Up in Smoke
Growing up Southern Baptist I have indelible memories of the Sunday School offering envelope used by the church. It was more than a tracking device for offerings. We were also graded by our teacher on bringing our Bible, preparing for the lesson, and attending church to hear the preaching afterwards.
However, I don’t have any recollections of our asking the church about its own performance during the week.
I remember hearing occasionally about attendance, baptisms and money – and that was pretty much the whole list. We gave our offering because we were supposed to give and had been taught to do so out of obedience, not unlike the Old Testament rules for bringing the offerings to the Temple.
The Israelites did not bring money to the priests, but living animals they had raised – sheep, bulls and birds. And then what happened? What they brought was literally burned up in front of their eyes. The offering went up in smoke except for a portion that was set aside to feed the Temple staff.
Try to imagine the Old Testament model of sacrifice and offerings happening today with money – our currency and checks piled up and set on fire. It is almost impossible to think we would allow that without serious resistance.
But even now in the church budget approval process, I have yet to hear anyone ask a question about impact. Expenses – yes. Some church members are even bold enough to question salaries. But when is the last time you’ve heard someone ask for hard data about what has actually been accomplished?
It’s instructive to me that almost every study on giving and voluntarism I have read concludes that how we first learn to give and volunteer come from this early relationship with church. People who attend church give more and volunteer more because this has been the only institution where we are encouraged and taught to do both from an early age.
But somewhere along the way, we have confused the good of giving out of obedience with the idea that we should not ask pertinent questions. We have been trained to believe the church does not need to produce results with what is given.
So, it should not come as a total surprise that people are far less concerned about results in their giving than one might think.
One study by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, a charity watchdog, concludes donors are more interested in how a nonprofit’s funds are spent than in the results it achieves:
“About 46 percent of people surveyed by the BBB Wise Giving Alliance said they base their trust in a nonprofit on its finances, which include the amount spent on overhead costs like salaries and fundraising versus allocations to its programs. Only 11 percent of donors said the results a charity gets from its activities engendered the most trust in that organization.”
The second study reported that after eight years and a $12 million investment, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation announced that it is discontinuing grants to organizations who provide information about nonprofits (such as Charity Navigator, GiveWell and Guidestar) because few people actually investigate the performance of nonprofit organizations:
“While 85 percent said that a charity’s performance is very important, only 35 percent conducted research on giving, and just 2 percent gave based on a group’s relative performance.”
Ironically, it has been assumed that all of the talk about performance and impact has actually changed the game for how we decide to give, but it has not. We still make our decisions the way were trained as children. We look at expenses but not performance. And given that most of us were taught to give at church, why would we expect anything else?
I think we can no longer assume that the church is the primary trainer for the next generations of givers and volunteers. Instead, young people are learning from school fundraisers, volunteer projects, popular and highly visible social causes, peer pressure and nonprofits.
The church’s influence is being lost as fewer churches are asking for offerings during the worship service, and children are no longer learning to bring their envelopes to church. Children do not see their parents give and are not expected to give themselves. And while stewardship sermons were probably as unwelcome then as now, there was at least the weekly expectation that giving was just something you did and the church recorded it. Giving was regular and public.
As well, while the church has adopted many of the disciplines of business such as marketing, advertising, management and leadership development, there is still very little discussion (for now) about organizational performance. What are we paying for? What are we measuring? How do we model obedient giving to the next generation while also teaching them to ask questions that really matter?
These are not going to be comfortable discussions, especially for church staff and members brought up in a different time. A new generation of donors trained outside the church is bringing a set of expectations that will be intimidating and disrupting to traditional churches for years to come.