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Black hole of charity

Posted by Don McLenaghen on November 30, 2011

One thing that church apologists always bring up is that “say what you may, religious institutions provide social services by way of charitable works”. As we approach the BIG giving time of year it seems appropriate to address how and to whom you could give this year. For those of a religious bent, read to (or skip to) the end, this is not just a condemnation of church charities on the whole.

If we scan the horizon we see a plethora of charitable organizations that are asking for our donations so they might do their good works. One of the giants in this industry is the church – regardless of faith – religious charitable donations (101$ billion) account for 1 of every 3 dollars donated (35%), more than twice that of its closest competitor – schools (42$ billion/14%). This money does NOT include NGO’s such as the United Way or United Jewish Appeal, which would qualify as religious donations in my books but not by my source[1]…these groups (which include secular organizations) account for about 25$ billion.

How is this money spent?

According to Christianity Today International

Well, the first thing to note, is that a significant amount of church donations do not go to charitable work at all but the upkeep of church property and the support of church staff. This will vary greatly depending on the amount of ‘tithing[2]’ churches do. In one case study, only 5%[3] of the donated money was actually spent on charitable work[4]. This forms the biggest part of the black hole of charity. Some may see upkeep on churches as charity but I see it as organizational maintenance for a select minority. Charity is something you give to help those less off than you…to right a wrong…to make the world a better place[5] or to correct a societal ill.

Let us not forget that a significant amount of church charity, notably televangelists[6], is fraudulent[7]. “Proportionally more money is lost (and stolen) from the collection plate than is lost from the accounts of a secular (non-religious) charity”[8].

Not that secular charity does not have its share of fraud, there is however less accountability for churches, given their special status in the non-profit law. To see this we must understand how a charity gains ‘charity status’: you must qualify by the relief of poverty and/or advancing education and/or advancing religion and/or providing a benefit to the community (what qualifies as a benefit is based largely on common law). You may have noticed I over used the AND/OR…that is because most secular charities are only one of these (occasionally one plus education). Religious charities are always ‘advancing religion’ and one of the other[9]; that is what doesn’t qualify as an allowable expense in one category can be counted in another…secular charities can’t hide their malfeasance (if it occurs) this way.

Fraud? Well, because one religious tenet (not universal but not uncommon either) is the prosperity doctrine[10]; that is if you do Gods work, God will reward you with wealth[11] (camels and needle eyes be damned, pun intended). So, if a preacher takes your charitable donations and spends it on their own creature comforts it can be argued it is promoting religion via the prosperity doctrine[12]. Although Revenue Canada does examine charity spending, churches have a way of sidestepping them by pulling the religion card.

Is it efficient?

Again, there is a wide spectrum of responses here. It’s important to note, that ALL church donations are secondary in nature. That is, if I donate to the school bake sale to send kids to The CERN, it’s a direct donation…no intermediaries taking a piece of the pie; you give the money, the kids buy a ticket. Some secular charities will also have layers of management, but they will (almost) never have as many as a church[13]. For secular charities, you give the money; some goes to management[14] the rest to the ‘cause’ however church based your money goes to management, proselytising, church maintenance and then to the ‘cause’. So, it seems that almost in every instance it is more efficient to donate to result-specific charities than churches.

Don’t get me wrong, I am NOT saying that all secular charities are more effective than all church groups. Groups like cancer charities[15] are often condemned for spending more on fundraising than charity work[16]. My point is that most frontline, project specific charities (BC. Food bank) or secular organizations (UNICEF) are structurally far more likely to spend more of its money actually helping people (or animals or the planet…etc).

There is also the extra requirements churches often place on how or where they spend their charitable donations. First they have legal right to discriminate[17] against people they find morally offensive…like gays[18] or atheists. They will place missions in locations where there is a strong ‘spiritual’ community. Many don’t support programs that are not ‘abstinence’ based, so money given to Planned Parenthood is more likely to the greater good than Compassion Capital Fund[19]. The list is long and often unknown to the donor, they assume it’s doing the most good; however good is in the eye of the believer.

Which leads us to the theological, elephant in the roomWhy do churches do charity work?

The prime and over-riding purpose of churches is to save souls…to do this they must ‘convert’ people to the faith. That is, from a moral stand point, secular charities are doing their good deed to make the world a better place…to relieve suffering… Churches do this as a side-effect. Why do I not donate to the Salvation Army? The church soup kitchen? Not because I think they don’t do anything good for the community but when I give to them I am helping them do their primary purpose… proselytize to the needy and downtrodden.

A hundred billion a year is wasted on church charities to allow them to take advantage of the poor in need of a meal, the addicted recover (well recover by replacing one addition for another) or in any number of other ways using human suffering to promote their theocratic agenda. I think most religious people think they are doing good, but if you crunch the numbers, you are better off giving to the local BC food bank, OXFAM Canada, Amnesty international, doctors without borders…there are a lot.

What can I do?

I titled this piece “Black hole of charity” because when you give to a religious organization you can never be sure where you money is going, what its purpose is (need vs. proselytizing) and what is actually given (often free bibles are considered giving to the needy).

As I said at the start, if you are religious and you want to support your church, by all means do so. The point I am trying to make is you should divide your charitable giving into three pots. One is for the maintenance and upkeep of your local (or national) church. One you can set aside to promote your religious views via proselytization. And one you set aside for providing aid and comfort to the needy, however defined…this last bit you give to a front line charity, such as BC Food Bank or the SPCA. These groups are focused, efficient and will give you the most charity bang for the buck. I hope you don’t waste any money on the first two pots, but if you must at least make the third one be valued charity.

