Stewardship and Automatic Giving – Is the United Way the Way to Go?

Note – Updated- Tues. November 22, 9am – In response to a reader’s comment and anecdotal report, I have revised the recommendation – A shout out to Ken for making me aware of this… see below

By Fr. Robert Holet

I was recently reminded that this is the time of year that many people receive solicitations through their workplace to sign up for payroll deductions to the United Way, or the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC) or similar state programs.  Often there is ‘encouragement’ by managers to do so, with drives and special social events to enhance the signup campaign.  This is a deeply personal decision actually and an important one. Should I sign up?  Here are a few things to consider – in short – BE A WISE STEWARD!

If anyone has read this, or any of the related blogs on Orthodox Christian stewardship, you’ll quickly identify the importance of making offerings as a key element of faithful stewardship.  Ideally, this takes the form of an offering to the Lord that we make weekly, as the first fruits of what we’ve received from Him during the week, offered to Him and through the local parish. But if the firstfruits offerings are the right hand, our offerings to the poor are the left hand.  We should be two handed givers!

Expanding Circles of Generosity

Because there is a multitude of ways to give to charitable concerns and people in need, these decisions can be a little complicated.  We need to be both wise and generous stewards when offering our charity.  Consider starting the process envisioning your charitable efforts as concentric circles – like the dynamic circles formed by a pebble tossed in a pond.  The efforts of our local Orthodox parish or our national Church (UOC of USA), should obviously get prime consideration for several reasons  First, the concerns and recipients of these charities will be the ones close to the ‘heart’ of our faith.  So if a local family experiences trauma, and the local parish responds – it reveals a great opportunity to multiply the effect of our individual donations, joining them to others in charity to a neighbor in need.  Sometimes we forget that people very close to us are in need, when the marketing campaigns of major charities play on TV before us, sometimes continuously.  Likewise our national Church (and groups like the UOL) have identified special needs worthy of extraordinary concern, such as the Ukrainian orphanages and wounded soldiers.  The Assembly of Bishops has recognized several organizations such as OCMC, IOCC, Zoe for Life, FOCUS etc. that are worthy recipients.

Secondly, the recipient charity needs to be well administered. For example, if a charity extends only 20 cents of every dollar it receives to provide actual aid to people in need, it’s not a wise choice.  Administrative expenditures of your hard earned funds will evaporate into hidden costs.  Some such expenditures are necessary – but sometimes these funds go into the pockets of people at the top of the organization (including executive salaries of hundreds of thousands of dollars, vacation perks, etc.) or for uses of limited or questionable value.  Some exceptions may exist, but most well run organizations can usually expend less than 10% of their income on administration, leaving 90% to go directly to people in need.

Thirdly, the selected charities should be well ‘vetted’ so that donated funds by the charity reflect the moral and spiritual priorities for us as Orthodox Christians.  First, some not-for-profits must be shunned outright – such as Planned Parenthood – which exists almost exclusively to provide abortions and makes its money off of this diabolical activity. Their nod to ‘care of the mother’, or providing mammograms, etc. is only a head fake.  Their business is abortion and it is a profitable one.[i]  Sadly, even some seemingly innocuous charities, like the Susan B Komen Foundation have been found to ally themselves with Planned Parenthood, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to them. Also, while some charities are quite effective at pulling at the emotional heartstrings, there may be other charities whose purpose is far closer to our spiritual mission.  Hence, the assistance (and funds) to human concerns should always far outweigh donations to animal care or similar worldly concerns of lesser importance.

Should we Go United?

So is the United Way the Way to go? My answer – I don’t think so.

While United Way Worldwide (the umbrella organization) does not contribute directly to Planned Parenthood, local chapters do – and these may be funded by people unaware of this connection. (For a list of local chapters that do so, see https://afa.net/unitedway). CFC does likewise.   A generic donation to the United Way or CFC could be viewed, in effect, as a donation of a small portion of your funds to organizations such as Planned Parenthood.  I would not want a penny of my hard earned income to go there.  So what do you do?

Well, the best option is simple. First, ‘fully fund’ your local parish and local Church/Metropolia and national/internationals Orthodox institutions, like the concentric circles mentioned above.  They need your help and your donation becomes a spiritual, as well as a material blessing to those they serve. Note that if you want the simplicity of an automatic donation, this can easily be done through online banking systems – sending out the amount at a time that works for you.

I used to think that earmarking the contribution made the United Way / CFC route a suitable workaround.  I just learned however, that this may not be the case.  The thought was – ‘Because many United Way/Combined programs offer you the opportunity to earmark your funds – and sometimes Orthodox institutions like IOCC are offered as an approved organization for such automatic payroll donations on the check list – that this would avoid the above difficulty of donating to unsavory institutions. The automatic payroll deduction makes it ‘easy’.

This may its not so easy….

Contortions in Charity Allocations

Anecdotally, I learned that at least one United Way local chapter determines its budget allocation to charities without reference to the earmarked funds.  How can that be?

Suppose the executives at the United Way form their annual budget, and decide to give our morally acceptable charity, we’ll call Charity A (say the Boy Scouts) $10,000, and organization B – Planned Parenthood – $10,000 as well.  The practice (at this chapter) is to apply (when they receive it) your specially earmarked funds to the established budget income anticipated for said charity.  So if you earmarked your $5000 for the Boy Scouts, they would apply it there.  BUT they would cut the income budgeted to the Boy Scouts from the anticipated general funds that had been allocated to the Boy Scouts by same amount – $5000. Instead of getting $15000, the Boy Scouts would still get only $10000! The $5000 previously allocated to the Boy Scouts was then free to be applied elsewhere (in this example, Planned Parenthood). So yes, your funds do not go directly to Planned Parenthood, but your earmarking doesn’t help the situation!   In effect Charity A will simply be deprived funds that would have gone there from the General funds and those will be dispersed elsewhere – even to Planned Parenthood.  So in this case, even if the Scout troop had expected a windfall because they had worked hard to encourage their friends/family to donate to United Way and have their funds earmarked, in effect they would have found that the troop’s income receivedfrom the United Way general (non-earmarked) funds went to zero, replaced by funds from their earmarked efforts.  The only way around this – and the better way around this – is to simply donate directly to the preferred charity.  In this case, an employer’s matching donation (if offered) might be lost, but it beats the alternative.

