Black hole of charity
Posted by Don McLenaghen on November 30, 2011
One thing that church apologists always bring up is that “say what you may, religious institutions provide social services by way of charitable works”. As we approach the BIG giving time of year it seems appropriate to address how and to whom you could give this year. For those of a religious bent, read to (or skip to) the end, this is not just a condemnation of church charities on the whole.
If we scan the horizon we see a plethora of charitable organizations that are asking for our donations so they might do their good works. One of the giants in this industry is the church – regardless of faith – religious charitable donations (101$ billion) account for 1 of every 3 dollars donated (35%), more than twice that of its closest competitor – schools (42$ billion/14%). This money does NOT include NGO’s such as the United Way or United Jewish Appeal, which would qualify as religious donations in my books but not by my source…these groups (which include secular organizations) account for about 25$ billion.
How is this money spent?
Well, the first thing to note, is that a significant amount of church donations do not go to charitable work at all but the upkeep of church property and the support of church staff. This will vary greatly depending on the amount of ‘tithing’ churches do. In one case study, only 5% of the donated money was actually spent on charitable work. This forms the biggest part of the black hole of charity. Some may see upkeep on churches as charity but I see it as organizational maintenance for a select minority. Charity is something you give to help those less off than you…to right a wrong…to make the world a better place or to correct a societal ill.
Let us not forget that a significant amount of church charity, notably televangelists, is fraudulent. “Proportionally more money is lost (and stolen) from the collection plate than is lost from the accounts of a secular (non-religious) charity”.
Not that secular charity does not have its share of fraud, there is however less accountability for churches, given their special status in the non-profit law. To see this we must understand how a charity gains ‘charity status’: you must qualify by the relief of poverty and/or advancing education and/or advancing religion and/or providing a benefit to the community (what qualifies as a benefit is based largely on common law). You may have noticed I over used the AND/OR…that is because most secular charities are only one of these (occasionally one plus education). Religious charities are always ‘advancing religion’ and one of the other; that is what doesn’t qualify as an allowable expense in one category can be counted in another…secular charities can’t hide their malfeasance (if it occurs) this way.
Fraud? Well, because one religious tenet (not universal but not uncommon either) is the prosperity doctrine; that is if you do Gods work, God will reward you with wealth (camels and needle eyes be damned, pun intended). So, if a preacher takes your charitable donations and spends it on their own creature comforts it can be argued it is promoting religion via the prosperity doctrine. Although Revenue Canada does examine charity spending, churches have a way of sidestepping them by pulling the religion card.
Is it efficient?
Again, there is a wide spectrum of responses here. It’s important to note, that ALL church donations are secondary in nature. That is, if I donate to the school bake sale to send kids to The CERN, it’s a direct donation…no intermediaries taking a piece of the pie; you give the money, the kids buy a ticket. Some secular charities will also have layers of management, but they will (almost) never have as many as a church. For secular charities, you give the money; some goes to management the rest to the ‘cause’ however church based your money goes to management, proselytising, church maintenance and then to the ‘cause’. So, it seems that almost in every instance it is more efficient to donate to result-specific charities than churches.
Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying that all secular charities are more effective than all church groups. Groups like cancer charities are often condemned for spending more on fundraising than charity work. My point is that most frontline, project specific charities (BC. Food bank) or secular organizations (UNICEF) are structurally far more likely to spend more of its money actually helping people (or animals or the planet…etc).
There is also the extra requirements churches often place on how or where they spend their charitable donations. First they have legal right to discriminate against people they find morally offensive…like gays or atheists. They will place missions in locations where there is a strong ‘spiritual’ community. Many don’t support programs that are not ‘abstinence’ based, so money given to Planned Parenthood is more likely to the greater good than Compassion Capital Fund. The list is long and often unknown to the donor, they assume it’s doing the most good; however good is in the eye of the believer.
Which leads us to the theological, elephant in the room…Why do churches do charity work?
The prime and over-riding purpose of churches is to save souls…to do this they must ‘convert’ people to the faith. That is, from a moral stand point, secular charities are doing their good deed to make the world a better place…to relieve suffering… Churches do this as a side-effect. Why do I not donate to the Salvation Army? The church soup kitchen? Not because I think they don’t do anything good for the community but when I give to them I am helping them do their primary purpose… proselytize to the needy and downtrodden.
A hundred billion a year is wasted on church charities to allow them to take advantage of the poor in need of a meal, the addicted recover (well recover by replacing one addition for another) or in any number of other ways using human suffering to promote their theocratic agenda. I think most religious people think they are doing good, but if you crunch the numbers, you are better off giving to the local BC food bank, OXFAM Canada, Amnesty international, doctors without borders…there are a lot.
What can I do?
I titled this piece “Black hole of charity” because when you give to a religious organization you can never be sure where you money is going, what its purpose is (need vs. proselytizing) and what is actually given (often free bibles are considered giving to the needy).
As I said at the start, if you are religious and you want to support your church, by all means do so. The point I am trying to make is you should divide your charitable giving into three pots. One is for the maintenance and upkeep of your local (or national) church. One you can set aside to promote your religious views via proselytization. And one you set aside for providing aid and comfort to the needy, however defined…this last bit you give to a front line charity, such as BC Food Bank or the SPCA. These groups are focused, efficient and will give you the most charity bang for the buck. I hope you don’t waste any money on the first two pots, but if you must at least make the third one be valued charity.
 http://www.saintstanislaus.net/main/info/income-expense-report.shtml, none of their money goes to charity…except themselves. Although it is appreciated they are open with their finances.
 Yes, religious people think churching you up makes the world a better place, but no more than my donation to the NRA is ‘charitable’. It may provide what I think a social good but does not address a societal ill.
 Yes, a number of charities, secular and otherwise, will spend more on ‘for-profit’ fundraising making the ‘management’ share larger than is appropriate. However, this is an exception for both church and secular charities.