Ed Anderson, Compassion International's chief financial officer, discusses information systems with ministry workers in Thailand in October. The ministry's field offices in 26 countries work with nearly 2 million children. Photo courtesy of Compassion International

Ministries and money: Christian charities that use your money wisely

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. (RNS) Nearly a third of the $373 billion that Americans donated to charity last year went to religious organizations.

The $119 billion that was given to churches, religious charities and parachurch ministries is more than went to groups that specialize in education, human services or any other category, according to a report by Giving USA.

But the cost-effectiveness of the religious recipients varies greatly, as does the transparency of their finances.

“Donors should recognize they have a serious responsibility to give as wisely as they can, as it is not their money they are giving but the Lord’s,” said Rusty Leonard, founder and CEO of MinistryWatch, an accountability group.

The final months of the year can generate a quarter or more of a ministry's annual donations. So how can prospective donors looking to support Christian organizations figure out which ones deliver the most "ministry per dollar"?

Expenses and overhead costs can vary, depending on the organization's mission, administrative expenses and the cost of doing business in the areas where they work. 

Leonard says donors should do research and “ask tough questions.”

“The world of Christian ministry is lightly regulated,” he said, noting that the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability “exists primarily to help the ministries, not donors. So, without active donor involvement, it is easy for a ministry to go astray.”

With support from the Fund for Investigative Journalism, RNS looked at 33 major nonprofit Christian ministries to find out:

  • What percentage of their budgets do ministries spend on their core ministry programs?
  • How transparent are ministries in sharing their financial information?
  • And how do charity watchdog agencies rate various ministries?

Some ministries make it easy for donors to access their audited financial statements online. Compassion International, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Prison Fellowship all offer many financial reports on their websites.

Others offer websites and annual reports that lack detailed financial data or conflict with actual spending.

Some charities, including the nearly $3 billion Salvation Army USA, declined to provide detailed financial information for this article.

The challenge of transparency

Not all of America's million-plus charities and foundations are created equal, as reporters for CBS News and The New York Times discovered last year when they investigated Wounded Warrior Project.

That nonprofit spent only 60 percent of its income caring for military veterans; the rest went to overhead, salaries, marketing and fundraising.

In the world of Christian ministries, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was founded in 1979 after a series of religious fundraising scandals involving high-rolling televangelists and a Catholic group, the Pallotine Fathers, who spent only two-and-a-half cents per donor dollar on ministry programs.

ECFA's members include more than 2,100 church and parachurch ministries that receive about $16 billion a year.

Ministries' finances

[supsystic-tables id='6']

Source: Audited financial statements

The council's transparency guidelines require member organizations to provide audited financial statements "upon written request." ECFA says such financial transparency is both a matter of "moral integrity" and "a condition of continued ECFA accreditation in good standing."

However, four of ECFA's accredited members — The Navigators, David C Cook, Reach Beyond and Dr. James Dobson's Family Talk — declined initially to provide audited financial statements despite multiple requests.

They did only after the EFCA, contacted for this article, stepped in and urged them to be forthcoming.

Watchdogs rate nonprofits

So how do donors decide which charity deserves their money? In addition to MinistryWatch, which focuses on evangelical nonprofits, Consumer Reports recently highlighted three of the most popular and reliable watchdogs: Charity Navigator; Charity Watch; and the BBB Wise Giving Alliance.

Charity Navigator (whose rankings are used on the accompanying chart) provides independent analysis of more than 8,000 charities, using its own unique criteria.

“Donors need to take the time to kick the tires and look under the hood before they turn over their hard-earned money,” said Charity Navigator Vice President Sandra Miniutti.

Students pray during an InterVarsity gathering at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

Students pray during an InterVarsity gathering at Roanoke College in Salem, Va.

The watchdog gave InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Young Life its coveted 4-star rating.

MinistryWatch uses its own metrics to analyze ministries, some of which are not ranked by Charity Navigator. MinistryWatch gave its highest award, 5 stars, to Pat Robertson's Operation Blessing and Every Home for Christ, and gave its lowest rating, 1 star, to MOPS International and Prison Fellowship.

