Up in Smoke

 In Charity, Church, Culture, Faith, Fred's Blog, Giving, Money, Philanthropy, Religion, Scripture, Service, Young Givers
Listen to “Up In Smoke” by Fred Smith

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 impossible to think we would allow that without serious resistance.

What About Results?

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.”

Uncomfortable Discussions

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.

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Showing 29 comments
  • Avatar
    Keith Sparzak
    Reply

    Fred,

    You nailed it in this blog! Well done!

    I immediately forwarded it onto my pastor and will do the same for my team at Community Bible Study. It will be fodder for healthy discussion.

    Appreciate You,

    Keith

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Keith. I hope others respond as positively as you have! I might get a little pushback from pastors.

  • Avatar
    KeithSparzak
    Reply

    It will not surprise me if you do. Having been a pastor in the past (for 20 years)—I seldom thought in those terms early on. Eventually, when I did begin to question the “ROI” of our spending in some areas, in particular, within our missions department contexts, I received some significant pushback.

  • Avatar
    Howard
    Reply

    Why I decided early on I believed in the “tithe” but not the “storehouse tithe” (the distinction is important).

  • Avatar
    David A Galloway
    Reply

    Gone from preaching/teaching to meddling. So spot on. Behavioral analysis and accountability.
    I do remember those envelopes and the checking off of acceptable valued behavior. Our Sunday school departments had reporting boards in the front of the classroom. How does the adage go: you get what you measure.
    Incisive as usual from one who knows.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, it’s not easy to forget them. I wonder if Broadman or Lifeway still sell them? I’m going to check and see just to have a box of them on the table.

  • Avatar
    Joe
    Reply

    We have seen (and we support) NGOs who set performance goals, self-measuring mechanisms, and budgets, and who give regular/quarterly updates and reports as to how their actual performance measure up to their yearly and 5-year+ goals both in terms of performance, efficiency and budget (organizations such as World Vision USA, etc.) We have not, though, insisted on anything near this level of accountability at our local church. Perhaps we should begin to nudge … ? Thank you, Fred, for your post and (faithful) nudging …

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      You might want to give the church a little advance notice! This would be something new, I suspect.

  • Avatar
    Tony
    Reply

    Fred, well stated! I would paraphrase with the business axiom “what gets better is not that which is managed, rather it is that which is measured “!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Tony. I hope you never measure your unmanageable Sunday School teacher!

  • Avatar
    Calvin W. Edwards
    Reply

    Yes. Well done, Fred. In our work serving donors with ministry evaluation services, I have often had the same thought, just not as profoundly stated!

    Three comments.

    One, I think the “demand” for assessing impact (or results, or outcomes, or whatever the preferred term is) is quite distinctively generational. Older generations are less motivated for this kind of analysis, relying, rather, on reputation, relationships, and intentions. Younger generations (starting <50 or so) are more likely to approach giving with a more data-driven approach.

    Two, I think the problem you describe is eminently solvable from a practical/logistics point of view. Winning commitment and emotional support is another thing. We have done 1000s of surveys in Africa and India and around the world to find out ministry impact. That's hard work and expensive. The congregation is there every week, and the community is just out the door. It's not hard to assess a church's impact.

    Three, having done this for 15+ years, I have definitely noticed a significant uptick in demand for, and provision of, results info. More with ministries than churches. But, over time, this may spill over to churches. It should.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Calvin. It’s good to have you weigh in on this. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you approach things.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Calvin. I always appreciate the thoughtfulness with which you approach things like this.

  • Avatar
    Nancy Crawford
    Reply

    Very good article. Three things:
    1. I was also raised Southern Baptist and well remember the weekly envelope.
    2. Someone has said, “In God we trust. Everyone else must have data.”
    3. But Albert Einstein said, “Not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts.”
    Again, great article. Thanks for writing it.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Nancy. You can still order those original envelopes online. I doubt Richard Rohr uses them!

