that deal directly with the poor and the homeless.

“I have donors that will give a $25,000 check to Lincoln Center, and they’ll give us a thousand dollar check,” Barrios-Paoli acknowledges. “You know, the big universities get a lot of the money, the big cultural centers get a lot of the money. And again, I’m not saying they shouldn’t, but the reality is that we have the, we don’t have access to the money, and we really need it.”

When I worked at CBN, we were experts at the science (yes) of fundraising development. In 1984, we raised $248 million in contributions, so I know a little about giving and receiving. At the time, I thought we were doing a good thing with all that money.

“Charity” is one of those words that has evolved in the English language over the years. Whereas it used to be almost exclusively used in the sense of helping the poor, it’s now used to justify any kind of tax-exempt giving. December is the big charity month, because the haves are looking for deductions.

I willingly served on the local boards of various charities during my years as a news manager, and the dirty little secret is that fundraising is one of the most competitive subcultures in the West. I can recall meetings of the Red Cross board (in a location I won’t/can’t mention) where we discussed what to do in the wake of United Way decisions to cut funding to the Red Cross in favor of supporting more popular hot buttons, like women’s shelters. The same is true of the Salvation Army. Here we have two mainline charities that actually assist the poor and the afflicted having their funding cut in the name of marketing. How sad.

In the Judeo-Christian heritage that most Americans claim, God asked one thing of leaders, and that was not to neglect their responsibility to the poor. It was often cited as evidence of righteousness, and as the King went, so went the whole community. Josiah was one of the righteous kings, and while the prophet Jeremiah was lambasting Shallum (Jeremiah 22), the unrighteous heir of Josiah, he makes an important reference to his father:

“He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well (with him). Is not that what it means to know Me?” Declares the LORD.
If you want an explanation of the problems and trouble we have in our culture today, you don’t need to look any further than this. Evangelical Christianity’s response to the “problem” of the poor is to “teach a man to fish” by starting him down the “right” path. In many ways, this is the conservative approach to helping the poor, but all too often, it’s just an excuse to think we’ve done enough and to turn and walk away.

But Jesus said the poor will always be with us, so the idea that we can somehow “fix” the problem is ridiculous. The problem, therefore, isn’t important, but our response is, and a response where the upper class increasingly gives for the payback instead of the responsibility isn’t a good sign for the future. We’ve lost our sense of noblesse oblige — nobility obligates — the belief that the wealthy and privileged are obliged to help those less fortunate, not build a new wing at the museum.

My suggestion is to put charitable giving to organizations that directly assist the poor on the front page of the tax return, not under itemized deducations, where everything else should go. Not much chance of that though.

I warned you.


  1. Michael Moore (yes, THAT Michael Moore) once said, referring to the Bush cabal’s professions of Christianity, that “you do not get into heaven without a permission slip from the poor.” If he’s right, the place won’t be nearly so crowded as many expect it to be.

  2. A big AMEN to your sermon. Thank you.

  3. Terry,
    A truly great post.

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