The Business of Charity

A story like this begs for a wide net.  What do Charities do? We often don’t know. And if we did, would it impact our decision? How much should we agree with the principles of an organization before we start to contribute to them?

The St. Petersburg Times profiled the Salvation Army in today’s Sunday paper. The evangelical institution has been alive in some form or another since 19th century London and aims to shelter the needy, clothe the poor and feed the hungry. No joke or cynicism there. They don’t even beat Christianity in to those who are most in need like any self-respecting American westward settler would have circa 1880.

Or Pleasure?

The organization owns several large office buildings in the Tampa Bay area valued at $75 million.

Officers, who are ordained clergy, live rent-free in the homes, including some that cost as much as $300,000. The organization provides them with cars, health insurance, furniture and Internet service. Its even pays the home­owners’ association dues.

Wait, real quick.  The Salvation Army is a Church and non-profit. So they do not file taxes. They are tax-exempt.* All these dealing are secret and no hard evidence exists of the true extent of the church’s business holdings.

This information only seeps out because of investigation, like the St. Pete Times did here.

Another gem:

…the organization was embarrassed by publicity in New England over several Salvation Army homes: one in Needham, Mass., valued as high as $900,000; and another in Holden, purchased for $350,000 with more than 3,800 square feet of space. The officer who lived there said he needed to retreat each day after working in depressed communities; and that city schools were not good enough for officers’ children.

Does anyone else find it odd that the officer would mention both a retreat from depressed communities and oh-by-the-way the schools are much better in the rich neighborhood so that’s why I have to live there. That above paraphrase sounds a lot like church officers “need to be wealthy”. But I’ll get back to this sense of entitlement and what it means to a charitable organization.

Wise Investments

At one time, now-disgraced Hillsborough Commissioner Jim Norman was on the payroll of the Salvation Army…

…to the tune of $95,000 a year and that his compensation included use of a car for work he said he did largely on weekends. It didn’t help that the FBI was investigating Norman’s wife’s purchase of a vacation home with money from a wealthy businessman. Or that he was embroiled in a court challenge as he ran for state Senate.

If you’ll remember, Norman was kicked off the ballot for failing to disclose financial assets (hrmmm…) and then reinstated by the local Republican party.

Like I’ve said, the truth about these financial dealings cannot be known unless the Salvation Army were to file taxes: which, hey guess what, they do file and help pay the taxes of their employees. How else could they afford to pay property taxes on a $300k+ home?

“The philosophy of the Salvation Army is to completely release me from the responsibility to buy houses, buy vehicles and provide these things for me and my family, and then frees me up to do what I’m called to do, which is to reach out in the name of Christ to people who are in desperate need.”

Good Enough

In the end, the Salvation Army does about as well as any charitable organization.

Salvation Army spokesmen consistently say they spend 83 percent of their donations on programs and only 17 percent for administration and fundraising. That’s about on par with the United Way of Tampa Bay, better than the American Cancer Society and not as good as the American Red Cross, according to Charity Navigator, a watchdog that bases its rankings on federal tax returns.

In the end, individual contributors have to take responsibility.  Some disgruntled contributors dropped fake bills with a picture of Jim Norman in the army’s red buckets.  Others have publicly sworn to stop donating because of the army’s real estate holdings.

Perhaps thats the most reasonable approach, but is the Army really that bad? They do good enough, don’t they? Should a charitable organization be expected to give so much money that they can no longer function as a business with such noble goals? On the flip side, they probably should not hold so many non-charity related residential establishments.  It’s kind of like saying: the only reason our officers can continue to do God’s work is with a $300,000 home or a mansion three times as valuable. And that’s not charity at all.

One More Thought

That’s more like the Catholic Church. Yeah, I’m going there. If we don’t like that the Catholic Church has no problem with priests raping your kids, we don’t have to donate. And yet, the Catholic Church remains the largest non-profit, charitable organizations on the planet. It’s not like they don’t have vast hoards of wealth, plenty of gold-studded buildings, massive stone Goliaths in which to worship, a hierarchy of sublimely well-heeled clergymen and a whole city bearing evidence to the world of their opulence.

Is the Salvation Army that bad? No. But at least now you have a rough idea about that organization and what might happen to your money.



*The Times really loves to slam tax exempt organizations, especially their brilliant thrashings to the Church of Scientology. Anyways.


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