In 2 Corinthians 8, Paul shares about the Macedonian churches who gave generously and joyfully despite their own poverty and affliction. Paul says they begged us insistently for the privilege of sharing in the ministry to the saints (8:4).
These days we rarely hear people begging to give away their money. Most everyone realizes that ministry costs money, and that churches and ministries rely on the obedience and generosity of believers to fund their work. But there are many reasons why we are not always enthusiastic about giving.
Although the Great Recession officially ended in June 2009, the economy’s slow recovery continues to have an impact on Americans’ daily lives, which in turn impacts their charitable giving. Confidence in the economy is improving, but that confidence hasn’t affected church giving as much as other areas.
In its annual report, Giving USA said that giving levels during the height of the recession in 2008 and 2009 dropped significantly, but giving grew in 2013 for the fourth consecutive year. Despite the overall growth in giving, religious organizations did not fare as well as nonprofits in other categories. Donations to educational institutions increased by 7.4 percent, arts and humanities by 6.3 percent, and health organizations by 4.5 percent. In contrast, giving to religious organizations (mostly houses of worship) decreased by 1.6 percent.1
The increase in certain types of giving but decrease in religious giving is likely due to a number of factors. The rebounding economy has so far primarily benefitted the wealthiest subset, which is traditionally the donor base for educational and arts institutions. These institutions generally have well-planned development strategies to reach wealthy donors, whereas churches tend to just “pass the plate,” relying on the tithes of their members from all different socioeconomic classes. Church attendance is also declining all over the country; in Southern Baptist churches specifically, both church attendance and per capita giving have been in decline for the past five years, according to ACP data (click here for a related story from this issue).
Finances are a very real concern for many families. We should not give to the point of creating hardships for ourselves (2 Corinthians 8:14), but know that if we trust God and make Him our first priority, He will supply our needs (Philippians 4:19).
A Sense of Inefficacy
Giving to charitable causes activates the reward centers of our brains, causing positive feelings sometimes referred to as a “warm glow.” Anticipation of this feeling can also be a motivator for giving. But when we think about the magnitude of the need in the world, we can become so discouraged that we give less.
In a study from the University of Oregon, one group of participants was shown a photo of a young girl who was starving and asked how much each person would give to help her. A second group was shown the same photo and told the same story about the girl, but was also told about millions of others who were starving. The people in the second group gave about half as much as the people in the first group. The study concluded that the feelings of sadness and helplessness that occur when we hear about the many victims we are unable to help diminish the “warm glow” feeling, and we end up giving less than we normally would.2
To counter this effect, it is helpful to remember that even the smallest gift can impact lives, and those individual lives matter. As the study stated, “The fact that one cannot help other children should not influence the decision to help a child who can be helped.”3
It is also well-established, and demonstrated in the study, that we connect better emotionally with an individual than with a large, faceless group. IMB reported that churches who have a personal connection with a missionary gave 2.5 times more to the IMB than churches who do not have a personal connection. Churches who have a personal connection and also are strategically involved in evangelism, church planting, and ministries overseas gave 5 times more than the churches who do not have a connection and are not involved overseas. Personal relationships and direct involvement with the ministries we support can help to bring more focus and purpose to our giving.
Distrust of Organizations
Charities and ministries are not immune to mismanagement or even blatant corruption. Some organizations that seem to be upright may be unethical or simply inefficient. It can be difficult to figure out which organizations use donations effectively and responsibly.
K. Allan Blume, editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder, warned donors to investigate how their money will be used before giving in a January 27, 2015, editorial. He suggested critically assessing any charity’s or ministry’s values, effectiveness, and accountability systems before deciding to support it.
For example, according to a 2014 report by the North Carolina Secretary of State, professional solicitors who raised funds for their nonprofit clients forwarded an average of only 41.99 percent of the donations they received from North Carolinians to the nonprofit on whose behalf they were soliciting. The average dropped to 37.30 percent for national solicitation campaigns that were reported to the North Carolina office.4
In his personal giving habits, Blume concluded that giving to his local church should be a priority. He said, “It is my conviction that when I give to the local church or to specific causes through the church where I am a member, I am confident the gift will reach the intended cause. . . . Furthermore, gifts to other ministries through my church have greater accountability.”5
Individuals and churches can be confident that SBC ministries have strong financial accountability systems in place. Convention entities and the Executive Committee are all required to be audited by an independent certified public accountant each year (SBC Business and Financial Plan, Article XIII). Financial statements are readily available in the SBC Annuals. Cooperating state Baptist conventions are also audited each year by independent auditors.
Charity watchdog group Charity Navigator suggests that donors look for nonprofits that use 25 percent or less of donations for administrative and fundraising costs.6 In the SBC’s Cooperative Program Allocation Budget, just 2.99 percent is allotted to the SBC operating budget, a lower percentage than most charities use for administration.
Blume reported that according to IMB’s 2013 financial report, 84.45 percent of all gifts to the IMB were spent in overseas missionary support with just 15.55 percent used for stateside administration and promotion. Similarly, NAMB used 15.9 percent of its budget for administration and fundraising in 2013, while the remaining 84.1 percent was used to support its ministries. One hundred percent of gifts to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering and Annie Armstrong Easter Offering are used to support international and North American missionaries on the field, respectively.
In addition, the SBC’s Global Hunger Relief and GuideStone’s Mission:Dignity also use every dollar received directly for ministry purposes.
How should we give?
There are many other reasons why we might be hesitant to give. While grace-based biblical stewardship demands that we be responsible and address legitimate concerns about how we use our money, it also demands that we give at a higher level.
The Macedonian churches recognized that giving was a privilege, and we too have the privilege of contributing to the spread of the Gospel at home and abroad. We should not give as the world gives—out of abundance, or out of guilt, or for our own benefit. We should give out of obedience, and out of the overflowing joy and gratitude we have in Christ.
Rebecca Wolford is communications specialist with the SBC Executive Committee and is a member of Brentwood Baptist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee.