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.