“If you see a fish go belly up in a lake, you try to find out what was wrong with the fish. You see a thousand fish go belly up in a lake and you better take a look at the lake.” – Unknown
The personal support raising model1 used by parachurch ministries and mission agencies around the world raises more money for ministry than ever before. But, despite this apparent success, the model is deeply flawed. In this post I will share how the personal support raising model is broken: its structural and cultural flaws produce systemic funding inequities for ethnic minorities that serve to keep parachurch ministries White.
Deeply Flawed: Support Raising Isn’t Working for Ethnic Minorities
Ethnic minorities, specifically Latinos and African Americans, have long voiced concern that the personal support raising model used by American parachurch ministries since the 1950’s doesn’t work as well in their communities. While there are obviously many ethnic minority individuals who have been able to raise full support and join staff, I want to take a broader look at the pond. It has been, and continues to be, difficult for many ethnic minority staff members to raise all of their support and join the full-time staff of parachurch ministries.
My first experience with this came in 2008 when I began working with the Latino ministry division of a large parachurch organization. My wife and I soon noticed that none of the full-time Hispanic staff in the ministry were fully funded. They were either getting second jobs or supplementing their support raising deficits through temporary grants from ministry leadership. As an Anglo American who had grown up in the Bible Belt, I had seen individuals struggle with support raising in the past, but this was my first personal experience with an entire group of people struggling to fit in the current model. The more I began to listen to and learn from my ethnic minority brothers and sisters in Christ the more I heard how the current system of support raising wasn’t serving them. It was then I began to realize that there might be systemic issues at play.
Why Support Raising Doesn’t Work As Well for Ethnic Minorities: Structural And Cultural Barriers2
The personal support raising model is built on the idea that each missionary has a social network they can leverage to pray for them, give financially to fund the ministry, and provide them referrals to expand the network. As opposed to denominations or large non-profits who usually have a centralized funding system or specialized fundraising department, in most Protestant ministries each missionary is responsible to raise the full amount of their funding. The organization provides no other mechanism to provide financially for the staff member. If the potential missionary is unable to raise their full financial support, they cannot join staff with the organization.
Many mission leaders view this as an equitable, just system and have been hesitant to making changes. Often their rationale sounds something like, “Everyone needs to start from the same place, to raise their own support. It wouldn’t be fair to give some an advantage.” But there’s a major flaw in that logic: we don’t all start from the same place.
Ethnic minorities start from a place that presents two barriers that often prove insurmountable in their fundraising efforts that White ministers (as a group) don’t face: structural disadvantages and cultural barriers.
Structural Disadvantages to Support Raising
African American and Latino ministers face significant structural barriers that prevent them from raising full support. The Personal Support Raising model is predicated on your social network connecting you with people who have disposable income they can give on a regular basis. By assuming all staff start from the same place in their support raising, the model fails to take into account the disparity of wealth in this country.
The Pew Research Center published a study in 2011 entitled, Wealth Gaps Rise to Record Highs Between White, Blacks, Hispanics. The report analyzed data from the U.S. government and found that “the median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households…the typical black household had just $5,677 in wealth (assets minus debts) in 2009; the typical Hispanic household had $6,325 in wealth; and the typical white household had $113,149.”
While there are obviously many individual exceptions to the report, this means that when an African-American or Latino minister enters the average home of someone in their community to raise support, the person they meet with will likely have 20 times less wealth than the average person a White minister meets with from their community. So even if the donor from the African-American or Latino church has a heart for missions and is compelled to give financially, they are not starting from the same place as the average White donor.
Staff members from lower income backgrounds (whether white or ethnic minority) face an additional structural barrier in support raising. When a parachurch minister first begins to raise their support they don’t have enough donations coming in for them to receive a paycheck. Until they reach that tipping point they are essentially working without pay. For someone like myself who was fortunate enough to have parents who could provide for me financially for 3 months while I worked without pay, this wasn’t a problem. But for ministers from low socio-economic backgrounds they often don’t have the ability to work for an extended time without a paycheck. This often causes them to get a part-time job to supplement their income (which slows down their support raising progress) or they simply decide not to join staff.
Cultural Barriers to Support Raising3
Statistically, Asian Americans are just as likely to raise full support as their White counterparts. While they don’t face the same structural disadvantages as Latinos and African-Americans, they are confronted with cultural barriers. Asian Americans are 2.5 times more likely to report that their families are embarrassed of them because of support raising.4 Because Asian cultures tend to be more indirect, personal support raising training can offend members of the Asian American community because of it’s white, western way of direct asking. This can be perceived as valuing money over relationship and highlights the white cultural context the model was created and honed in.