  • Avatar
    Paul Penley
    Reply

    More churches are now releasing Annual Reports that include ministry results and trends, in addition to the usual past financial performance and future budget. Those annual reports are being released in digitally savvy ways. For example, see Central Wesleyan’s report at https://watersedge.org/annualreport19/ or Elevation Church’s report at https://elevationchurch.org/annual-report/. Pastors of both these churches have realized that Millennials will give big to clear and transparent campaigns for greater impact, but won’t give out of duty each week to general operating costs. Putting together these annual impact reports can be a beneficial exercise for churches to clarify values and define measurable goals that unite their activities and expenditures.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Only Paul Penley could know this! Thank you, Paul.

  • Avatar
    sebastion
    Reply

    great blog!

  • Avatar
    W. Glen Volkhardt
    Reply

    I think giving evidence of impact is important for churches and Christian organizations. But “hard data about what has actually been accomplished” as you put it, is often impossible to produce, nor is it even desirable in many cases. The idea that hard data, if you mean numerical measurement, is the best, or the only evidence is a modern Western idea. Don’t you think we can give evidence that positive results happened without it being hard data? I’ve become convinced that my task as the leader of a Christian nonprofit is to give evidence of results, not proof. If we insist on proof, we limit ourselves to some of the least important metrics–things we can count. If we allow other forms of evidence/knowledge, like story, testimony, image, (and of course numbers too) we can create a convincing argument–a preponderance of evidence, without expecting Christian ministries to reduce themselves to the narrowness of operations that work like algebra.
    As for the folks who seem to not be interested in results, for sure there are some, but others realize the short comings of hard data in measuring spiritual impact. So perhaps their apparent disinterest in results is not that at all, but rather a distrust in numbers. If I have received personal blessing from a minister, I have been convinced of results without data. I am more sure of the positive outcome than an “objective” observer, because the result is in me. So I will give without the report of results, because I have trust in the minister. The report is nice. It’s a reason to rejoice. But I’m already convinced.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Glen. Yes, I agree. Someone said, “measure what matters” and there are more ways than numerically. In fact, one of my wisest older friends once told me there is a difference between measurement and appraisal. You can measure the frame of the Mona Lisa and that is a constant but you can only appraise the value of the painting itself – and that changes. That is why we do ourselves a disservice when we lock ourselves into one way of measuring and declaring that the gold standard. “How many souls per dollar” is not the best way to organize nor is “Reaching the lost at any cost.” It’s always a balance. Thank you for your comments.

      • Avatar
        W. Glen Volkhardt
        Reply

        Thanks, Fred. I resonate with the concept of appraisal. It’s similar to what donors have to do. So even though I rarely can prove a result, I can give evidence for a donor’s appraisal.

        • Fred Smith
          Fred Smith
          Reply

          So pleased to hear that! Thank you, Glen.

  • Avatar
    Claire Adare
    Reply

    Growing up in an evangelical, fundamentalist Presbyterian church with a father who was an elder and chairman of the building committee for a three story educational building, I do understand about tithing and giving and accountability. It wasn’t until I lived in Humble, TX that I began to learn about the worship part of giving and I believe many churches have neglected teaching about the joy of giving and how it is so much a part of worship.

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you, Clare. I have – looking back on it – mixed feelings about the rigidity of the structure. I resented it and changed at it but it taught me some basic disciplines that have been good. In the same way there were some benefits for Paul in his previous life that did not interfere with grace, so these things have turned out for me in life. Some structures are merely legalism and some are healthy for the future. I am still learning the differences!

  • Avatar
    Deborah Addink Spencer
    Reply

    Insightful, helpful article and discussion! We often hear “the Lord is responsible for the results….” (true), but seldom hear “….and He calls us to wise stewardship.”

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Yes, it is a balance, isn’t it? We look at budgets sometimes but that is not the same thing as looking at what is accomplished over the course of a year.

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