Caroline Winter’s new article is a must-read. She examines many facets of the church’s estimated income, its property ownership, and its use of funds. I thought many portions of it were very, very good.
Readers seem especially focused on a few key portions of the article. However, one of her key fact claims is based on a factual error. Here is why.
Winter writes that:
According to an official church Welfare Services fact sheet, the church gave $1.3 billion in humanitarian aid in over 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 recently published article co-written by Cragun 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.
If true, this is pretty damning information. The LDS church takes in billions of dollars (Winter estimates about $8 billion annually) and gives merely $50 million a year to charity. But is that claim accurate?
Winter’s “recently published article co-written by Cragun” with this estimate appears to be this article, which was published in Free Inquiry, the quarterly magazine of the Council for Secular Humanism. Cragun is a co-author, and the Free Inquiry article indeed makes the monetary claims in question.
Where does Cragun get this information? He draws from a single source: This fact sheet, published by the church. It’s a single-page document, well worth a look. In fact, you should go take a look at it right now. In particular, watch the nomenclature.
The damning language is found in these lines:
Humanitarian assistance rendered (1985–2009)
Cash donations $327.6 million
Value of material assistance $884.6 million
That shows that the church gave about $1 billion in total humanitarian aid over 25 years. Or does it?
Look at that sheet again. It highlights numbers of food storehouses, food production for the needy, employment training, church-run thrift stores, and so on. The sheet states _also_ discusses global work worldwide on disaster relief (such as responses to tsunami or earthquake victims). It uses different nomenclature for each type of donation. That is donations to worldwide emergency response are classified under the humanitarian label. But the extensive ongoing infrastructure to feed the needy is classified under the church welfare label. I contacted the church today and was able to verify that this is correct.
In fact, these paragraphs from the sheet show this usage:
The purpose of Church welfare assistance is to help
people to help themselves. Recipients of these
resources are given the opportunity to work, to the
extent of their ability, for the assistance they receive.
The Church also sponsors humanitarian relief and
development projects around the world that benefit
those of other faiths. These projects include emergency
relief assistance in times of disaster and programs that
strengthen the self-reliance of individuals, families,
Another fact sheet also illustrates. Take a look at this second short fact sheet on the church’s humanitarian efforts. This breaks out what those efforts are: Emergency response. Clean water efforts, wheelchairs, and neonatal care in developing countries. Immunization projects. That’s what the church spends $50 million a year.
The church’s extensive network of food storehouses, employment assistance, Deseret Industries thrift stores, are not included in the tally — because they are not seen as church humanitarian assistance, but rather as church welfare assistance. (And even the broader church welfare numbers do not seem to include the extensive educational subsidies the church provides to students at BYU and other church universities.)
Given this crucial misunderstanding of the fact sheet, Cragun’s factual claim is incorrect and in fact very misleading on an important point, and so is Winter’s use of Cragun’s claim.
This is not to say that there are no potentially valid critiques of church finances or of church charitable giving. I would love to see more transparency here. In addition, I think valid questions can be raised about how to weigh church welfare. In particular, one could certainly argue that church welfare is “not really charitable” if it distributed in ways that tend to limit it to certain subsets of people. There are also complicated questions about how to value the volunteer hours involved. And so a variety of nuanced claims and arguments could be made about the efficacy and ultimate societal benefit of church welfare programs. But Cragun’s claim does not engage at this level. Cragun simply accepts at face value (but misunderstands) the initial church statement about humanitarian aid. In doing so, he inadvertently makes a highly misleading factual claim. Winter’s uncritical reliance on Cragun’s erroneous fact claim then perpetuates the error.
I don’t want to overstate this conclusion, because I think Winters’ article is part of an important conversation, and that observers can certainly still make critiques of church financial practices. Such critiques, however, should be based on accurate statements of fact.