Latinos and African American ministers also face cultural barriers in the support raising process. The personal support raising model is largely foreign to their communities, making it harder to convince people to give. A number of other cultural barriers contribute to a startling statistic from one research survey: 71% of Latinos’ and 74% of African Americans’ funding came from individuals outside their racial group.5 Because of the structural and cultural barriers, Latinos and African Americans are forced to raise support cross-culturally, further contributing to their difficulty in obtaining full funding. As one Latino staff member as put it when told to join a White church so he could more quickly finish raising support, “We have to leave our community to save our community”.
It is not just ethnic minorities or myself who have noticed these systemic inequities in the personal support raising model. Some of the most popular leaders in Evangelicalism have voiced their concerns.
Listen to Tim Keller:
…The evangelical world is based on raising your own support… you go out and you raise support from amongst your friends. This, of course, is systemic; it excludes, it marginalizes people who aren’t white. Because what happens is.. white people that don’t think of themselves as very well off can do it, they can raise their own support. And not just black, Hispanic, Asian people.. (and most people think of Asian people as very prosperous).. Asian people have trouble raising support for various cultural reasons, that whole model privileges white people… privilege cultures in which that kind of volunteerism works; it certainly doesn’t privilege Black [or] Hispanic people who don’t have lots of well off friends. And yet the system assumes that everyone who goes out there has equal social power and they don’t. Now I would call that a systemic problem, a big systemic problem…
… very often, these organizations, huge parachurch organizations, that you have to raise your support, and you come up in the power structure, having raised your support, then you kind of go on staff, and you move on your way up. Now I know about InterVarsity and plenty of places understand this, and they’re trying to do everything they can to recognize the fact that people don’t start with the same amount of social power. And therefore we can’t, we say it’s a level playing field, we’re meritocratic, we’re individualistic, that is to say, everybody has an equal chance, we’re not giving anybody an extra leg up in any way, and of course what that immediately does is destroy the people who already don’t have a leg up… Maybe somebody is offended by what I just said… The system.. it doesn’t mean, for example, that everybody in a ministry in which everybody has to raise their support is deliberately, intentionally, trying to marginalize people, but, nevertheless, the system is worse than the individuals in the system. And just by being a part of it, you’re participating in this… white people have got to learn how to have those kind of spectacles, is what I was trying to say, they have to be thinking about that… – Tim Keller, Watch the full video
Implicit Acknowledgement of a Broken System
Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru) and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, two of the largest American parachurch ministries, both have programs in place that implicitly acknowledge the support raising model doesn’t work as well for ethnic minorities.6 Cru has the Ethnic Minority Assistance Fund, whereby staff in the organization voluntarily give towards a central fund that supplements ethnic minorities in their support raising (only 25% of their goals and only for the first two years on staff. After that minorities are expected to raise 100%.). InterVarsity has the “Multiethnic 1%”, whereby 1% of all donations are directed to a central fund that is then dispersed to ethnic minorities based on a variety of factors. While these represent improvements, many would say they fall short of achieving equity because they leave the fundamental model unchanged.7
How Support Raising Keeps Parachurch Ministries White
Samuel Perry, a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate and Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Chicago, published an article in 2011 that changed my perspective forever: Diversity, Donations, and Disadvantage: The Implications of Personal Fundraising for Racial Diversity in Evangelical Outreach Ministries. In the article Perry explained how not only did the current support raising model fail to work as well for ethnic minorities, but it also served to keep the parachurch ministries White.
His survey of 716 staff members from 7 Evangelical Outreach Ministries(EOMs), primarily Protestant parachurch organizations, revealed:
“…White dominance is reproduced with the funding structure of EOMs through two primary means: (1) the individualistic fundraising model of EOMs naturally advantages whites over economically disadvantaged minorities, thereby reproducing whites’ structural dominance. And (2) the fundraising strategies of EOMs embody white cultural preferences that become normalized, requiring minorities to sacrifice their own preferences and adapt. The EOM funding structure thus becomes a mechanism for reproducing white dominance and ultimately fortifying racial divisions and perpetuating racial homogeneity within EOMs.[Emphasis added]”(p. 397)
Perry found that “for objective fundraising outcomes, the odds of raising one’s full support were 66% lower for African Americans and Latinos relative to whites…[and] the odds that they had to pick up a second job to supplement their income were twice that of white staff.”8 Simply put, because of the structural and cultural barriers mentioned earlier in this post, it is far less likely that an African-American or Latino staff member will be able to raise their full support.
