Celebrating 30 years of helping you give wisely
America's most independent,
assertive charity watchdog

Holiday Mission Ads May Mislead Public

   Dec 01, 1997

During the holiday season, our newspapers and mailboxes are replete with pictures of dreary homeless people digging into a turkey dinner and stories of how “Jack” or “Tom” was saved by a local mission. It is difficult for a caring and well-fed individual to be indifferent when confronted with these emotional appeals.

Many donors do not realize that the money they give to these missions may not be going toward food or that the story they read may be a stereotypical profile of a homeless person that is used in fundraising campaigns around the country.

In August 1997, according to World, an evangelical Christian magazine, the Gospel Rescue Ministries (GRM) of Washington DC sent out an appeal letter in the name of its food service manager, Nate Jones. In the letter, Mr. Jones says: “I'm concerned because I expect to feed more hungry folks this holiday season than ever before and I have a large pantry that needs to be filled.” The letter went on to list the items needed for the Thanksgiving meal: 300 pounds of turkey, 3,000 rolls, 150 gallons of milk and 900 pies.

The letter did not say that most of the food, which is served on Thanksgiving and the rest of the year, is donated. Edward J. Eyring, GRM's Executive Director, told World that “his appeal letters raise about $800,000 per year, and that he spends about $31,000 for food. The other $300,000 worth of food is donated.”

This fundraising letter also describes the tragic life of a man named Steve and quotes GRM's Nate Jones: “When you first meet him, you wonder how someone so kind and gentle could lead the kind of life Steve has.” Yet Mr. Jones, the nominal signer of the letter, told World that “he knows no details of Steve's life and is not certain he ever talked to Steve.” Mr. Jones told AIP that he does not know Steve but knows many people like him. Steve shows up again as Alex in a nearly identical (except for the food list and signature) solicitation letter for a Los Angeles mission, according to World. It turns out that both of these charities share the same professional fundraiser, the Russ Reid Company. This company and other produce standardized solicitation letters that, with a few adjustments, can be utilized by many of their charity clients. Standardized letters are less expensive than tailor-made ones. But this cost saving may not be worth it, if it means sending out a solicitation that does not truthfully describe the charity's needs or clients.

The greatest need of charity missions is not money to buy food for the holidays but money that can be used throughout the year for the overall work of the organization. It is easier for a mission to fulfill its more limited food needs that its substantial cash needs. One reason for this is because there are plenty of supermarkets, produce wholesalers, restaurants and other food-oriented companies that will gladly donate their surplus food to charity. Another reason is that many donors are more inclined to donate money for a hot meal than for less immediate and more complex concerns.

Charity missions do valuable and often thankless work for the downtrodden across America. Their struggle to raise money is an ongoing battle. Much of their budgets for the entire year are raised during the holiday season. It is unfortunate that some of these missions feel that they must resort to using questionable and highly emotional advertisements to motivate people to send them contributions. Perhaps these ads will disappear, if more Americans begin to understand that the year-round work of these organizations, which includes the difficult task of rehabilitating drug addicts, ex-cons and others in horrible predicaments, is much more important than a turkey dinner.