The Charity of the LDS Church

That Businessweek story on the finances of the LDS Church was massive.  So was our response.  But even after all those words flying back and forth, we left one important topic unaddressed.  Much of the discussion about the Businessweek story has focused on the purportedly paltry charitable contributions of the LDS Church.  This rises from the following part of the Businessweek report:

According to an official church Welfare Services fact sheet, the church gave $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid in more than 178 countries and territories during the 25 years between 1985 and 2010. A fact sheet from the previous year indicates that less than one-third of the sum was monetary assistance, while the rest was in the form of “material assistance.” All in all, if one were to evenly distribute that $1.3 billion over a quarter-century, it would mean that the church gave $52 million annually. A study co-written by Cragun and recently published in Free Inquiry estimates that the Mormon Church donates only about 0.7 percent of its annual income to charity; the United Methodist Church gives about 29 percent.

These conclusions are both factually untrue and quite unfair, so we figured we should circle back and deal with this problematic paragraph, with three basic points:

First: The Facts Are Wrong.  Businessweek claims to know what percent of the LDS Church’s annual financial income is donated to charitable causes.  It does not.  The conclusion that charitable giving amounts to only .7 percent of annual income appears to be drawn from this published Fact Sheet detailing some parts of the Church’s charitable work.  But, as Kaimi Wenger at Times & Seasons has pointed out, the Fact Sheet summarizes only international humanitarian relief provided by the Church, amounting to approximately $1.4 Billion between 1985 and 2011.  It does not include all of the charitable work the LDS Church does domestically, nor all of the welfare assistance it provides to the poor (as opposed to humanitarian aid for disaster- or crisis-stricken areas) worldwide.  I have not seen any reliable estimations of the amounts donated for such causes, but they are immense.  Every one of the LDS Church’s tens of thousands of units has a welfare program, which provides free financial assistance to church members in need, as well as, in some cases, non-members.  This relief is certainly in the multiple millions of dollars.  Beyond that, the Church has innumerable other charitable projects going on, which are not included in the Fact Sheet numbers.  The Church supports thousands of scholarships for needy students; has set up a massive program to provide educational opportunities for poorer members (over 40,000 loans disbursed in its first eight years); and runs a huge social services program, providing counseling, adoption services, and addiction recovery assistance in many countries, all (apparently) without any chance of profit.  The Church also gives quietly to all sorts of worthy projects.  Just a tiny sampling of these less-publicized contributions: This report of the Utah Food Bank shows the LDS Church as a Platinum level donor, requiring a donation of at least $2.5 million (at 4).  The same report shows donations of 500,000+ pounds of food, and a separate entry for all of the food collected by LDS branches and wards (at 10).  This report, from the Road Home, a Salt Lake City homeless shelter, shows the Church at the top of the list of donors, with at least $100,000 donated (probably much more) (at 19).  The Salt Lake Tribune recently reported that the LDS Church will be donating $4 million to the University of Utah, free and clear, toward the construction of a new building for its law school.

This tiny handful of private reports, all from the last couple of years, suggests a wide and varied stream of donations flowing from the LDS Church to many quite different causes.  It also highlights, once more, the fundamental problem with purporting to know details of the finances of a large private institution.  Businessweek actually has no idea how much money the LDS Church gives to charity.  It also has no idea how much money comes in the door either (since its figures of income are admittedly based on two third-party estimates, whose veracity cannot be verified, which vary substantially).  Thus, both the numerator and the denominator of its “0.7%” figure are totally without reliable basis.  A proposed rule for journalists: If you don’t have real, direct evidence for a significant claim, don’t print the claim.

