Giving to Charities – A word of caution

This letter was written in January 2018. Since then, there has been huge publicity given to “inappropriate behaviour” by workers associated with Oxfam and other well-known charities.  Such scandals give further reasons for Christians to be wary about giving to mainstream secular charities.

When did you last give to charity? Perhaps it was when you were shopping on the high street.  A collector was standing at the shop doorway shaking a box.  You dug into your pocket, found a handful of coins and dropped them in.  Or perhaps you opened an envelope that arrived in the post.  You scanned the leaflet inside and saw the photos of a child with swollen, reddened eyes.  “A gift of ten pounds could save Jamil’s eyesight”.  You walked over to the computer and arranged a bank transfer there and then.  How could you resist such an appeal?

Maybe you’ve done more. You’ve not just given on impulse.  You’ve thought about it carefully and   planned how you can raise money for charity.  You’ve taken part in a sponsored event: you’ve run, you’ve done a bungee jump, or you’ve had your head shaved.  Your friends have signed the sponsorship forms and afterwards you’ve been able to send off a very useful sum to  the charity of your choice.  Or you’ve made cakes, sold them on a stall at a table-top sale, and given the money to charity.

Maybe you agreed twenty years ago to make a regular gift to a charity. You signed the standing order and the money has gone out each month regular as clockwork.  Or maybe you’ve left a bequest in your will to one charity or another. 

We’re invited, encouraged, urged, persuaded constantly to give money to charities. People are constantly asking us to give and assuring us, “it’s for charity”.

And most of us do. Because we genuinely want to help. And the Bible tells us that we must care for the poor and the needy.  When we give to charity, that’s what we’re doing.  We’re helping people “less fortunate than ourselves”That’s right isn’t it?

Well, yes and no. Yes, there are charities that are directly involved in providing help for needy people – or animals.  They provide food for starving children.  They build hospitals or nursing care for people who are ill.  They set up hostels for the homeless.  They look after stray animals.  And they do a thousand other caring activities. 

But no, not all charities are like that. Altogether there are around 170,000 registered charities in England and Wales and the range of their activities is enormous. The word “Charity” in the UK – and internationally – has a very broad meaning. It’s used not only for organisations involved in caring work. Rather, it covers all sort of bodies which are judged by the state to provide public benefit.  According to the Charity Commission (the government body responsible for regulating charities in the UK), an organisation can be classed as a charity if it benefits the public in any one of a multitude of ways – which may include, for example,

the prevention or relief of poverty
the advancement of education
the advancement of religion
the advancement of health or the saving of lives
the advancement of citizenship or community development
the advancement of the arts, culture, heritage or science
the advancement of amateur sport
the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity

…the list continues.

What’s it for?

Some of the activities in that list are indeed about helping the needy. But what about “the advancement of education”?   What that means is that a private boarding school like Eton, attended by children from the wealthiest families in the country, can be classed as a charity. What about the “advancement of the arts”?  What that means is that the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden can claim to be a charity. And what about “the advancement of human rights, conflict resolution or reconciliation or the promotion of religious or racial harmony or equality and diversity”?   What that means is that many organisations campaigning for political goals are also charities. Stonewall is a charity.  But what are its “charitable purposes”? “Promoting Equality and Human Rights for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Trans People”.

The second largest charity in the UK (largest in terms of its income) is the Arts Council of England with a total annual income of more than 620 million pounds. Genome Research Limited (involved in scientific and medical research) has an income of nearly 94 million pounds.  The International Planned Parenthood Federation – an organisation providing abortion services and campaigning for ever more liberal abortion laws – has an income of more than 80 million pounds.  The National Trust receives more than four hundred millions.

When you are asked to “give to charity”, don’t assume that your money will be used directly to relieve human or animal suffering. It may be channelled into supporting ballet companies, financing scientific research, providing abortion facilities, or keeping open Lyme Hall.

Caring or Campaigning?

Perhaps I should add that even charities which are directly involved in helping the needy may be involved in political campaigning on a variety of fronts. Oxfam – thought of by many as a Christian organisation helping famine victims – devotes much of its energy (and funding) to advancing “abortion rights”. It declares that: “making abortion available, safe, and legal is a significant way of decreasing maternal mortality” and campaigns to that end. Barnardo’s – founded by an evangelical Christian doctor – was involved in the campaign to legalise homosexual marriage. Barnardo’s Chief Executive declared, “Barnardo’s believes same-sex couples should have equal rights to legal recognition, and it’s time to demonstrate that the law values families headed by same-sex couples just as much as those headed by heterosexual partners…”

If you’re asked to give, and you’re told that the money is “going to charity”, you should always ask, “which charity”? Otherwise you may discover later that your money is going to a cause which you never intended or imagined.

Where does the money go?

There are other issues when it comes to giving to charity. Even if you are sure that the work the charity is doing is worthy of your support, it’s always worth checking what proportion of the money given will actually reach the people who are in real need. Many charities siphon off a huge proportion of their income for administration, executive salaries, publicity and further fund-raising.  