Over time, this means that there will be fewer ethnic minorities who are able to raise all of their funding. The few who are able are less likely to be able to maintain full funding over a period of years, much less decades. As a result, they are unable to stay in the organization long enough to rise to positions of power to make changes to the system. White cultural values become normalized within the organization and are unchallenged because of the dearth of ethnic minorities present in senior leadership positions. This cycle ensures that no matter their commitment to diversity, parachurch ministries and mission agencies will probably stay White.
Samuel Perry makes it clear, and I want to affirm as well, that this structural inequity built into the personal support raising model is inadvertent. No mission executive desired to create a system where ethnic minorities would be disadvantaged. But it is present nonetheless, therefore the system is not exempt from critique or the need to be changed. Support Raising is an unjust model of ministry funding that keeps our organizations White, despite our best intentions otherwise.
(Part of the reason this post is so long is that when ethnic minorities have raised these issues in the past, they concerns have often been met with skepticism and been dismissed. Rather than attempt to answer them now and further lengthen this post, I will address them in a future post.)
“True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.
It’s time to change the support raising model
Over time I came to the conclusion that no matter how much I or other majority culture staff members ministered among ethnic minority college students we would never see the ministry become fully multiethnic without changing our funding model. It’s time to change the model.
Start a Conversation
I don’t presume to speak for the thousands of Latino and African American brothers and sisters in Christ who, like the Hellenistic Widows in Acts 6, have repeatedly expressed that the structures developed by the Church are not working for their communities. I also have not written this post out of a desire to harm or disparage any Evangelical Outreach Ministry. I have spent my entire ministry career raising support and have seen God use the model to send thousands of ministers around the world.
But I can no longer sit idly by and participate blindly in a system that disadvantages members of the Body of Christ. The system was developed for my context, and it works well for me. But I cannot get Paul’s words out of my mind: “If one part suffers, they all suffer”. The ethnic minority members of our body are suffering, we can’t ignore them anymore.
Equitable ministry structures were a source of pain in the early church and, in different forms, remain so today. My desire is that this series, Funding Multiethnic Ministry, would spark a conversation about inequity present in our funding structures. I pray that we would listen to our ethnic minority members and would seek to be led by them to develop funding models that are more just and equitable.
How Should We Respond?
For many of you, this post will be the first time you are confronted with the reality that support raising is an unjust model that disadvantages ethnic minorities. This new knowledge has the potential to stir a lot of emotions in you and raise many questions. In future posts I will attempt to explore how those of us who are privileged by the current system should respond.
For some of you, however, this information is not new. You’ve known for a long time that support raising was an inequitable and unjust model. I fall into this group. My question for us is, “Why haven’t we done more to change the support raising model?” In future posts I will explore what our unwillingness as an American missionary enterprise to change a system we know is unjust says about us and about the mission we are engaging in.
In coming posts I will also attempt to answer some of the common objections raised when these issues are brought up, explore theological and missiological reasons for equitable funding models, examine the history of support raising, take a closer look at its perceived Biblical Basis, and suggest next steps and possibilities for improving the model of mission funding to be equitable and just. Lord, may you bring equitable funding models quickly.
p.s. – If you are interested in exploring this topic more, I encourage you to read “Social Capital, Race, and Personal Fundraising in Evangelical Outreach Ministries” and “Racial Habitus, Moral Conflict, and White Moral Hegemony Within Interracial Evangelical Organizations”, both by Samuel Perry.
image credit: mor
- By “personal support raising” I am referring to the model whereby staff members are responsible to raise financial donations from their social networks. This model was popularized by Campus Crusade and has been used to fund tens of thousands of missionaries. This critique does not cover organizations like Young Life, who use a slightly different model (and one with which I am less familiar). [↩]
- Much of the following is from “Diversity, Donations, and Disadvantage: The Implications of Personal Fundraising for Racial Diversity in Evangelical Outreach Ministries” by Samuel Perry. [↩]
- ibid [↩]
- ibid [↩]
- ibid, p. 413 [↩]
- I have worked for both in my ministry career, but any opinions expressed here are my own and do not represent either organization. [↩]
- In recent years InterVarsity has begun to adjust their model to include features of a more community-based funding model used by Young Life. This willingness to make substantial changes to funding structures is most often the exception, rather than the rule, among parachurch ministries. [↩]
- ibid, p. 406 [↩]