Nineteen Questions to Ask Before You Give to Any Organization (Abbreviated Version)
Updated December 2010
Read 2 Corinthians 8:1-9; 14-15
Giving is a great privilege, but also a great responsibility—and sometimes a confusing one. While the biggest hurdle is to gain a vision for giving, and to overcome our reluctance to give, once we’ve bought into God’s call to eternal investment, once we’ve determined to plunge into giving then we must ask, where and to whom and in what way and for how long should we give?
1. Are there things about this ministry that make it uniquely worth investing in instead of a thousand other good causes?
God does not call us to support every ministry, and not even every worthy ministry, and not even every extremely worthy ministry. For the glory of God, we must say “no” to many need-meeting opportunities, even most of them, the vast majority of them, in order that we may say a strong “yes” to those that God has uniquely called us to support. I can almost guarantee you that God is calling all of us to give more than we’re presently giving, but to give to less than 1% of all the ministries we could give to.
Feel guilty if you don’t give, and if you don’t give very generously. But don’t feel guilty because you don’t give to every good cause. You cannot and you should not give to every good cause.
2. Before giving elsewhere, have I fulfilled my primary giving responsibility to my local church?
Missions, evangelistic crusades, hunger relief organizations, Christian schools, and campus outreaches are all “parachurch” ministries. Their function is to minister alongside of or beyond the scope of local churches.
Giving should be done first to the local church because it is the giver’s primary spiritual community. Those who sit under the teaching and leadership of godly servants should do their part by helping support them. In Galatians 6:6 Paul says, “Anyone who receives instruction in the word must share all good things with his instructor.”
Provided the church teaches the Bible and exalts the Lord Jesus—and if it doesn’t we need to be part of a church that does—we have to learn to trust and submit, and recognize our giving is to the Lord, and when it comes to the church we can voice our opinions, but we can’t and shouldn’t seek to control where everything goes. In the early church believers laid their money at the feet of the apostles so it could be distributed as there was need.
Personally, my wife and I give a minimum of 10% to our local church, and with special offerings to the church, it comes out to more. Only after that do we look beyond to the wide array of international opportunities for kingdom investments. Giving need not end in the local church, but it should begin there.
3. Have I not only studied the literature from this ministry, but talked with others who know it close up but have no vested interests in it?
In most churches, people sometimes see their own pastors in real life situations, and have some feel for their character and qualifications. But what they know about a mission organization is primarily what they’re told through the mail or on radio or television. Before giving to ministries that we aren’t intimately familiar with, we should do our homework.
Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; someone else, and not your own lips.” Every time we read a fundraising letter or any other publication of a ministry—and I do recommend reading them—we have to keep in mind that these words are coming from their mouths, their lips, not from an objective third party.
Most ministry groups do not excel at negative self-disclosure. Ask them what their weaknesses are. If they can’t answer, it shows a serious lack of self-evaluation and a lack of initiative for improvement. This homework can include consulting with others who may know first-hand what the ministry is really like. Ask your pastor what he knows about this organization and its leaders. Missionaries are often good resources. Larger churches, like mine, may have a missions pastor who travels extensively and keeps abreast of which organizations are doing what, and how well. Missions professors at Bible colleges and seminaries are often familiar with foreign ministries.
4. Have I considered a ministry or vision trip to see and participate in what this ministry is actually doing on the field?
There’s just nothing like seeing missions work first-hand. I will never forget, for instance, watching people riveted to the Jesus Film on back streets and abandoned lots in some countries, and in private homes with the curtains drawn in others. I saw with my own eyes how God was using this wonderful instrument to win people to Christ and plant churches.
As great as vision trips are, however, we have to realize they too have limits. For one thing, you may have been part of a very good work, but there may be a better one you haven’t seen first hand. Plus, remember you’re not seeing everything. You may be seeing an organization’s best work, with their best face put on it in light of your visit.
Of course, you don’t need to take a trip to see every ministry you support. But maybe you can talk to someone you trust who’s made such a trip.
5. Does the ministry’s staff demonstrate a servant-hearted concern for those to whom they minister?
Does the literature and day to day operation reflect a ministry that is not just project-centered, but people-centered? Do these people demonstrate a spirit of servanthood and humility? Is the organization more concerned about its image, or what it actually does for others? Is it better at talking about ministry, or actually doing the ministry?
6. Do the organization’s workers demonstrate a sense of unity, camaraderie and mutual respect?
Whether in a home office or on the field, how well do staff members get along with each other? Is there a family atmosphere? Are they quick to encourage each other? Do they appear to be a team, or is there a feeling of distance or competition among them? Do you hear laughter in the halls and lunch table, or do you sense a climate of tension or unrest? Here’s a question to ask employees—for what reasons have people left this organization in the last year?
