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ECFA suspends mission over fundraising letters

Financial watchdog says it's serious about truth with donors

The Gospel Rescue Mission in Washington, D.C., has been suspended from its membership in the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability after a review of the mission's fundraising practices found them to be in violation of ECFA standards.

The mission, which in many ways is a model for others who serve the homeless, will remain on suspension until it demonstrates "to ECFA's satisfaction that the type of fundraising that brought this about has been corrected," ECFA president Paul Nelson told WORLD. "It's going to be up to them to respond to that."

WORLD first brought the allegations to light in a Sept. 27 story.

ECFA's investigations focused on the wording of fundraising letters created by the Russ Reid Co., which claims as clients 50 members of the International Union of Gospel Missions, including the Washington mission. The company composes a generic letter about homeless people that is sent out under the various letterheads of its clients, creating the impression in the minds of some that the letter is about homeless people who have actually been to the mission that is soliciting donations.

Edward J. Eyring, director of the mission, declined to be interviewed but issued by fax a 90-word written statement: "As an institution that has promoted the word of Jesus Christ since 1906, The Gospel Rescue Ministries has always aspired to meet the highest of ethical guidelines. Maintaining continued good faith with our supporters is not only right, it is vital to our existence. That is why we will take whatever steps are necessary to comply with ECFA's standards. In the coming months, as the weather turns cold, The Gospel Rescue Ministries will maintain its vigilant efforts to minister to and transform the lives of those who need our help."

A committee composed of directors of IUGM ministries approves each generic letter before it is mailed. Phil Rydman, speaking for the IUGM, said the organization would not comment on the ECFA's finding. "Since this is an ongoing matter," he said, "I think it's premature to comment, although we look forward to the rapid reinstatement of the Gospel Rescue Mission by the ECFA." Peter Arnold, spokesman for Russ Reid, also declined to comment on the ECFA's action.

The suspension means that the mission will not be allowed to use the ECFA seal on any of its documents or correspondence. The seal is an endorsement to assure prospective donors that an organization is accountable to an outside organization for use of its money and for its fundraising practices.

The vote to suspend the mission came at ECFA's quarterly meeting two weeks ago in Colorado Springs. The suspension comes after an ECFA Standards Review Committee investigated a complaint that was lodged by a former employee.

Richard Shannon, former director of the mission's School for Tomorrow, told the ECFA that the letters used misleading stories and statistics to raise money. Mr. Shannon resigned from the mission over the issue, which he discussed with Mr. Eyring and then with the mission's board before alerting ECFA.

In an interview with WORLD in August, Mr. Reid, founder and president of the company, defended his syndicated letters as cost-effective. And he said that those who received the letters didn't "give diddly-twit" that they were generic. "It's irrelevant, any more than donors to the American Red Cross would care that the same letter that goes out in Syracuse goes out in Tecumseh."

The ECFA, Mr. Nelson said, does not want to punish member organizations, which by joining are voluntarily submitting to accountability. "By the same token we must call attention to the issues when a violation has occurred, and that's what we've done in this case," he said. "Our whole approach is not to be adversarial to the membership but to take disciplinary steps when we have to, which is what we felt we had to do. Now we're prepared to work with them, if they are prepared to work with us."

Some have complained to him that the suspension and media attention will hurt missions' ever-difficult efforts to raise money. "I just have to look at people and say, 'You cannot lay a guilt trip on me that people are not going to be fed or have a roof over them because we've spoken out on an issue of integrity,'" Mr. Nelson said. "Of course, that is the whole issue of this, that effectiveness is not the guide. That is not one of ECFA's criteria for measurement. Nor should it be."

Last year, to address concerns about fundraising practices, ECFA issued document 96-1, which attempted to clarify what is and is not allowed. In the wake of this suspension, ECFA is preparing another document to further define the boundaries. The standards have not changed, Mr. Nelson said, and the suspension is a reminder that ECFA intends to be vigilant. "I think it does send a clear message-that if there are practices going on, and if those practices are widespread, that are borderline, or are moving in and out of compliance-that ECFA is serious about truthfulness in communications."

Jay Grelen

Jay Grelen