Last year the Charity Commission issued a warning to a Derbyshire based charity – the National Hereditary Breast Cancer Helpline. Apparently the charity had spent a total of £27,000 in the previous year on charitable activities. That amounted to 3% of its income. The remaining 97% had been swallowed up by “fundraising and other expenses”.

That was an extreme case. But many charities spend more on “income raising and governance” (ie fund-raising and management) than they do on any sort of charitable activities. A 2015 investigation reported that “292 charities, with a combined income of £2.4 bn… spent 10% or less on their charitable activities. 1,020 charities, with a combined income of £6bn… spent 50% or less on their charitable activities”. (These included such well-known charities as Age UK, Sue Ryder, and British Heart Foundation).

If you look up any charity based in England or Wales on the Charity Commission website, you can see what proportion of its income actually is channelled into “charitable activities” and what proportion is swallowed up in “income raising and governance”.

Many charities pay their executives and managers huge salaries. The Wellcome Trust (which “exists to improve health for everyone by helping great ideas to thrive..”) came top of the league last year: its highest paid employee received more than 3 million pounds. Save the Children International paid its chief executive somewhere over £314,000. Caudwell Children (which helps “disabled children reach their full potential through the provision of practical and emotional support”) had an income of £8 million and gave its CEO around £240,000. I’ve mentioned Barnardo’s. Thirty-seven of their employees received salaries of £60,000+. And as for Tearfund (the Evangelical Alliance Relief fund), the chief executive receives a salary of over £90,000. That’s a moderate salary compared with comparable posts in the public sector but it’s still a lot of money for an organisation working to help the poorest people in the world.

Tearfund is perhaps the best-known charity run by evangelical Christians with the aim of helping the poor across the world. And unlike many charities it is willing to tell its supporters exactly where the money goes. For every pound that’s given to Tearfund, 35p is spent in “responding to disasters”. 29p is spent on “developing communities” – ie longer term projects to “strengthen individuals, families and entire communities” in order to reduce poverty. The remaining 36p is spent on fundraising, political lobbying, sharing the charity’s vision with churches, and on the running costs of the charity. You may consider that that’s a responsible way of using funds or you may not. But at least the charity is being open about where the money is going, and giving you the opportunity to decide for yourself before you give. Many charities are harder to pin down.

How well does it work?

Of course, even when a charity has goals that you think are worthy, and is making sure that the funds aren’t being misspent on unnecessary overheads or vast salaries, that doesn’t mean that the charity is actually doing its work well. It may be so badly run or its workers may be so incompetent that it doesn’t actually succeed in helping the people it’s supposed to help. You could have a charity dedicated, for example, to supporting a hospital in some third world country. That’s a worthy cause. And maybe it’s run by dedicated volunteers who make sure that 98% of money raised actually reaches the hospital. But if the hospital itself is run by people who don’t know what they’re doing, it may bring very little benefit to anyone. A great deal of money sent by UK charities to other countries finishes up in the hands of corrupt officials or is squandered in other ways.

Do you remember the scandal surrounding Kids Company, the charity founded and run by the flamboyant Camila Batmanghelidjh to provide support for deprived inner city children? The charity received vast sums of money both from private donors and through government grants. By 2015, it was clear that the charity was in financial crisis and hard questions were being asked about how effectively the charity was working. All sorts of disturbing truths began to come to light – not least that one of the ways that the charity was helping deprived youngsters was by simply handing them large sums of money. What were the children doing with the money? Anything they wanted. They could spend it on drink, drugs or anything else. No checks were made and nothing was accounted for. Newspaper reporters who turned up at the day centres run by Kids Company (supposedly providing youngsters with nutritious meals, education and Pilates) were shocked by what they found: “As part of my research I visited the Kids Company centre in south London. Batmanghelidjh claims 50 or 60 kids a day visit the centre for its nutritious meals, education and Pilates. On my first visit, however, I found just one sulky teenager over whom 10 staff hovered solicitously” (Harriet Sergeant writing in the Telegraph). Youngsters turned up only on the days when they knew there would be cash handouts ranging from £50 to £200 in an envelope.

Kids Company collapsed in August 2015. But it stands as a stark warning that however fine a charity’s goals may seem, it may be failing to achieve any of them.

Dubious methods?

One last warning. Some charities use thoroughly unscrupulous methods to raise funds. No, I’m not talking about the shameful revelations about the Presidents’ Club fund-raising dinner. I’m talking about the pressures charities can put on ordinary members of the public. A year ago, the House of Commons Public Administration select committee issued a report on charity fund-raising. It named well-known charities such as Oxfam, NSPCC, Save the Children and the RSPCA, which it said used “exploitative and unethical fundraising methods”.

In some cases, charities subcontract the task of fund-raising to agencies which have no other connection with the charity. In other words, they pay professional fund-raising experts to get money in for them.  And some of those experts are ruthless.  They know that the more they squeeze out of the public the more they will earn for themselves.

Charities have been fined for spying on potential donors and breaking data protection laws to do it. Charities including Cancer Research UK, the NSPCC, and Guide Dogs for the Blind, have paid investigators to find out about their supporters’ incomes, the value of their homes and who’s in their circle of friends.  Why?  So that they know how much they can hope to squeeze out of them, and whether they can hope to be included in their wills.

