Friday, October 18, 2013

A Deficit of Trust and Truth

Trust is difficult to earn, easy to lose, and even more difficult to regain. 
It has been said  “Trust leaves on horseback and returns on foot.” If true, there is no wonder it feels like the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Preakness Stakes have all three been running 24/7 in some high circles in the United States.
As just one example, with disturbing disclosures made in May of this year, the current trust deficit of the IRS is hard to measure. Five nonprofit IRS officials have been replaced—some whom I have known, some with whom I have had private meetings in the recent past, including Lois Lerner—are all gone. Then, there were the extravagant IRS conferences, the line-dancing video, and more. Clearly, trust left the IRS on horseback.
What can we learn from this? If we as Christian leaders desire to be trusted, just saying “trust us” is not enough. We must demonstrate trustworthiness. We must lead organizations in which people can place their trust and be assured that their trust will not be betrayed. 
Trust and truth are inextricably intertwined. People may not trust us even though we tell the truth, but not telling the truth ensures lack of trust. 
The Bible provides the baseline for truth: “Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (2 Timothy 4:8).  
Francis Schaeffer said, “Today not only in philosophy but in politics, government, and individual morality, our generation sees solutions in terms of synthesis and not absolutes. When this happens, truth, as people have always thought of truth, has died.” And Sir Winston Churchill once said, “Men occasionally stumble over the truth, but most of them pick themselves up and hurry off as if nothing ever happened.”
How can Christ-centered organizations be beacons of trust and truth in an environment where these qualities are often lacking? Let me suggest a few principles.

  1. Exemplify truth in all we do—internally and externally. For our organizations, it means truthfully accounting for our operations and ministry outcomes. Exemplifying truth starts with a keen understanding of what is true and false.  

  2. Add clarity to truth. Start with truth and then add clarity. Nowhere is this needed more than in our communications with our constituents, especially with givers and potential givers. There is often a tendency to be expansive in explaining ministry accomplishments. After all, isn’t it all about how much ministry impact we can claim? Fuzziness—or worse, exaggeration—in our funding and other communications can easily turn into lost trust. The concepts of truthfulness in our communications with givers are embedded in ECFA’s stewardship standards. They are increasingly important as givers tend to focus more on ministry outcomes.

  3. Be exemplary in managing resources. One of the key ways we gain trust is how we steward God’s resources. Christ-centered organizations are not unlike the people described in the parable of the talents—we all have different amounts of resources with which to work. Yet, we are all called to steward what we have been given as unto the Lord.  
From the parable, we see that the servants didn’t get to keep the money for themselves. The two successful servants aren’t working for their own increase—they are working for the increase of their master. Their true reward is sharing in their master’s happiness, and their own happiness comes from serving others.
So it is with us. We are stewards of the Master’s money. We don’t get to keep it for ourselves. We are working for the increase of our Master!  
Enhancing trust is what ECFA does. For 34 years, the ECFA peer accountability concept has had a tremendous impact by creating and maintaining trust. But, in the final analysis, it is up to you—up to your organization—to create and maintain an atmosphere of trust with your constituents. May it be said of us: “The works of his hands are faithful and just; all his precepts are trustworthy” (Psalm 111:7).

Monday, June 3, 2013

Then and Now

“If ECFA had not been formed, another organization would have been needed to fill its role,” said Lauren Libby, ECFA board member and TWR president.

Still, questions are sometimes asked, such as “Where would we be if there were no ECFA?”; “Why ECFA?”; and “Why does ECFA get to set biblically-based standards for nonprofits in the areas of sound governance, financial oversight and accountability, and stewardship practices?”

To answer these questions, it is helpful to take a brief look at history. Thirty-four years ago, there was no evangelical organization setting standards for sound governance, financial oversight and accountability, and stewardship practices.

Billy Graham and a handful of other leaders had a vision to serve the evangelical community by forming ECFA. They envisioned an evangelical organization which set high standards, accrediting other evangelical organizations. Ministries would voluntarily apply, requesting to be held accountable for compliance with the standards.

The leaders knew that ECFA would not provide integrity to a ministry; ECFA accreditation would be an external reflection of a ministry’s internal integrity.

In 1979, significant questions were being raised about how certain religious leaders were handling funds provided by their supporters. In those days, the media was quick to criticize ministry leaders and extrapolate the misgivings of a few to the entire religious community. Sound familiar? There is generally a similar rush to judgment by today’s media.

Thirty-four years ago, ECFA took a stand on behalf of religious organizations—for self-regulation and against additional government oversight. Today, through the Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations, ECFA is doing exactly the same thing as it facilitates responses to Senator Charles Grassley on a host of nonprofit tax policy issues.

Commission Chairman Michael Batts said, “ECFA exists to foster a policy of integrity in the form of self-regulation and accreditation without burdensome government regulation. That’s what ECFA exists to do. It is an opportunity to provide meaningful input into these areas that will really make a positive difference for the Kingdom.”

So, what are the differences between then and now? Then, there were no standards for governance, oversight of finances, and the raising and handling of charitable gifts. Then, there was no peer group to accredit evangelical organizations—no standards to achieve and no accreditation of Christ-centered organizations.

Now, ECFA’s standards are a model for the Christ-centered arena and other accrediting organizations. Even the Internal Revenue Service has come to embrace some of the governance principles of ECFA’s standards as their own.
Today, ECFA has a time-tested approach of accrediting Christ-centered organizations and assuring their supporters that they are complying with all of the standards—all of the time.