Taxing issues

Transparency may be even harder to come by as ministries and parachurch groups look to be classified as churches. Miniutti said that if a charity qualifies as one, “then it is even more challenging for the donor to access financial and governance information.”

That’s because such groups are exempt from filing IRS Form 990, a disclosure form that is often the only source of information on tax-exempt organizations.

Last year, the IRS approved the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association's request to change the 66-year-old ministry's tax status, from a nonprofit required to file annual 990 reports with the IRS to an association of churches that is not required to file 990s.

Samaritan’s Purse, the relief agency headed by Rev. Franklin Graham, deploys massive truckloads of equipment and supplies to natural disasters. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

Samaritan’s Purse, the relief agency headed by the Rev. Franklin Graham, deploys massive truckloads of equipment and supplies to natural disasters. Religion News Service photo by Cathy Grossman

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

Franklin Graham, who runs both BGEA (annual income of $107 million) and Samaritan’s Purse ($599 million), cited two factors in the change: the "onerous" work required to prepare the 990; and "religious liberty" concerns about the IRS overstepping its bounds.

“I believe that someone in the (Obama) administration was targeting and attempting to intimidate us,” Graham claimed, after the ministries were audited in 2013. “This is morally wrong and unethical.”

Ministries including the Navigators, Pioneers USA and Every Home for Christ qualify as associations of churches and are not required to file 990s.

Leonard, of Ministry Watch, does not support ministries changing their tax status. "I see no reason for ministries to be listed as churches when they are clearly not a church, as the only incentive for doing so is to be less transparent with donors," he said.

Meanwhile, new legislation seeks to overturn the decades-old restrictions on churches participating in politics, such as the Johnson Amendment, which Donald Trump pledged to overturn during his campaign.

The deductions the IRS gives to America's churches, religious charities and donors total more than $71 billion a year, according to a 2012 estimate in Free Inquiry magazine. The legal status of these deductions may be a hot political issue for years to come.


  1. These ATHEIST organizations – as in connected to NO churches – are saving the world:

    Doctors Without Borders,
    The Foundation Beyond Belief
    Newman’s Own
    Goodwill Industries,
    Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,
    Warren Buffet Foundation,
    Oxfam International,
    Rotary International,
    American Red Cross,
    SEED foundation, United Children’s Fund,
    Sierra Fund, National Campaign to prevent Teen Pregnancy,
    Treatment Action Campaign, Women’s Defense League
    US Military Association of Atheists and Freethinkers,
    Plan USA, Tanzanian Children’s Fund
    National Academy of Science,
    The ACLU

    Atheists spend BILLIONS on saving lives EVERY YEAR!

  2. And they don’t try to convert individuals or villages! However, many religious charities do perform valuable services and provide assistance.

  3. Some of the Groups you cite are not declared Atheists, that is they don’t declare a philosophical perspective beyond human service, your characterization of a few of them is misleading if not downright dishonest. Your final sentence does not negate the same acts and expenditures by faith based organizations as well.

  4. Atheism means “A- theistic” as in non-theistic.
    Atheism means “I do not believe in a god”
    All of my above examples of decent charities are NON- theistic and do not give a damn about religion.

  5. That does not prove your point at all. Non-theistic can also mean agnostic, which means that they take no position one way or the other.

  6. Goodwill Industries was founded by a Methodist minister, and others on your list got their start through spiritually-oriented founders. Gee, those spiritual roots of lots of our charities should really get under the skins of you athests! It seems that believing in something bigger than yourself, kind of accompanies an ethic of caring and providing for those in need.

  7. I reject your claim that this is something “bigger than myself”:

    God: AT MY DIRECTION wives shall be raped in daylight by neighbors:
    “Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall have sex with your wives in broad daylight. ….with the sun looking down.’ ” – Yahweh (2 Samuel 12:11)

    I think it is shameful to even admit you admire this god, let alone fear or love him.

  8. Agreed. Detailed tax returns available to the public must be required to justify favored tax status for charities and churches/synagogues/ mosques, etc.

  9. The Gideons International uses 100 percent of gifts for its mission (evangelism by distributing scriptures), and zero percent of gifts for administrative expenses. The Gideons may not be considered a “Christian charity” in the scope of this article, but it at least deserves honorable mention

  10. Doctors without borders have plenty of Christians participating and giving. So does the vast majority of organizations listed. Effective Christian relief funds pick up atheist support as well. Atheism is just another religion.