One way in which a charity can raise money is simply by selling its list of donors – and any information about them – to other charities. So you read an appeal from, for example, a charity for the deaf.   You are moved and you send a donation.  You are now regarded as the sort of person who is willing to give.  So that charity for the deaf (or the agency it uses for fund-raising) will now sell your name and contact details to other charities.  Elderly and vulnerable people have been particularly targeted by fund-raising agencies.  They’re viewed as people who are easily pressured, easily confused and may even be forgetful about how much money they have already given. 

The House of Commons investigation was triggered in part by the suicide of a 92 year old lady named Olive Cooke in 2015. She took her life after receiving up to 267 letters a month, plus regular phonecalls from charities or their representatives, pressuring her to give.  She had already signed direct debits to more than 27 charities. How had those charities got hold of those details?  By buying them from other charities.  After her death, hundreds of other people came forward to report that they had experienced exactly the same pressures.

So give up on giving?

So should we stop giving? No, that’s not an option for Christians.  There is simply too much in the Bible about caring for the poor and needy. 

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the LORD your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be… For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’ ” (Deuteronomy 15:7-11).

“Blessed is the one who considers the poor! In the day of trouble the LORD delivers him; the LORD protects him and keeps him alive.” (Psalm 41: 1-2)

“Blessed is the man who fears the LORD, who greatly delights in his commandments! It is well with the man who deals generously and lends; who conducts his affairs with justice. He has distributed freely; he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever…” (Psalm 112, 1, 5, 9)

“Whoever despises his neighbour is a sinner, but blessed is he who is generous to the poor”. (Proverbs 14:21)

Whoever closes his ear to the cry of the poor will himself call out and not be answered.” (Proverbs 21:13)

“Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

“If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” (Matthew 19.21)

“Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” (Luke 4: 11)

“When you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind.” (Luke 14:13)

“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (James 1:27).

Job’s testimony was that “I delivered the poor who cried for help, and the fatherless who had none to help him. The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy… I was eyes to the blind and feet to the lame. I was a father to the needy…” (Job 29:12-16).

When Zacchaeus was converted, his first declaration was,“ Behold, Lord, the half of my goods I give to the poor.” (Luke 19.8).

Jesus and his disciples had a common fund from which they distributed help to the poor (Luke 12: 4-6). And when Jesus sent Judas Iscariot – who managed the fund – away from the Last Supper, the other disciples assumed that he had been sent to take a gift to the poor (John 13:29). That was Jesus’s way.

So what’s the bottom line?

We must give. The question is how. If you’ve read what I’ve written so far, you’ll have gathered that I’m wary about giving through any of the well-known mainstream charities. As a church we’ve tried to channel our giving through people we know personally and whom we trust. Paul organised a collection for poor believers in Jerusalem, and he encouraged churches throughout Greece and Turkey to donate to it. But he didn’t ask them just to take it on trust that their money would be well used. Instead, he appointed men who were already trusted who would visit the churches, convey the gift to Jerusalem, monitor its distribution and be accountable to the donors. Read 2 Corinthians 8: 14-24 if you want to see how it worked. Paul says (verse 20), “We take this course so that so that no-one should blame us about this generous gift that is being administered by us, for we aim at what is honourable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of men…” Believers who gave to Paul’s fund were not handing money over to an anonymous “charity”. They were entrusting it to men they knew who would render account of how it was used.

Each year we take up an offering at harvest-time and then put it aside to be used for the benefit of needy people elsewhere in the world. We’ve sent it to various different places. Last time we were able to entrust it to a trusted friend who travels regularly into Cambodia and is in contact with churches there. We asked him to pass it on to believers there who would use it to relieve the needs of desperately poor people. Our friend has been meticulous about fulfilling that responsibility. He has kept a record of exactly how and where the money has been used. We can be sure that 100% of our gift has reached the people for whom it was intended.

We’ve sent gifts to help refugees in Turkey. We’ve sent gifts to Sri Lanka to help those who are affected by flooding or famine. We’ve sent gifts to Kenya to help people in places blighted by drought. In each case we’ve been able to channel our gifts through churches and pastors who know the situation first-hand. We’ve sent gifts to the Philippines. I’ve travelled there myself and seen the awesome work done by Christian Compassion Ministries, the charity linked with Cubao Reformed Baptist Church in Greater Manila. That charity provides homes for orphans, food for the homeless, education for the destitute. We can be sure that gifts channelled through CCM will genuinely help such people; we can be sure that none of it is being creamed off to finance jet-set executives; we can be sure that the work that is being done is being done in a way that honours the Lord. And we have given not because some fund-raising agency has put pressure on us but because we want to give freely as the Lord has given to us.

That surely is the best way for Christians to give. No, it’s not wrong to give to any organisation that is seeking to help the needy. The Lord will honour your compassion for the needy and your generosity. But let’s be wise. All our money is the Lord’s money. We are only stewards. Let’s make sure that we’re using it in the best way possible, for his glory and out of true compassion for the needy.

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