Today, more and more givers look for the ECFA seal of approval. ECFA helps accredited organizations operate within the ECFA guideposts—think of them as a guardrails or bumper guards. These guideposts allow more freedom to provide ministry within the parameters than if there were no standards to follow.

What was once a dream has become a reality. Today nearly 1,750 Christ-centered organizations, with 1,200 related entities and programs, are demonstrating integrity in that they utilize independent boards, engage independent CPAs for their annual financial statements, avoid conflicts of interest, handle charitable gifts with care, and much more.

So, “Why ECFA?” Because for more than three decades, ECFA has modeled consistent, confidential, and fair application of high standards—many of them beyond the law. The ECFA seal enhances trust of givers, providing increased resources for ECFA accredited churches and nonprofits to fulfill the Great Commission. Christ-centered organizations increasingly want to participate in ECFA’s peer accountability process, so they can show third-party accreditation as evidence of integrity, transparency, and accountability.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Religious Liberty

We are in the midst of an era of religious liberty challenges.

Religious organizations and religious communities are faced with this new reality: The federal government has decided that it can and should define two classes of religious organizations, two kinds of religion, and two degrees of religious freedom. Churches, being inwardly oriented, get an exemption—full protection for their convictions and practices. All other religious organizations, being outwardly oriented on service and not only inwardly on worship, are not exercising pure religion, according to the government, and thus only merit a lesser degree of religious freedom—an “accommodation.” This deeply mistaken conception is the biggest problem underlying the contraceptives mandate under the health care law.1

But it doesn’t stop there. “[T]he deeply troubling contemporary trends [are] for laws and regulations themselves to be less accommodating of religion, and for constitutional interpretive schemes to prioritize other values over religious freedom. If these trends continue, then fewer religion-accommodating rules will be allowed to stand, and then fewer court decisions will end up favorable to religious exercise by individuals or institutions.”2

Some positive news came last year with the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous Hosanna-Tabor decision, upholding the right of religious organizations to select their ministers without governmental interference.3 Consistent with First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, the Supreme Court recognized that religious organizations should be autonomous in important matters of self-governance.

Since its founding in 1979, ECFA has played a vital role in preserving the freedom of Christ-centered organizations to carry out the Great Commission. ECFA is unique in that it facilitates an environment for organizations in the Christian faith community to exercise self-government and demonstrate appropriate accountability, alleviating the need for burdensome government oversight.

Critical to ECFA’s success in this area are its time-tested standards requiring accredited members to operate with biblical integrity and excellence in the areas of governance, finances, and fundraising.

Especially in recent years, concerns have been voiced by some donors and lawmakers that leaders of certain nonprofit organizations and related parties are abusing their organization’s tax-exempt status by receiving excessive compensation or other unreasonable financial benefits. In response, the ECFA board has just approved an enhancement to ECFA’s existing standards, including a policy for excellence in compensation-setting and related-party transactions. In doing so, ECFA once again takes a leadership role in promoting and upholding the highest degree of ethical standards within the Christ-centered nonprofit community.

ECFA’s history and present activities demonstrate its strong commitment to religious liberty:
  • ECFA’s founding. ECFA was formed at a time when the behaviors of some religious institutions caused concern and distrust with the giving public. 
Leaders in Congress began to question whether they should step in to provide additional government oversight to ensure tax-exempt religious organizations were operating ethically and within the bounds of the law.

Senator Mark Hatfield met with Christian leaders and encouraged them to form a group where interested organizations could demonstrate integrity and accountability to their donors and the government and, in turn, avoid the need for new burdensome legislation.
  • Commission on Accountability and Policy for Religious Organizations. The Commission was formed in 2011 at the request of Senator Charles Grassley. 
The senator’s inquiry into the financial practices of several media-based ministries raised issues concerning whether new legislation would be necessary to regulate the activities of churches and other religious nonprofit organizations.

Senator Grassley turned to ECFA to address the tax and policy issues raised by his staff’s inquiry. In doing so, he recognized ECFA’s proven track record of self-regulation to avoid unnecessary legislation and preserve religious liberty: “The challenge is to encourage good governance and best practices and so preserve confidence in the tax-exempt sector without imposing regulations that inhibit religious freedom or are functionally ineffective.”4

ECFA formed the Commission and its panels of religious sector representatives, nonprofit sector representatives, and legal experts—comprised of experienced leaders known for their integrity—to provide input on these issues.

In the Commission’s report, Commission chairman Michael Batts commented, “Religious freedom is one of the most sacred freedoms we enjoy in the United States and it must be preserved. Religious and other nonprofit organizations positively impact our society in virtually every aspect of life, and their good work is immeasurable. We cannot allow the behavior of a few outliers in the religious and nonprofit sector to threaten the freedoms of those who are not the problem—those who are doing the good work.”
ECFA continues to play a vital role in preserving religious freedom in this country by facilitating an environment of self-government and self-regulation within the Christ-centered nonprofit community. The recent enhancement of the ECFA standards and the latest work of the Commission demonstrate this ongoing commitment by ECFA consistent with its founding over 30 years ago.

The exponential growth of ECFA in recent years demonstrates that Christ-centered organizations are now more interested than ever in assuring the government and the giving public that they properly steward God’s resources with which they have been entrusted.

1 Stanley Carlson-Thies, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, November 14, 2012.
2 Stanley Carlson-Thies, Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, eNews for Faith-Based Organizations, September 11, 2012.
3 Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church & School v. EEOC, 132 S. Ct. 694 (2012).
4 Press Release, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, Grassley Releases Review of Tax Issues Raised by Media-based Ministries (Jan. 6, 2011), available at