Sunday, October 12, 2008

LDS Philanthropic Culture Part 2: Current Status

This topic obviously deserves further research and investigation but without published research specific to Mormons the ideas will have to rely on my own conversations, observations and a bit of intuition from my own experiences so it is by no means authoritative nor expert.  Also, bear in mind that I am only trying to explain what is currently happening, not passing judgement.  Here is my take on the current culture of philanthropy in the Mormon community:

1. Mormons do mainly charity not strategic philanthropy

This is not good or bad this is just what we do.  Mormons are generally happy with one-off charitable gifts/activities and they do so frequently and freely. Disaster relief is therefore a great fit for the LDS Church which they do very well and they are starting to make a name for themselves in that space, which I think is fantastic. Our ability to mobilize a large army of volunteers swiftly and orderly with smiles on their faces and not afraid to get their hands dirty is largely unmatched in the world.

The Mormon community in general is not involved in what could be called 'strategic' philanthropy meaning professional analysis, ongoing intervention, and evaluation, whether doing so themselves or supporting such efforts. Even activities of the institutional church such as employment centers or the Perpetual Education Fund are not completely 'strategic interventions', limited by their operations being carried out almost exclusively by short-term volunteers with little expertise in analyzing and refining such interventions.  Not to take away from what the PEF is accomplishing but I think the implementation is still catching up to the vision.

2. Mormons trust the LDS Church with their money

When an average latter-day saint or a wealthy LDS businessman is considering a philanthropic donation the brand of the Church is an instant vetting process. The Church is 1) extremely conscious of treating donated money as sacred funds, 2) they have a long track record of proven fiscal responsibility and 3) the fact that they use volunteers means extremely low overhead (which is appealing on the surface but I'll toss in my own opinion--low overhead is a very poor indicator of impact or social return on investment). So, many Mormons will give gifts to the Church before they would consider giving money outside of the Church for other philanthropic activities.  I think this phenomenon is also connected to the general isolation of the church for most of its history; general members simply have not been exposed to alternate options of philanthropy.  

3. Mormons are extremely conservative

Mormons have an interesting relationship with government and gov't welfare programs so that there is a constant battle over words in LDS charitable activities.   I sense that there is such an adverse taste to "socialism" and/or hand-out philanthropy that some do not like the connotation of 'social' even in words like "social entrepreneurship" or "social issues." Mormons have liked to use the word "self-reliance" but even that word has not been accepted by everyone, some do not like the word on grounds that it can appear to mean we somehow do not rely on the Lord as we should.  See Hugh Nibley Work we Must but the Lunch is Free.  So, it goes back and forth. Generally, the church and the members are weary to support 'liberal' activities.  I think that somewhat explains why Mormons have been drawn to activities such as microcredit and educational loans because they mix charity with conservative practicality and values.

4. Mormons prefer anonymous giving

This is more intuition than hard research but I get the sense that Mormons prefer anonymity in their giving. The roots likely come from the scriptural injunction for anonymous giving from the Sermon on the Mount but that would be common among all Christians. I think some give through the Church to preserve their anonymity and at the same time get satisfaction that the Church is, instead of themselves, getting the public relations attention. There is also a sense that Mormons will just go about their work, whether it's recognized by the wider world or not, which is a spirit that has accompanied most of their operations, so why not their philanthropic activities.  I really like this cultural phenomenon.

5. High competition and demand among a relatively small pool of high net worth individuals.

The body of LDS philanthropists is relatively small and so the demand for their wealth is great among all the programs of the church: Temple building, BYU, Humanitarian Department, etc. let alone all the independent Mormon-run charities and the philanthropic world at large. Additionally, although Mormons have a strong showing and reputation in business, most of the wealth is new wealth so they do not have the same size endowments or foundations as some of the East Coast old-money foundations. This goes back to the history of the Mormons being chased out of the United States and the demographics of the early pioneers of the church.

I could keep going but there is enough here to discuss... how did I do? Do you see the same patterns? What goes on in your mind when you are considering donating to the Church above and beyond tithing donations?


Julie Bradshaw said...

