The red flags you should and should not ignore.
Over the past several years, the headlines have been filled with stories about Christian leaders who were ultimately untrustworthy, whether that be in their relationships, their running of an organization, or their own spiritual lives. Unfortunately, this kind of dishonesty exists in many institutions, nonprofits, and Christian companies.
Many people have responded to this slew of news with skepticism, scrutinizing those who claim the name of Jesus and questioning whether any individual or institution is worth wholehearted support. Others have buried their heads in the sand, blinded by loyalty and unwilling to consider an exercise in discernment.
Neither of these responses is sufficient for Christians who want to learn from past ministry failures, make wise choices in the present, and participate in God’s future work. Fortunately, experts in ministry health say that there are clear red flags to look for before financially supporting an organization .
Not Giving Can Be the Wisest Choice
Warren Smith, president of MinistryWatch.com, says that there are some red flags that should be considered absolute non-negotiables, such as an organization:
- Refusing to share their Form 990 publicly
- Lacking an independent board
- Failing to meet the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s Seven Standards of Responsible Stewardship
According to Smith, if an organization fails in any of these three areas, it would be unwise to support them financially. Learning whether or not a ministry meets these standards requires that potential givers follow Smith’s most important piece of advice: “Don’t give to any organization that you don’t know.”
This may seem like an obvious statement, but consider the giving patterns in our congregations. It’s common for mercy-motivated believers to have an emotional response to hearing about compelling programs and projects that align with their core values. Combine that feeling with a belief in Scripture’s call to be generous, and, oftentimes, that’s enough for a Spirit-led Christian to make a donation without due diligence.
But it’s incomplete theology to believe that Christians should give to a ministry simply because it claims to do good work. “That’s not taking into account the full counsel of Scripture,” says Smith. “God gave us a mind as well as a heart, and we should be open to what the Holy Spirit is doing in our minds and our hearts as donors.”
Additional red flags that should be considered dealbreakers include an organization lacking a statement of faith and failing to provide senior leader compensation information to inquiring donors. Donors should also steer clear of ministries that claim IRS status of churches if they are not performing the true functions of a local church, such as preaching, baptism, and the sacraments.
Keep an eye out for what’s known as founder syndrome, as well. Founder syndrome occurs when loyalty to an organization’s founder trumps making decisions that are in the best interest of an organization. Symptoms of founder syndrome include a board that is composed of the founder’s friends and family members or an organization that is named after the founder.
Researching an organization and its leaders isn’t cynical–it’s spiritual. This kind of investigation is an act of faithfulness because it demonstrates your commitment to generosity by giving only to those organizations and causes that exhibit stewardship.
Some Red Flags Mean “Keep Learning”
While major red flags are reason enough to walk away from an organization entirely, Smith also says there are indicators that should encourage potential donors to keep researching an organization.
Calvin Edwards, founder and CEO of a consulting firm that provides philanthropic counsel, agrees. Edwards points out that some red flags should prompt thoughtful questions, and the answers offer clarity for donors.
If an organization’s board isn’t gathering regularly, for example, it may be because the members agreed to keep in communication by email rather than meetings. The lack of meetings is a red flag, but the fact that the board consistently communicates is positive. Potential givers may then determine whether the email system seems effective enough, or they may feel that regular meetings should not be replaced by technology.
Other potential red flags that require further investigation may include a high rate of staff turnover, a poor rating by a watchdog organization like Charity Navigator, or inconsistent communication with donors.
By talking to ministry leadership about the red flags they see, potential givers have the opportunity to learn about the organization’s posture and humility. If leadership is defensive in the face of questions or suggestions, it’s likely they are leaving other behaviors and processes unexamined as well. Organizational leaders who respond to questions with openness, listen to advice with grace, and welcome further discussion communicate volumes about their organization’s character.
Looking for red flags isn’t a technique to encourage frugality, says Edwards. But rather this due diligence “minimizes risk, and it’s also a blessing to ministries to have these items confronted.” As prospective donors hold organizations accountable, ministry leaders can learn and grow from the wisdom of outside perspectives, empowering them to serve with greater impact.
Do you want to give wisely but don’t know what questions to ask or information to seek? The experienced donors at Strategic Resource Group can help you learn more about stewardship, generosity, and how to identify trustworthy ministries. Interested in learning more?