7. Have I talked directly with people at the “lower levels” of this ministry, not just executives and PR people?
Examining an organization’s literature or listening to its broadcasts is necessary, but not sufficient. The ministry will rarely report failures, infighting, immorality, or misappropriation of funds. While no organization is perfect, we are responsible to take reasonable steps to insure we are supporting ministries which live by God’s principles.
Does the ministry have a web site? Examine it. See if you can pick up not only the beliefs and projects, but the attitude and spirit behind the ministry.
If you give regularly or substantially to a ministry, visit its nearest office, without making an appointment. You can learn a great deal by personally interacting with the ministry’s staff, or with the faculty and students of a Christian school.
8. Is this ministry biblically sound and Christ-centered?
Take a good look at a ministry’s statement of faith. Is it true to the Scriptures? If the answer is no, go no farther. If it’s a Christian school, and there’s a need for a sociology teacher, will it hire an academically qualified but spiritually unqualified professor just to maintain accreditation? An organization can be doctrinally sound but spiritually dead. Is there evidence of a vital relationship with Christ? What is the spiritual pulse of faculty and students? If it isn’t what it should be, are you perpetuating the spiritual problem by giving your money? Or are there other schools and other ministries more worthy of your support?
Is there a prayerful dependence on God? Has the ministry maintained its spiritual goals? If it is a relief organization, is there a clear understanding of the full human dilemma? Does it take into account the sin problem as well as poverty and hunger?
Obtain current information—the fact that this was a good school or ministry thirty years ago isn’t relevant. The funds you give will not go to the work of thirty years ago, they will go to what is happening now. Make sure this ministry is on the right track today.
9. What kind of character, integrity, purity and humility is demonstrated by the ministry leaders?
No ministry will rise above the spiritual level of those who lead it. The Christian leader is to be above reproach, self-controlled and in right relationship to his family. He is not to be a lover of money, quarrelsome, conceited, or one who will bend the truth for financial gain (1 Tim. 3:1-10).
The organization should simply be a tool at God’s disposal, for him to use as—and as long as—he chooses (2 Tim. 2:21). Is this a God-centered rather than man-centered operation?
Are those who should be humble servants made to look like heroes or celebrities? If someone other than God is getting the glory, do your giving elsewhere.
10. What kind of accountability structures does the organization have?
Is it part of an external accountability affiliation such as the Evangelical Counsel for Financial Accountability? (However, some good organizations do not belong to these groups, and some that do may not be living up to the affiliation’s standards.)
External affiliations are no substitute for internal checks and balances. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). Is the board comprised of a good cross section of spiritually qualified people? Will they stand up to key leaders in the organization, and challenge them on the wisdom or rightness of certain actions or policies?
How open are the decision-makers to your input as an informed donor? Be careful—don’t try to control what isn’t yours to control. But do take the responsibility to be a wise steward.
11. If this is a secular or semi-Christian organization rather than a distinctively Christian one, what are the compelling reasons for giving to it?
Secular organizations such as the United Way support many good things, along with some bad, including Planned Parenthood and its abortion agenda. But even when they do good, there is a basic philosophical difference. They focus on the short term needs of people, without a view to their eternal welfare.
If the only way to help people was to give to a nonchristian organization, of course I’d give to it. But it isn’t. Let’s do the good works in the name of Christ, for his glory.
12. How clear are this organization’s goals and objectives, strategies and tactics, and how effective are they in carrying them out?
Is effectiveness judged by activity or by results, or both? How is it really measured? How can you interpret the numbers they list in mailings and reports?
For example, If 100 tons of food were delivered, how much got directly into the hands of hungry people and how much was confiscated by government officials or stolen and sold on the black market? Is there another organization that gets more food to people in need more effectively and better utilizes Christian churches to do it? Was gospel literature distributed with the food? If not, why not? Was there a good reason (maybe there was) or was this a missed opportunity reflecting the mission’s disinterest in evangelism?
If 10,000 people have come to Christ, how many were baptized and are now part of Bible-teaching churches? Does this organization follow up and evaluate the effectiveness of past projects and take this into consideration in future ones?
13. Is this organization teachable and open to improvement to become more strategic in their efforts?
Do they look for new ways to convey the timeless message, or do they put themselves above evaluation by uncritically “doing the Lord’s work” the same way they always have?
Character and attitude are the most important, but they’re not enough. You can be very godly and very sincere, but also do a very poor job in effectively meeting needs. Are leaders and missionaries participating in forums and conferences that put them on the forward edge of methodologies?
14. Am I certain I’ve gotten an objective view of this ministry, or have they given me the red carpet treatment so I’ve seen the positives without the negatives?
Do they present their best side to those who are potential supporters, while showing their worst side to their own workers and/or those they are supposed to be reaching? They may give you the red carpet treatment if they recognize you as a big donor or as big donor potential, but servantheartedness is best demonstrated in how they treat those who cannot help them and who they feel no compulsion to impress.