  11. All of your examples above, contrary to what you assert, do not take a position against theism. Your treatment of charities as binary entities that are either for or against theism is an enormous fallacy. Simply because they do not advertise their charity from a religious perspective does not make them organizations contrary to religion. I have not heard of a single one of the organizations you have listed speaking against theism, ever. Those organizations themselves would be absolutely mortified to hear themselves characterized that way as well. I can guarantee you, with not any chance of being wrong, that every one of those organizations have very religious people working within them and receive more donations from the religious than from atheists. Countless studies have been done on this subject, and the religious donate to charities, both religious charities and charities that do not operate under a religious banner, on an order of magnitude higher than atheists do. I have no problem with atheists, but I absolutely have a problem with your claim about the charities you have listed being atheist, and the idea that their donor bases would also somehow be atheist. The assertion you make is absurd.

  12. You idiotic tool. Your assertion was not on whether or not the organizations take no position, but you stated that they “do not give a damn about religion.”

    Further, you yourself established your use of the term “atheism” for the purposes of this discussion thusly: “Atheism means “I do not believe in a god.” To make that statement in bold letters to establish the grounds of your argument, and then to turn around and say “Bingo”, to indicate that no position means atheism automatically disqualifies you from any intelligent discussion. You are absurdly obnoxious and you yourself have buried your own argument and have lost to yourself. Now that takes a special kind of stupid.

    I am not a religious person at all, and tend to find myself siding with athiest viewpoints on a huge range of issues. But people like yourself make the non-religious look like imbeciles, and that greatly offends me.

  13. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Humanitarian Aid Fund uses 100% of all funds to help others.

  14. I don’t give a damn about leprechauns. And I don’t believe in Leprechauns.
    And I don’t give a damn what “offends” you.

  15. Atheism is not a religion. And Doctors Without Borders wastes no money on religious garbage – that is one of its great virtues.

  16. You have faith there is no God, that is a religion. Only an agnostic, the I don’t know crowd are not a religion. Many of the Doctors in Doctors without borders come from church groups, my best friend from high school is one of them.

  17. Actually if asked they often do. They do not volunteer conversion.

  18. You neglect the context of that scripture. That was the Lord telling David that what he had done will now happen from within David’s own house. It was the punishment for David taking Uriah’s wife, getting her pregnant, trying to cover it up, and then sending Uriah to the front lines so he would be killed. The only shameful thing is that you would post out of context without any study. You don’t realize it, I know, as I was once a blasphemer in different ways as well, but try to study up if you are going to post on scriptures.

  19. He doesn’t understand that even people in the Bible were and are responsible for their action. And what we do often effects our Loved ones. When the people of Israel turned their backs on God, he handed them over to their desire to serve false God’s. But Mr. Aragon, God will honor your desire not to serve or believe in Him if that’s what you want. But you and every Atheist in the World can not prove there is no God and you know Sir. Show me the test that proves He doesn’t exist?

  20. To all by brother’s and sister 2-5 days ago I had posted a Youcare fund web address asking for help. I am disabled and normally just squeak through each month. this month I ran into a lot less side work and ran out of money. My electric will be shut down, I am down to Ramen noodles. I am out of medical supplies for my leg and foot. I posted to well over 30 million christian friends over 100 Youtube channels. Not one of you seem to been able to help. WHY? I have to say my faith in the caring about each other has started to waver. I am deeply concerned about the fate of our people. I need your help in a bad way. Please someone, somewhere search your heart to lend a hand https://www.youcaring.com/normanmiller-914743

  21. Why would an atheist come on this board only to taunt? I’m a believer, I want to give to charities that spread the word of God. Why is that so difficult for you?

  22. Sad. You are a very bitter human. You are hurt and it shows. How can I help?

  23. Not believing that there is a god requires faith? What a bizarre idea. I don’t believe there’s a god because it’s an absurd notion, not because I have faith that I’m correct in his/her non-existence.

  24. Not believing in God is not the same thing as being an atheist. Being an atheist is declaring you have faith there is no God. i.e. a religious faith. There are faiths without God. Atheism is one of them.

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