What group of Mormons is this blog addressing? Utah Mormon culture, American Mormon culture, or the Church as a whole? While many of your points are true about members of the Church and their avenues of giving, they probably more accurately describe 1st world country behavior as a whole, rather than Mormon-specific behavior. Mormons are part of a wider demographic familiar mainly with relief agencies (e.g. the Red Cross) that provide humanitarian relief efforts, supported by "one-off charitable gifts." It's a simple matter of advertising. Natural disasters get more coverage than, say, the lack of a self-sustaining economy throughout much of the world. People give to humanitarian organizations because that's how they know to help. I hadn't heard of microcredit or microfranchising in any kind of serious detail until this year. I can't be alone in that. Experience and confidence inspire giving; if you want people to branch out in their giving, you've got to educate them, Mormons and non-Mormons alike.

I disagree with lumping all Mormons into a "conservative" category. I believe many study the way Christ interacted with the poor and try to emulate that example, what I believe is a mix of "hand-out philanthropy" combined with personal accountability. Sometimes this falls under "conservative" projects, sometimes under "liberal" projects.

As far as my own philanthropic behavior (in answer to your question), when I donate above and beyond my tithing donations, I consider the projects that align with my interests: temple work, education, and the meeting of basic needs. These are all things I feel passionately about and donate to both within and without the church. Sometimes I branch out, based on my feelings.

Sorry, but one other thing. I'm not sure how active your criticism is of the PEF, but I just have to say when criticizing something like that you have to be careful that it does not extend past the scope of the project. The PEF is primarily geared towards providing the church with a solid leadership base in developing countries. As President Hinckley's report on the PEF says, "[M]any of them have great difficulty finding employment because they have no skills... Because of limited abilities, they are not likely to become leaders in the Church. They are more likely to find themselves in need of welfare help….In an effort to remedy this situation, we propose a plan—a plan which we believe is inspired by the Lord…" And then the details of the plan are outlined. It was not designed with the intention to be solely an economic intervention, though that is one result. That's not to say the PEF may not someday cast a wider net, but remember how new it is. Many social enterprises have been around a lot longer and have accomplished a lot less. Give it time. Knowing the Church, it will probably grow.

I love this quote by President Hinckley (also from the PEF report): "I believe the Lord does not wish to see His people condemned to live in poverty. I believe He would have the faithful enjoy the good things of the earth. He would have us do these things to help them." I completely agree with him and say, keep educating people about Kiva and Ashoka and MCC and other organizations and encourage them to look into these opportunities. I think as these movements gain speed and learn from their own mistakes and improve, we will make great headway in improving living conditions around the world. But let's also have one more pat on the back for the good that the Church and its members are doing, even if the scope is not as wide as many would like it to be.

David Stoker said...

You make a lot of good points Julie. The first point about audience I particularly found tricky, I found myself jumping back and forth between the general American Mormon member, the wealthy American LDS philanthropist, and the Church institution itself and reading it over can make my thoughts difficult to follow. I honestly did not have much of an eye for the worldwide church membership as donors although it definitely deserves attention, so I was shortsighted to not include it, perhaps in my 'trends' or hope for the future post...

The charity vs. strategic philanthropy is not necessarily a good vs. bad dichotomy, I was more just trying to describe the current behavior. Part of my point is that the LDS Church is particularly well suited for the charity/relief side of the equation and I think it is absolutely mindbogglingly beautiful the efficiency and responsiveness of our efforts.

You are right that the general behavior is quite similar to the general American population but in other ways the Mormon behavior is shaped by their unique culture such as my points about the trust of the Church, isolation in the West for most of their history, aversion to 'social' activisim etc I think we are generally less 'diversified' in our giving than the typical American, again not necessarily good or bad I just think that is what is going on.

A quick note on the PEF-- I absolutely love the program and vision, it is masterful and appealing on many levels, I support it myself. But I hope we can analyze and refine the implementation of those efforts to fulfill the vision, to expand the reach and number of people being effected. If we cannot analyze it with a critical yet faithful eye then I think we do ourselves and the members of the Church who hope to benefit from the PEF a disservice.

And you are completely right about the scope of the PEF, it is built for a very targeted group of members of the LDS Church, it is not the Church's answer to world hunger. I simply show it to illustrate 1) the institutional church's recognition and desire to do more than charity and 2) the incredible demand shown by members of the Church to support such an effort. I think the successful fundraising of the program is illustrative of the culture of the members of the church.