Media Points to Lack of Transparency About Donations to Churches

The Wall Street Journal article title says it all: “Trust in the Lord . . . But Check Out the Church.”

It starts with a shocking statistic from the Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, Massachusetts: “Of the $569 billion that churchgoers and others are expected to donate to Christian causes this year world-wide, about 6%, $35 billion, will end up in the hands of money launderers, embezzlers, tax evaders or unscrupulous ministers living too high on the hog.”

Yikes. For any non-church nonprofits, the very fact that any group could get away with such malfeasance will come as a shock. The degree of scrutiny of nonprofits seems to increase year by year, as both the IRS and the media amp up their oversight and accountability requirements.

But, as the article points out, churches are not required to file the IRS Form 990 that other 501(c)(3) nonprofits are. The 990 gives the public some basic information with which to check out what’s going on financially and develop further questions.

(For details on what types of groups must fillĀ  out Form 990, see “Nonprofits and the Revised IRS Form 990” on Nolo.com.)

The WSJ article offers various bits of advice to donors about checking out church financial matters before making donations. Turned around, what do those mean for churches that have the good sense not to wait for donors to ask questions, and wish to demonstrate their openness about financial matters from the get-go?

  • Be ready and willing to answer questions. Defensiveness will get you nowhere, or worse, lead to suspicion.
  • Get your financial house in order. Even if your fundraising aims are laudable, bad management practices such as putting all financial control in the hands of one person will lead to problems. Put professional accounting systems into place with regard to collecting, disbursing, and accounting for money.
  • Make donors aware of all the ways to give. For example, if volunteering services could offset the churches need for cash, offer this as an option for those donors who might be financially strapped. Remind church members of the possibility of legacy giving, as well.

By inspiring donor confidence, a church may in turn inspire greater donations.