On any given day, nearly every Christian household receives pleas for money. The letters tell us about hungry children, people with AIDS, and the spiritually lost. They include underlining, computer-generated handwriting, postscripts, exclamation points, and yellow highlights. They come from Christian relief agencies whose materials and names blend together in compassion confusion—Compassion International, Christian Aid, Food for the Hungry, Feed the Children, International Aid, Samaritan's Purse, World Concern, World Relief, and World Vision.
These groups have raised billions of dollars over the years, and they have done an immense amount of good in the world. But some people question their fundraising strategies. The appeals, they say, rely on guilt-inducing pleas and high-pressure tactics. They create a false sense of urgency, or make promises that a small gift can really change a child's life. They rely on Madison Avenue techniques instead of honest and direct appeals to Christian brothers and sisters. Some critics say they should never even ask for money but simply operate by faith that God will provide.
Such criticism is not new to the people who write such appeals. Nor is the challenge of getting Americans and Canadians, some of the wealthiest citizens of the world, to give more of their money for others. The fundraisers wrestle with ethical dilemmas every time they write a piece of direct mail. "Our challenge is to present reality as clearly as possible," Steve Woodworth, president of MasterWorks Associates, an agency that produces fundraising material for Food for the Hungry (FFH), told CT. "Every time you make an offer to a donor, you must be honest. You can't deliberately mislead, and you try to avoid stereotypes. Yet you have to focus on the need. That's what people respond to."
From Faith to Fundraising
What are the major criticisms of relief agencies' appeals? How do agencies reply to these critiques? What ethical guidelines do they follow? Are they being honest with us?
Evangelist George Müller founded his first orphanage "on faith" in Bristol, England, in 1835. Writing in More Money, More Ministry (Eerdmans, 2000), parachurch historian Michael Hamilton describes Müller's method as one that compelled him "never to speak of the orphanage's current needs, even if asked, and never to incur debt." Müller was a frequent speaker in churches, where he extolled the virtues of God's grace by recounting instances when God had provided needed funds at the very last minute. The accounts alone, no doubt, encouraged donations without his actually asking for them.
Pioneer missionary J. Hudson Taylor used the same approach, as did Mother Teresa in our time. But the apostle Paul was not afraid to ask for money, and following his example, evangelists Billy Sunday and D.L. Moody used direct fundraising to sustain their ministries. Moody, whose preaching held audiences spellbound, elicited the support of wealthy entrepreneurs who underwrote evangelistic campaigns. He candidly referred to his solicitations as "begging letters." The post-World War II economic boom enjoyed by evangelicals and the broader society sounded the death knell for most faith-mission proponents, Hamilton says.
Keith Jespersen, president of the Russ Reid Company, a pioneer Christian advertising agency, offers a concise assessment of faith-based techniques: "They didn't work." He also dismisses the notion that faith fundraising required more spiritual maturity than today's high-powered approaches.
"It takes great faith to work hard for six months to implement the formula that makes a Billy Graham Crusade a success. … [and] that 5,000 people or more will walk down the aisle and be saved as a result of all the hard work and prayer. This is a miracle of faith, too." Nearly all evangelical relief-and-development agencies have reached the same conclusion.
When Youth for Christ wanted to send an evangelist to China in 1947, a Nazarene youth minister named Bob Pierce took up the challenge. As he conducted crusades in China and Korea for the next several years, Pierce's heart was broken by the plight of widows and orphans. These hungry and scared victims of war and poverty were too sick to hear the gospel; they first needed food and comfort.
That is the message Pierce took home, often showing his 16-millimeter movies in American churches. While evangelicals were still wary of filmed entertainment, these movies touched them. Donations to Pierce's overseas work increased so much that he needed a formal organization to manage the income. That was the beginning of World Vision and the modern era of evangelical fundraising.
In subsequent years, Christian communication experts outlined ethical standards for fundraising. Charles Veenstra and Daryl Vander Kooi, for example, proposed in a 1979 issue of Religious Communication Today that the basic premise of all communication is that people deserve to have their intellect and freedom respected, because they are reflections of God. Further, honest communication should include "careful documentation of facts, solid information, cogent reasoning, clear statistics, quoting within context, appropriate emotional appeals, use of genuine experts."
Their ethical guidelines are echoed in key portions of "Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship" by the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, which, among other duties, monitors relief agencies' communications. According to ECFA's standards, the fundraisers must make sure their narratives about events are current, complete, and accurate, and that the material they create is free of omissions, exaggerations, or "any other communication which would tend to create a false impression or misunderstanding."
The standards are there because of the many temptations and challenges fundraisers face. Whether they succumb is a matter of debate both inside and outside their world. The automated underlining and implied personalization of direct mail bothers Hamilton. Each month thousands of people who have never met Clive Calver, president of World Relief, receive a letter that seems addressed specifically to them.