— Note- this is a very general supposition based on anecdotal, but reliable information. It may not be applicable in all circumstances and local chapters, and is no way meant to be an affront to the many generous donors, volunteers and employees of the United Way or CFC. Nevertheless, if /as the situation has existed in the past, there is little reason to believe it does not exist now.  Most of us do not have the time or wherewithal to check the budgets or management practices of our local United Way chapters, but it’s in the fine print of budgets, policies and management that what seems to be one thing, may actually be quite another. I welcome comments, or information from other reliable sources on this matter – so that we might all be better informed, better stewards.—

One More Thing

But there’s one more subtle, but important aspect of to consider.  When we use the payroll deduction it becomes a one-time decision (for the year) and automatic.  We don’t think of it – or think of it only as a financial transaction. Almost like the payroll taxes we pay – we never see the money and forget about it.  But the real power of sacred offering is the personal sense of our participation and offering of what we have received, to those in need – even if through the hands of others who offer the actual charitable service. These service providers are often in a better place to help people in need through their knowledge and experience – like the innkeeper in the story of the Good Samaritan, who was ‘funded’ from the hands and heart of the Samaritan.  He had an inn -what was needed at the time – to help the man in need.  So too with organized charities.  What is best is if we take a personal interest and involvement with those charities we support.  We can do this simply, and ‘contribute’ in other ways as well. We can contribute by volunteering or offering helpful  items or personal help that they might need in their work. Hence, volunteering to do administrative work or even cleaning offices might make needed funds available for direct care!  Such organizations are always looking for ways to engage people in personal service.

Not to be underestimated is our prayer for those we are trying to help.  In short, our charity needs to be charitable – it’s really a matter of the heart.  With the automatic process, it’s easy to taken on the attitude, ‘I gave at the office’ and pass on the person in need, whether immediately in front of us, or others who we may know about, who the Church may be desperately trying to help.

May the Spirit unite us in the way of sacred Charity in Christ as His stewards, especially during this holiday season.  This is the true united Way, united in Christ.

Fr. Robert Holet is the Director of the Consistory Office of Ministry of the UOC of USA, pastor of St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Charlottesville, Virginia, and author of the book, The First Fruits of Christian Living, Orthodox Christian Stewardship as Sacred Offering (Authorhouse, 2013)

[i] References available by request.

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Is Stewardship Ukrainian?

By Mark Host

It might silly to even ask such a question.  Stewardship has no ethnicity.  It is a Biblical principle, and the Bible transcends nationality.  We all love our culture, and give it a place of importance in our lives, but it is important to remember that we did not start Orthodoxy, we were brought to it.

In the year 863, the Orthodox evangelists, Saints Cyril and Methodius developed the Glagolitic alphabet, which they used to translate the Bible into Old Church Slavonic.  The Cyrillic alphabet used by the Ukrainian language today is a descendant of that work.  They did this to bring the gospel to the Slavic peoples.  We often refer to the Gospel in terms such as, “the Ukrainian Gospel” or, “the English Gospel”.  In these cases these terms are adjectives, describing the language in which the Gospel is presented, but all too often we treat them as possessive terms.  Such a view stems from a logical error.  The Gospel is not Ukrainian.  Ukrainian and its related languages were codified into a written system in order to bring the Gospel to us.  The language upon which so much of our cultural identity rests has its root an effort of evangelization and stewardship.

If this were not in itself enough, we have the example of our very revered St. Vladimir (Volodymyr).  He set up a tithe of his income and property to establish a church that is commonly referred to as The Church of the All-Holy Tithe.  We revere the actions of his baptism of Ukraine, but often ignore the stewardship example he set for us all. The founders of many of our UOC parishes also gave deeply to set up and support their beloved parishes.  In a time when they primarily worked in blue collar, industrial jobs, they sacrificed much to establish the churches we attend today.  Truly they learned from the example set by St. Vladimir.

What is perhaps Ukrainian (though not exclusively) is the reason why we don’t have good stewardship practices.  In the old country the Church long benefitted from state support.  For this reason, our ancestors did not need to give, and so the practice of stewardship was not adequately taught as a blessed way of offering our lives to God.  In the process, so too did we lose the connection with sacrificial offering in the Divine Liturgy.  In a related way, this too is a reason too that stewardship seems to us to be a “Protestant” idea.  Many of the Protestant churches that exist today (though of course not all) began here in the United States, where separation of church and state meant that they didn’t receive the benefit of state support, and needed to be supported by their parishioners from the start.  Even some of the Protestant churches that started in Europe were persecuted churches, and did not receive this support.  So stewardship practices were an organic part of many of these churches from the start.

It is clear that stewardship is Biblical.  We have the examples of the saints.  We have the precedent set by the founders of our parishes.  So it is silly to think that stewardship is not Ukrainian.  Stewardship is necessity of all Christians who seek give thanks to God.

A couple of questions to ponder – feel free to post your comments on this site and strike up a conversation:

  • Do you think of stewardship as a practice that is “not Ukrainian”?
  • How can this change my attitude about stewardship and how it applies to all Christians?

Mark Host is a member of St. Vladimir’s Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, OH.  He works in IT, teaches college English on the side, and is planning to return to school in 2017 to pursue his PhD.