Don’t expect to be coddled, and don’t give to a ministry because they’ve stroked you and romanced you, but because they’re bringing glory to God by doing a faithful kingdom work. When it comes to investing in eternity, we need to get over ourselves—it’s not about you and me, the donors, it’s about the glory of God.
15. What view of God and people is demonstrated in this organization’s fundraising techniques?
I heard a radio preacher beg listeners, “Please be sensitive to God—send us your contribution.”
Though it’s no doubt sincere in many cases, the promise of prayer for the giver’s needs and loved ones can be manipulative fundraising. “You pay, and we’ll pray.”
Another common tactic is the manufactured crisis—”We must receive $300,000 by the end of the month or we’ll have to close our doors.” Yet $100,000 comes in and the doors stay open. So, how is this different than lying?
Many ministries reflect prosperity theology or health and wealth gospel. I deal with that in my book Money, Possessions and Eternity.
Over the years, I’ve received countless fundraising appeals from different ministries, and most of them are appropriate, but some of them have increasingly gotten worse and worse. Some organizations don’t put their name on the return address, or put an assumed name, knowing the recipient might not open it if he knew what it really was. In other words, the goal of the mailing is out and out deception—what does that say about a ministry? This kind of fundraising is immoral—it’s scandalous and Christians should not tolerate it.
Some organizations offer names on bricks and plaques to commemorate and publicize donor giving. When the organization puts this forth as a motive for giving, they violate Matthew 6 which says our giving is to be done quietly and discreetly, and those who give to be recognized have their reward, man’s approval, but forfeit reward from God. Any ministry that appeals to my worst motives and results in my loss of reward is not an organization I want to support.
Pioneer missionary to China Hudson Taylor said, “God’s work done in God’s way will never lack God’s supply.” Even the best ministries will sometimes be running tight financially. But if a work constantly lacks money, if it’s always begging for donations, does this suggest something may be fundamentally wrong? Perhaps that it’s either not God’s work or it’s not being done in God’s way.
16. How much money does the organization spend on overhead expenses and fundraising, and how much in actual ministry to people?
Every organization has legitimate overhead and “home office” expenses. These are not nonessentials. But as important as support personnel are, when you give to an organization, it’s also fair to ask how much is actually getting to the ministry you intended to support. (I hesitate to state a specific percentage to look for, because each ministry is unique, and many define “overhead” in different ways.)
What percentage of funds goes to raising more funds? What portion of every dollar sent in goes not to the work itself, but to raise more dollars?
If you can visit a ministry office, look at the furnishings. They may be attractive without being expensive and ostentatious. What about the lifestyles of the ministry staff? Does the organization disclose financial information that includes staff salaries? If not, why not?
If it seems judgmental or inappropriate to ask such questions, remember that you are God’s money manager looking to invest his assets.
17. Does this ministry show a clear understanding of cross-cultural ministry factors and local conditions and how the flow of money may affect them?
Some organizations are masters at the difficult task of cross-cultural ministry. Others are sincere but culturally ignorant or insensitive. They may have poor contacts or distribution methods in foreign countries. They sometimes pursue short-term solutions that contribute to long-term problems.
A sensitive relief and development organization with a long-term perspective—and there are some excellent ones—will work toward encouraging rather than discouraging local workers and the local economy, with a goal not only of immediate famine relief, but ongoing famine prevention.
Warning—ask legitimate questions, but do not use examples of misappropriated or unwise funding as an excuse not to give to critical needs. The solution is never to give less, it is to give more, but to give it selectively to the ministries that are doing the best job to the glory of God.
18. Does this organization speak well of others and cooperate with them?
Does this ministry have a cooperative rather than competitive relationship with other ministries? Does it avoid duplication of efforts? Or does it reinvent the wheel with no regard for what others in different ministries and denominations have learned and accomplished? Do local churches and nationals speak highly of this ministry? If so, good. If not, why not?
Check the ministry’s newsletter and see if there are references to cooperation with other groups and churches. Call and ask what joint projects they are involved with. A self-sufficient ministry hesitant to share success with others is myopic and counterproductive. Our giving should go to ministries committed to partnerships, to joining their brethren in building God’s kingdom, not their own.
19. Is this ministry pervaded by a distinctly eternal perspective on life, ministry and resources?
Some organizations have one year, five year and ten year goals, but fail to operate with an eternal perspective. True long-term accomplishments are not those that will last ten years or even a hundred. They should last a billion years and beyond. They should make a difference for eternity.
Immediately on leaving this world all who know Christ will gain the right perspective on ministry. The good news is we don’t have to wait until then. We can and should live now—and invest in eternity now—with the perspective that will be ours one minute after we die.