"I have an important message to share with you—from my heart to yours—a valued friend and partner with World Relief," one letter begins. The practice is common with agencies that merge mailing lists with appeal copy to achieve the appearance of a personal letter. It underscores how our reliance on technology causes us to accept such fictions. "Most of us feel instinctively that this is false," Hamilton says.
Personalization has become such a cliché in appeal letters that most readers do not take it as a serious expression of intimacy. Still, many organizations avoid the technique. A recent letter from Samaritan's Purse uses the greeting "Dear Friend," and the unadorned prose tells of 4 million shoeboxes full of gifts donated by Samaritan's Purse supporters. The only appeal for funds is more a declarative statement that comes in a side notation. Readers find out that the Children's Heart Project spends about $1,500 to bring a child or parent to the United States for medical treatment, and that individuals or churches are invited to assist.
Frequent underlining is another way the agencies get their readers' attention. The technique is not likely to go away, although World Relief and International Aid say they have abandoned it.
"When I write my mom, I underline," Ben Homan, president of Food for the Hungry, told CT. "People have so much information thrown at them, so I see this as a way to guide them to key parts." Jespersen argues that anyone who believes underlining is an ethical issue is missing the real intent. "Underlining is a technical issue, like the choice of type, or whether to use exclamation marks or P.S. notations," he says.
Another problem critics cite is overusing the words urgent and now. "Urgent" letters make some people wonder just how important the need may be. We know that it will take days or weeks for our donation to reach its destination; if the need is really that urgent, it is being paid for with existing agency funds.
The more likely scenario is that donations were not keeping pace with the budget, which is a cause for concern and a justification for the letter—even if we might debate whether the budget shortfall is serious enough to warrant using the word urgent.
Another tactic critics question is including a tangible symbol, such as a Christmas card or a seed packet, which the donor is asked to sign and return to the agency, preferably with a check. Last January's appeal from World Vision arrived inside an orange envelope covered with a photo of pumpkins in a field.
"LIFT CAREFULLY," the promotional copy said, "1,000 POUNDS of fresh pumpkins inside!" Inside was a seed packet, along with an appeal to help purchase HarvestPaks for African countries. In the letter, World Vision CEO Rich Stearns noted that his agency has received a grant from the U.S. government. A portion of the grant depended on World Vision's ability to raise matching funds from its donors. A boldfaced paragraph near the end of the letter pleaded, "Please. … will you sign and return the enclosed seeds with your generous gift so we can rush HarvestPaks to waiting families?" Some donors, critics argue, may feel obligated or pressured by guilt to make a donation.
Woodworth and other fundraisers say "visual artifacts"—seed packets or calendars—give donors a ready understanding of the problem. Donors gain a sense that even though a gift may be small, it will help. "This visual presentation helps people get past the enormity of world hunger and the clutter of so much overwhelming information," Woodworth told ct.
Peter Adamson, founder of New Internationalist magazine, raises another concern. He criticizes "all charities (including UNICEF) which claim that a few dollars can bring a person safe water, or prevent a death from dehydration or measles, or may save a child's eyesight."
Such change requires years of work—new roads, dams, wells, housing, jobs, and nutritional training—Adamson says in Disasters, Relief, and the Media by Jonathan Benthall (I.B. Tauris, 1994).
More troubling is what is sometimes left out. Many people believed the devastating Ethiopia famine of 1984-85 was "caused by drought and solved by relief," says Alex de Waal, a longtime critic of media and relief-agency communications. In reality, "The famine was largely created by the counterinsurgency strategy of the [Ethiopian] government, a fact that few [nongovernmental organizations] pointed out at the time," de Waal and others write in an Africa Watch discussion paper, "Humanitarianism Unbound?"
Aid agencies owe their donors insight into government decisions that create problems, de Waal says, so donors will lobby their governments to exert pressure on the guilty countries.
But aid-agency executives reply that if they inundate people with such complexities, donors will forget that people are in danger of dying without hearing the Good News. "Direct response must take a complex issue with lots of contextual variables, like community development, and make it simple," says Atul Tandon, senior vice president of World Vision. "But we must communicate this without compromising the integrity of the message or the dignity of the people we are talking about."
Tact and Circumstance
"There is a temptation to take shortcuts with the message because more sensationalistic and manipulative messages do result in short-term income spikes," says Jeanette Bult DeJong, executive vice president and COO of International Aid. "But if you take shortcuts with your message, you may be tempted to take shortcuts with the integrity of your work. This is where trust in God plays out, I believe, because we must resist those temptations to gain a greater dollar."
Franklin Graham, president of Samaritan's Purse, is one executive who is uncomfortable with the usual fundraising appeals. His organization is one of the few Christian aid agencies that do not use a professional advertising agency to create their direct-mail materials. "We present the need to God's people, ask them to respond, and trust that God will touch their hearts," Graham told CT. "I'm not shy about believing that God will provide, but I don't want to be pushy and make someone feel guilty. More money is not my goal."
