When it comes to nonprofits within the Church of Christ world, we have a mess. It’s not a total mess. But the essence of how we do nonprofits is not right. It’s hard to explain, and no one talks about it. So I need to explain myself. I’ll start with an example.
About 25 years ago, when I was a young and idealistic lawyer, I was invited to sit on the board of a Church of Christ orphanage. I agreed. After all, the church I’d grown up in had split from another church 25 years earlier just to have the right to support this very orphanage. The least I could do was help this work.
I drove 90 minutes to my first board meeting, at which — much to my surprise and embarrassment — the chairman read a report from the local district attorney in which the grand jury found that the orphanage was rife with child abuse.
The board fired the director and appointed a good man, a board member, as director.
I soon realized that the board was made up of good men who didn’t have a clue as to what they were doing — myself and the new director included. And so after several miserable weeks, I persuaded the board to replace me with a friend of mine who has a masters in social work.
He returned from his first meeting astonished. “No one on the board knows anything about what they’re doing! The executive director doesn’t either! No one on staff does!” He went through a long list of legal requirements that were being ignored because no one had even heard of them.
He soon resigned, frustrated that the board was unwilling to be professional, to comply with state standards, or to cooperate with other social agencies, even Church of Christ agencies.
Here were some of the problems:
* The orphanage was “overseen” by a local eldership. The eldership did not know anything about the law or what was going on. They just trusted the board to know.
* The board was largely made up of kindly preachers. Until my friend was appointed, no one on the board was trained in the field of social work. None had daily involvement in the work of the orphanage. None had contact with anyone working there other than the director. No one knew anything about the law or how to run a foster care program. (Modern orphanages are actually providers of foster care for abused or abandoned children. Only rarely do they serve children who’ve lost both of their parents to death.)
* The directors they hired were also untrained and unaware of the rules and laws governing such things. Some were worse than incompetent.
* The donors and churches that gave money assumed that the program was well run and effective. No one actually checked.
* The state was so desperate for a place to put foster children that they overlooked the problems. As awful as it was, the state figured it was better than letting the kids stay with parents who sexually abused them or who’d have left them on the streets.
* When board members retired, they appointed as replacements for themselves men who were, like themselves, very well intended but completely untrained.
* The board was made up entirely of volunteers. They were unwilling to commit the time and energies needed to become competent or to truly oversee the operation.
Now, my friend and I made a pretty good run at trying to reform the place, but we couldn’t overcome the inertia and the naiveté — the blithe assumption that because they were good people (they were) trying to do a good thing (they were), good would result (it didn’t).
I couldn’t help but think: we split hundreds of churches for the privilege of being incompetent?
There are three ways to set up a nonprofit doing spiritual work, a “parachurch organization” —
1. It can be a subsidiary of a church, that is, the elders can appoint the members of the board. My own church has set up its preschool this way. We run our mission program this way. The preschool is separately incorporated. The mission team is not.
2. It can be a subsidiary of several churches, that is, several churches can appoint members to the board. In the Churches of Christ, we call this a “society” or “convention,” traditionally deeming it unscriptural.
3. It can be self-perpetuating, that is, the board can appoint its own replacements. In the Churches of Christ, we call this a Christian college, a preacher school, an orphanage, or an inner city ministry. Sometimes we place these under the oversight of an eldership, but such “oversight” is generally token oversight.
Now, sit back and just ponder this. Why should it be perfectly scriptural and fine for a board to be self-perpetuating or controlled by a single church, but wicked to be controlled by multiple churches?
How parachurch organizations survive
Interestingly, if you think about it, self-perpetuating boards are very much like public business corporations. And they operate on capitalistic principles. That is, anyone can start one and go out and raise whatever money he wants. The ones that do poorly die. The ones that do well, survive. It’s very Darwinian, like business.
But in business, “doing well” is defined by making profits. Business that don’t turn a profit always fail. There are no exceptions (except for those receiving federal subsidies, of course).
In the parachurch world, as a practical matter, “doing well” is defined by raising money well, either from donations or grants. A nonprofit may do very, very well and yet never save a single soul or feed a single hungry person. There are lots of ineffective parachurch organizations that survive purely because they are skilled fundraisers. And there are lots of great parachurch organizations that have failed because they couldn’t raise funds, even though they were very good at the Kingdom’s business.
How can we be wiser in how we do these things?