LOUISVILLE — They want to take the leap.
The Worldwide Ministries Division committee of the General Assembly Council has recommended that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) set up a new charitable corporation to do relief and development work — an effort to make the church’s response to disasters more agile and to give potential donors the accountability, visibility and ease of use they expect.
That’s a controversial plan — and one that may provide some fireworks when the full council discusses it Feb. 11.
Some fear it will take away from the PC(USA)’s attempts to build a strong fund-raising structure to benefit the whole church. Some — aware that the denomination needs to cut its budget again this spring and that layoffs are imminent — suspect that some programs are being built up and protected at the possible expense of others.
Some say it’s too much change with not enough time to figure out what’s the best way to go.
But Susan Ryan, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, put it this way.
“There are enormous opportunities in this new time for us. We’ll either be a visionary church or not.”
Ryan is proud of the work Presbyterian Disaster Assistance has done in the last year — in Southeast Asia after the tsunami, in Mississippi and Louisiana and Florida after the hurricanes, in Pakistan after the earthquake.
“I think we have responded extraordinarily,” she said. Along the Gulf Coast, “we started with nothing” after Hurricane Katrina, and in five months have set up seven villages to help those whose lives were smashed by the storm, have established a call center and are building a warehouse.
But Ryan also knows that in the weeks after the tsunami and Katrina, her office was inundated with angry calls and letters, communications from Presbyterians who were frustrated by the program’s lack of visibility nationally and unhappy that the program isn’t structured so that employers can make matching gifts.
Jerry Bedford, a Presbyterian minister from Arkansas presbytery, has led the work group that recommended establishing the new charitable corporation. Bedford, now retired, formerly worked for Heifer International. Other nonprofit charitable groups “are eating the Presbyterians’ lunch,” Bedford told the committee. At Heifer, “we know how to communicate with donors and how to fundraise, and they love it.”
The change, if it’s approved by the full council and the assembly, would create a separate nonprofit corporation to house three groups — Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbyterian Hunger Program and the Jinishian Memorial Program, which was funded by a bequest in the 1960s and works with Armenians overseas.
Two other programs — International Health Ministries and the Self-Development of People program — will study whether they want to be included later.
Self-Development of People has expressed some strong misgivings about the way this is being handled, and wants to know more about how, in the proposed new configuration, “development” is being defined, according to Paul Rader, who leads the Self Development of People Committee, which is selected by the General Assembly. In other words, what kind of work would the new corporation be expected to do — and would there be any changes?
“We don’t want to join or become a part of anything until we can hash through and be a part of that philosophy,” Rader told the committee before it voted Feb. 9.
The new corporation would be considered a public charity. Because it would have to file an IRS form 990, giving details of where its money comes from and how it’s spent, the programs would have additional accountability and transparency, advocates of the change argue.
The corporation also would become eligible to be included on a list of organizations that qualify to receive U.S. government aid for doing charitable work. That would make Presbyterian Disaster Assistance more likely to be listed by the media as a place where people can give money in the event of a big disaster, and to be included on websites where donors often turn for information about which groups have good track records in doing charitable work.
And employers that match charitable gifts workers give could give to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance as a separate public charity, but not if it’s considered part of the church.
Ryan also said the new structure — and the distance it gives the nonprofit corporation from the denomination — could give the three programs advantages internationally as well. In some countries, charitable corporations are allowed to set up bank accounts and do social work but churches are not. In Malawi, for example, the entire financial department of the partner church with which Presbyterian Disaster Assistance works is in jail for embezzlement — but Ryan’s office can’t set up its own bank accounts there.
“We have no options,” she said. “We have really been frozen.”
That’s not to say, however, that Presbyterian Disaster Assistance would be completely divorced from the PC(USA). Its board would be structured with linkages to the General Assembly Council, and “it is a tool of the GAC,” said Gary Cook, the PC(USA)’s associate for Global Service and Witness. “It is not in competition with the GAC.”
But some on the council and on the PC(USA)’s national staff are distressed by the recommendation, to say the least.
One of the strongest critics has been Bill Saul, a council member and businessman from California who helps to lead the Mission Initiative: Joining Hearts and Hands fundraising campaign that’s trying to raise $40 million for evangelism and new church development.
When he started with that campaign, Saul told the committee, he was promised that the PC(USA) would develop a “seamless plan” for fundraising — a far more efficient approach for raising money for the whole denomination.
This new corporation “is taking us farther and farther away from that,” Saul said. He asked whether, for example, the Mission Initiative would have access to any database of donors the charitable corporation would compile, or if that would be kept for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance use only.
“That was a principal concern for me too,” said Marian McClure, who directs the PC(USA)’s Worldwide Ministries Division.
She said she asked for language to be included to say that the corporation would participate in the council’s funds development work and that the corporation would do its work “in accordance with the mission strategies, policies and priorities of the General Assembly Council.”
And the council’s Governance Task Force, which is recommending changes in the structure of the council itself, will be taking a look at the proposal too.
Susan Andrews, a council member from Maryland and a former General Assembly moderator, said that with reorganizations and budget cuts just around the bend, “it’s very scary.”
But all that chaos may present exactly the right time for doing a new thing with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, Andrews said — it’s already an unsettling time, she said, so maybe that’s exactly the time to try more that’s new..
And this is not a competition, with groups in the church “pitted against each other for the sacred dollar of our donors,” Andrews said. Her hope is that the new corporation can energize Presbyterians at the grassroots — “make them proud to be Presbyterians,” she said — so they will give more to support the PC(USA)’s work around the world in places of human suffering and need..