To guard against sensationalism and exaggeration, most agencies have increased the number of people reviewing proposed solicitations. Pamela Barden, former director of marketing at World Relief, once proposed a letter that said the children of one family were "filthy, covered with sores, wearing tattered clothing." The words described the children's physical condition accurately, but field staff said the letter implied that the parents were not providing the best care they could, Barden told CT.
"The program people want us to focus on improvements and hope, which we often do," Barden said. "But fundraisers also need to describe the current situation so we can encourage donors to help, and this may require that we use imagery that has implications that bother program staff overseas."
Barden adds that fundraisers and program staff quickly settle their differences "because we are trying to reach the same goal of serving our Lord and our donors. We find ways to encompass words that are descriptive without being offensive."
When it comes to television, fundraisers are particularly sensitive to the effect of their images. Woodworth recalls when, as World Vision vice president, he was helping to shoot a promotional video in Africa. The crew had to stop filming every few minutes so he could shoo away flies buzzing around the liquid secreted by an emaciated African boy's eyes.
One Child at a Time
"Even though the flies and the tragic state of that boy were a reality, we got the flies away to avoid the criticism of exploiting and sensationalizing," he says.
While the wording and imagery of direct response are controversial, so too is one major concept they package: child sponsorship. The genius of sponsorship is that it links a caring donor with a needy child in the Third World. And as a practical matter, it is very effective at raising funds for those in need.
Despite its success, sponsorship's problems are well documented. In 1999, Kansas City-based Children International promised the Missouri attorney general's office that it would change advertising practices the state called "distorted or deliberately misconstrued to obtain donations." In 1998, the Chicago Tribune ran a series exposing problems with sponsorship programs operated by Save the Children, Childreach, and Christian Children's Fund. Reporters found that some of the children they had sponsored were no longer receiving benefits or had died. Fortunately, such scandals have not plagued evangelical agencies.
Critics also say that agencies such as Feed the Children, Food for the Hungry, and World Vision place the child at the forefront of marketing, while the actual work on the field is community-centered rather than child-centered. People think they are giving their money to the child, when in reality they are also funding small-loan programs, agricultural and nutritional training, housing subsidies, and perhaps the salary of a social worker or an evangelist. This development work transforms hundreds of people's lives, including the sponsored children, and often opens people to the gospel.
How do the agencies avoid saying one thing and doing another? An FFH brochure tells potential sponsors: "For less than a dollar a day, you'll be giving your sponsored child access to such things as nutritious food, clean water, medical and dental care, school supplies, education, and spiritual nourishment" (emphasis added). Subsequent mailings from FFH and World Vision explain how the funds are used.
World Vision recently tracked its sponsors to see how well they understood development-based sponsorship. "After six to twelve months [of receiving additional materials], sponsors can articulate the community development story clearly," says Marty Lonsdale, marketing vice president.
Still, using sponsorship funds for community development troubles one of Christendom's largest sponsorship agencies. "I think there's a real danger in sponsorship organizations that drift away from the money going to directly benefit the children," says Rick Mitchell, director of development and marketing for Compassion International.
Says Ed Anderson, Compassion's CFO, "We believe if you invest in the individual children, they will grow up to change their community and make improvements in their community." He says Compassion uses sponsorship funds for tutoring, social development, leadership development, health screening, immunizations, and spiritual training.
The debate about fundraising tactics is not over. Critics continue to voice justified concern about some fundraising techniques. But overall, the words and images used by evangelical aid agencies in their appeals are truthful and fair. Still, those who create fundraising messages know they walk an ethical tightrope. The temptations they face are hardly sinister—anyone who has held a Third World child dying of starvation cannot help being outraged at the insensitivity and squandered wealth of our consumption-obsessed society. Any decent person would want to shake money out of the nearest person they see. As members of the kingdom of God, all of us share the responsibility to give a cup of cold water in Jesus' name and to provide funds to spread God's kingdom worldwide.
Ultimately, then, God calls both donors and communicators to accountability. Those who seek our funds to spread his kingdom grapple daily with applying biblical principles to how they use resources. Our responsibility is to cooperate with those agencies, not only questioning them when we feel their communication tactics have slid down that slippery ethical slope, but also heeding their call for help.
Ken Waters is a professor of journalism at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California. During the 1980s, he served as a communication executive with World Vision International.
Copyright © 2001 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
A ready-to-download Bible Study on this article is available at ChristianBibleStudies.com. These unique Bible studies use articles from current issues of Christianity Today to prompt thought-provoking discussions in adult Sunday school classes or small groups.
Christian relief agencies are currently debating how to use the September 11 terrorist attacks in appeals.
See the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability for the "Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship."
More Money, More Ministry is available at Christianbook.com.
Jonathon Benthall's Disasters, Relief, and the Media is available at Amazon.com.
See the official Web sites for Christian relief agencies mentioned in the article:
- Compassion International
- Christian Aid
- Food for the Hungry
- Feed the Children
- International Aid
- Samaritan's Purse
- World Concern
- World Relief
- World Vision
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