Check out these sites to find the charity best suited for you:

[3] , granted this source it not itself sourced…take it as you will.

[4], none of their money goes to charity…except themselves. Although it is appreciated they are open with their finances.

[5] Yes, religious people think churching you up makes the world a better place, but no more than my donation to the NRA is ‘charitable’. It may provide what I think a social good but does not address a societal ill.

[13] check out World Villages for Children, Christian Alliance for Humanitarian Aid or American Tract Society

[14] Yes, a number of charities, secular and otherwise, will spend more on ‘for-profit’ fundraising making the ‘management’ share larger than is appropriate. However, this is an exception for both church and secular charities.

5 Responses to “Black hole of charity”

  1. Deniz said

    I think it’s a bit unfair to say that every single church’s exclusive purpose is to save souls. Some are legitimately concerned with human rights protection in documenting foreign wars and supporting foreign populations more than proseltyzing, even if they’re in the minority.

    • Noted and edited…Although i still hold that there is no more important purpose (in the eyes of the church) is ‘saving souls’.

      The other aspects occur either in an attempt to ‘live according to faith’ or to show the church (and its message) an alternative to the ‘secular’ view (with aim of winning people over and saving souls)…and maybe occasionally (when it does not contravene dogma or run counter to the proselytize aims) charity is done incidentally.

      I think if you asked any ‘priest’ that if he X, Y or Z, which might make the would better but would condemn souls, their response would be either a) i would not do X,Y, or Z, or b) no, your theology is wrong, god will still save souls…

      I should also make it clear, my commentary is more directed at the institution of the church, individuals (even the ‘priestly type) may do good for good sake in spite of the overt institutional goals. A church bake sale to ‘send kids to CERN’, could be equivalent to the school doing the same, however that would be more an exception than the rule.

      • shadowolf said

        “I think if you asked any ‘priest’ that if he X, Y or Z, which might make the would better but would condemn souls, their response would be either a) i would not do X,Y, or Z, or b) no, your theology is wrong, god will still save souls…”

        The new math, eh?

  2. Erin D said

    I am wondering about some of your claims and was hoping you could back them up.

    For example, the idea that the church is helping people in order to save their souls. I’ve attended a few churches and none of them ever gave a whit about saving souls. I know that isn’t representative of all churches, but for some it really isn’t the point.

    Also, all of the churches I have attended had the option of giving to a specific ministry. For example, you could specify on your donation that the money was to be used for the church food bank. All of that money would go towards helping people, and because it’s usually run by volunteers, there would be no administrative costs.

    Also, you say that some church people do this because it’s a tenant of their faith. I don’t see how this is a criticism. Just as your dedication to charity is a tenant of your faith in the betterment of society.

    Other than that, I appreciate your criticisms. Sometimes church charities do discriminate, and sometimes prosperity preachers get rich off the backs of their congregation. These are real abuses of faith and it’s no wonder people get turned off religion.

    I’m glad that you’ve found charities that you like. Keep up the good work!

    • I should point out an important distinction made between “the Church” and the Parishioners (those who attend church). Those who attend church may be oblivious to the ‘overall’ intent of organization in the same way a ‘free concert’ sponsored by Coke may not seem like a ploy to gain/secure market share to an attendee of the concert.

      The Parishioners often take at face value the ‘message’ of be kind and helpful. I could argue that if they do it as part of their ‘religious beliefs’ it’s not charity but an attempt to ensure the parishioners seat in heaven; however if they would do such an act regardless of their religion, that is equivalent to ‘secular’ charity. Just to make the point clearer, when I give to charity I do so ONLY to help others (assuming I steer clear of any vanity play)…the religious, MUST follow their beliefs to be saved…failure to do so has ‘dire’ consequences…therefore when the religious give because of their beliefs it is innately self-serving. If I don’t give, I may think myself a bad person but there is no necessity to ‘follow my beliefs’…in that way, my charity would be more honest and sincere than the religious; in spite of what the religious person may think – it’s a moral trap the secular never face.

      The point of the Judaeo-Christian church…EVERY church is to save souls, if it were not then there would be no Sunday service, not baptism, confession, no need for a bible or the church itself. If you think the church “gives not whit about saving souls’ I think you have confused a church for a community center. I would also ask if you have talked to priest/minister/what-have-you and asked what they think if their primary job…what is the point of the church. IF they say ‘saving souls’ is not number 1, then I suspect you are in Europe.

      There are a breed of “churches” that are largely free of religion…they are cultural artifacts where most people who attend do so not for ‘god’ but because its tradition…it has become the community center. They are rare in North America but far more common in Europe (especially in Northern Europe where you will see a country like Sweden where only 20%(1) believe in god but over 70% (2) are members of the Church of Sweden).

      Now, it is good that in your experience you were only ever asked for money for specific charities… that none of that money made its way into ‘church’ up keep. However, even if pure in donation, it still serves the church’s over-arching ‘marketing’ goal. Most (but probably not all) to use your example, do not pool the donations to a secular food bank, but provide their own in-house bank (with the free labour, which is also a donation). This provides the church both the opportunity to appeal to the needy that there is ‘more to life than bread’ and perhaps they could partake in some Christian fellowship (get them in the door, and that’s half-way to ‘getting their souls’). Also, it provides ‘bonus’ services for those who already believe…don’t go the ‘secular’ bank but stay here and get a better selection (by type or taste or even just venue). IF the church truly wanted to help the hungry, they would always pool their donations with secular charities to provide a bigger bang for the buck.

      I am glad that even if some ancient mythological belief system commanded you not to help the poor or needy, you still would because you are a good person. May you…we all continue in our efforts to help the needed and make the world a better place for all.
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