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Phil Waldrep of the Phil Waldrep Evangelistic Association, one of only two nonprofit ministries in the area that are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a financial oversight organization.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
Phil Waldrep of the Phil Waldrep Evangelistic Association, one of only two nonprofit ministries in the area that are members of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, a financial oversight organization.

To give or
not to give?

Watchdog organizations make it easier to decide about donations; only 2 local ministries offer ECFA accreditation

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com · 340-2468

When you open a fundraising letter from a ministry or hear a representative ask for money, how do you decide whether to help?

Do you hesitate, wondering if your money will do what is promised? Perhaps you recall some high profile ministers who have gotten in trouble with the IRS or with contributors.

It's always a good idea to check out a ministry or charity, said Lynn Reeves, a certified public accountant.

"You need to know what your money is being spent on before you give," said Reeves, a partner with Wear, Howell, Strickland, Quinn & Law in Decatur.

The organization's Web site or publications should tell how much it is spending on administration and how much to meet needs, she said.

One place to start is the IRS Web site and its listing of charitable organizations with nonprofit status, she said. There donors can learn if the charity is tax-exempt so they can claim a deduction.

Beyond the IRS listings are watchdog and oversight organizations that can help donors and ministries alike.

Seal of approval

The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability offers one sort of seal of approval for nonprofit ministries and churches. An oversight and accrediting organization, the ECFA has more than 2,000 members.

Two are in the Decatur area, the Phil Waldrep Evangelistic Association and Edwin L. Hodges Ministries. Leaders of both organizations said that submitting to ECFA standards and rules reassures donors and helps in other ways.

"It's given me credibility in areas I didn't expect," Waldrep said.

He said some hotels unfamiliar with his ministry agree right away to work with him after seeing his ECFA membership. Waldrep holds numerous conferences and retreats across the United States.

Edwin Hodges said he sought ECFA membership soon after founding his ministry, which sends donated Christian literature to believers around the world.

"The thing that made me want to be a member was I wanted to make sure from the start that our integrity was not something anyone would question," he said.

Hodges said an earlier organization he worked for, Bibles for the World, joined ECFA.

For the first time in the 10 years he's been a member, ECFA is sending someone to his Trinity location to do a field review, Hodges said.

The review is not a test or a penalty, he said, but something ECFA does periodically to follow up.

Hodges said he's had to look up an enormous amount of information to have ready. The representative also will interview the ministry's board chairman and treasurer, Hodges said.

Wall Watchers

He said his ministry also reports to Wall Watchers, which evaluates Christian organizations for the public, and last year joined the Better Business Bureau.

Waldrep is currently working to complete a 10-page questionnaire from the ECFA.

He said all members must complete the review annually, answering questions about board members, finances, fundraising and more.

It is revealing to see which ministries are not ECFA members, Waldrep said.

ECFA does not rate its members, but some watchdog groups issue reports and give ratings. For instance, Edwin L. Hodges Ministries got five stars, the highest rating, from Wall Watchers at its Ministry Watch Web site. Ministry Watch gave Hodges an "A" in transparency. That refers to the availability of financial information and the level of cooperation from a ministry.

Ratings

Ministry Watch gave some big name ministries "F"s in transparency or other areas, including Crystal Cathedral, Creflo Dollar Ministry and Kenneth Hagin.

Charity Navigator, another online watchdog organization, gave Hodges Ministries four out of four stars for its organizational efficiency, which measures how much a charity spends to raise money and do administration.

Charity Navigator gave Hodges only one star in its "Organizational Capacity" category, which measures how well a ministry can sustain programs over time based on its liquid assets and other factors.

No other local ministry was listed at either Ministry Watch or Charity Navigator sites.

The watchdog organizations cautioned against using only ratings to evaluate ministries' effectiveness.

Do your research

Donors should do their research when giving to organizations other than churches, said Emily Corzine of Byrd, Smalley, Evans & Adams accounting firm.

She recommended checking the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability’s Web site to find out about finances. If a charity or ministry is not a member, a donor may ask to see the organization’s tax returns, Corzine said.

She and another certified public accountant, Lynn Reeves, said donors should verify a recipient’s tax-exempt status before taking a tax deduction for charitable gifts.

“However, the biggest part of giving has to do with the heart. When we see needs, we should meet them freely,” Corzine said. “We have to remember that what we have is not our own in the first place. Everything is God’s.”

- Melanie B. Smith

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