Donors, Dollars, and Decisions: Seven Principles

A recent conversation with a friend prompted me to rake together in a small pile some of the thoughts I have developed over the years on the subject of the kind of decisions that donors need to make. What principles ought to guide those decisions?

If you take the phrase tithes and offerings, I am just considering the offerings part. A thorough discussion of tithes can be left for another day—suffice it to say for now that the amount and direction of the tithe is largely settled by God (1 Cor. 9:13-14; Gal. 6:6). But when it comes to offerings, giving that is above and beyond what God requires from all of us, the donor has more leeway, and is consequently in greater need of basic principles of wisdom to keep his decision-making process the way it ought to be.

These principles are for anyone who ever makes a discretionary donation to any charitable, philanthropic, educational, or ecclesiastical cause, but the more that big money is involved, the more important the principles become. Giving ten dollars to a panhandler on the street might be ill-advised, but not as ill-advised as giving ten million to an organization that in ten years will be trying to undermine everything you stand for.

So with that as an introduction, what seven principles would I encourage big donors to keep in mind as they give? As always with this sort of thing, there is some overlap between categories.

1. You can’t keep money from doing what money always does. Like water behind an enormous dam, or fire in the furnace of a steel mill, or a nuclear reaction in a power plant, money is a potent force. The money you give, wisely or unwisely, will therefore have an enormous impact. It will not do “nothing.” So when you give wisely, you should be giving to an organization that is as aware of the potency of money as you are, and is as eager to be as wise in receiving it as you are desirous of being wise in giving it. Look for positive signs of that kind of awareness. Also keep in mind that one of the things money does is affect the behavior of those without money when they are around prospective donors.

2. Don’t get lazy over time. Having money to give is hard work, and so there is a temptation to do all your due diligence prior to the first gift, and then to go on autopilot for the recurring gifts. This is nothing more than the quiet subsidization of mission drift. Review your giving at regular intervals. If you give a million dollars a year to an organization dedicated to maintaining the old schoolhouse, giving it a fresh coat of red paint every year, and you don’t check on it for twenty years, you should not be surprised to come back to find no schoolhouse at all, and whatever pieces of lumber you find on the ground all painted blue.

3. Know the distinction between professional and slick. Any organization that is doing worthwhile work at a higher level is likely to have a development office, and a development officer heading it up. But the development industry is almost a perfect jumble of things that are biblical, wise and good, coupled together with some pragmatic tricks that work, and a few ungodly maneuvers thrown in. So you should want to see a development office that is self-consciously in pursuit of biblical principles. If the organization is pursuing biblical principles of poverty relief, say, or higher education, or whatever it is, then certainly they should also be in pursuit of a distinctively biblical worldview when it comes to raising the money for that work. If you were to ask the question, “What is distinctively Christian about how you raise money?” the question ought not to throw them. You should look for signs that they have thought of it before.

4. Look for an organization that knows its own perils and dangers. The institution should know the likely danger of mission drift, and should have defined firewalls to guard against that mission drift, as far as possible. I would reapply here a doctrinal or theological variant of Robert Conquest’s second law of politics: “Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.” It is not enough to give to evangelical organizations that are not yet woke. Understand the times, and understand that there is enormous pressure (always) to flow with the spirit of the age. So unless they are openly hostile to the idea of being woke, then they are in the process of becoming woke. Do not give a dime to any organization that glibly dismisses the possibility of them going bad. “Us? Never!” The prospective donor should mutter to himself that never is a good word to use in this circumstance.  

5. Do not assume that everybody understands money the same way you do. Say you made a pile, in part because you understand money. Just as it is easy for people who are literate to assume that everyone is literate, or for people who can read music to think that it should be easy for everybody, so it is a common trap for people with money to assume that what is self-evident to them is self-evident to everybody. It is not. When an organization asks for money, you need to distinguish between an outfit that understands money, but doesn’t have what they need, on the one hand, and an outfit that doesn’t have what they need because they don’t understand money, on the other. Giving to the latter kind of organization is like donating to a sinkhole.

6. Trust proven character over high gloss brochures. As you include others in helping you decide how to give, as when you select people to work for your foundation, or to serve on your application committee, entrust that task to people you know very well. Trust your personal knowledge over pretended “objective” criteria. If those people are family members, do not let questions about nepotism slow you down, not even a little. And as you give, prioritize giving to people and institutions you already know well. It is very hard to screen applicants from a stone cold starting position. But at the same time, because you can’t keep money from doing what money always does, if people or institutions you thought you knew start acting funny or entitled, then give that spigot handle a sharp and decisive turn to the right.

7. Give in the will of God. Pray about what you are doing. Generosity is an act of Christian discipleship, and so it ought to be pursued with intelligent piety. Pray with these principles in mind. Ask questions of God in your prayers about these issues, naming them in particular. Trust Him to guide you into the right answers as you prayerfully weigh the right questions in His presence.

And to paraphrase Augustine, love God and give as you please