Second: The Comparison Is Misleading.  I’ve seen several people point to the comparison to the United Methodist Church as a damning fact.  How can the LDS Church claim to be focused on charity when it gives less than a percent of its income to charity, where the Methodists give nearly a third?  First, keep in mind that the numbers are wrong, as set forth above.  But second, this is a classic case of mistaking apples for oranges.  The United Methodist Church operates under a very decentralized structure, broken into several layers of ecclesiastical bodies.  According to its website, donations made to one’s congregation largely remain in the person’s congregation, rather than being sent directly to the central church organization.  Thus, when Businessweek alleges that 29% percent of the Methodist Church’s receipts go to charity, it means 29% of receipts that make their way to the national governing body, which is a fraction of overall receipts given to Church units.  The LDS Church, by contrast, is entirely centralized.  When one pays tithing in the LDS Church, the money goes to the central church, with none of the money remaining locally (this is not the case for fast offerings, a monthly charitable contribution which sometimes remains in the local sphere).  Thus, it stands to reason that the LDS Church’s receipts will be vastly larger than those of the Methodist Church, whose central monetary body receives donations largely for the purpose of distributing them for charitable causes.  The LDS Church, on the other hand, has enormous financial burdens, since it administers and funds the entirety of the Church’s mission worldwide.  A huge amount of the receipts given to local Methodist congregations must be used internally, to build and maintain buildings, pay the ministry, and otherwise carry out the Church’s mission.  None of those internal expenses were factored into the sloppy claim that the Methodist Church gives away 27% of its income to charity.  In fact, the gross receipts provided to all levels of the Methodist Church must be much, much higher than the $214 million number Businessweek relies on, which would of course bring down the percentage of total income given to charity significantly.  Another way of looking at it, as Raymond Takashi Swenson points out, is to compare giving per/capita membership.  By Swenson’s calculations (at comment 98 here) (which adopt the very low Businessweek estimation of LDS charitable giving) the LDS Church donates about $8.67 per member per year to charitable causes, compared to $7.69 for the Methodists.  When one understands the difference between the LDS Church as a whole, and the governing financial organization at the top of the United Methodist Church, one quickly realizes that the comparison published by Businessweek is deeply flawed and unfair.

Third: The Conclusion Misses the Point.  If you and I both make $1 million, and you donate $500,000, and I donate $5,000, it is easy to determine which of us is more charitable.  All the rest of my money will be spent on me, so it’s obvious I’m being more selfish than you, and this would be proper grounds for criticism.  When two churches spend dissimilar amounts on humanitarian aid, the analysis is completely different.  That’s because churches don’t typically spend their non-charitable funds on “selfish” purposes.  The LDS Church is not some wealthy individual buying ski boats and jetting to St. Lucia, while stiffing the local homeless.  The money the LDS Church does not spend on humanitarian purposes is being spent on other causes it believes are of equal or greater value to the world.  As has been noted widely, the Church builds and maintains many thousands of buildings to host its members and create stable, holy places to preach the gospel.  The Church trains, equips, supports, and houses tens of thousands of missionaries, some of whom are supported by their parents, but the majority of whom are not.  These missionaries require maintenance of huge fleets of cars, hundreds of offices, and tens of thousands of flights each year.  The Church publishes books, magazines, curriculum and administration manuals, operates several universities (all at a loss), and manages myriad other widespread and wide-ranging aspects of a massive, rapidly growing global operation–almost none of which produces a cent of revenue.  Thus, even if the LDS Church gave very little to traditional charitable causes, that would not be evidence of selfishness or apathy.  It might mean that the Church’s fights against evil, secularism, and sin are higher priorities than the fight against hunger and disease.  It’s a debatable position, but quite defensible.

The misunderstanding regarding the LDS Church’s charitable activity in the world can be clarified by considering the church’s definition of charity.  While many in the world define charity as something similar to “alms,” the LDS Church takes a much broader view.  The Book of Mormon teaches that “charity is the pure love of Christ.”  The LDS Church believes that its unique mission is to spread its testimony of Christ, and his love for all people, to all the inhabitants of the earth.  While its focus on providing material relief to those in need is admirable, its priority is on advancing the spiritual work of Jesus Christ in the world.  To take potshots at a worldwide religion for spending more of its money preaching the gospel than feeding the hungry is to badly misunderstand the purpose of religion, and the message of Christ.

Image: Welfare Square, a large food-packaging facility operated by the LDS Church for charitable purposes

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