We’ve all read or seen the stories about how Dr. Kent Brantly and Nancy Writebol, infected with the Ebola virus, were successfully flown from Liberia to Atlanta and cured with the aid of powerful experimental drugs. We can all be grateful that the cure was successful.
But Washington Post reporter Brady Dennis was smart enough to ask the next question: Brantly and Writebol were working for two Christian charities, Samaritan’s Purse and SIM. These organizations are wealthy enough that they could raise the approximately $2 million it cost to hire the Gulfstream III jet from Phoenix Air to fly from the U.S. to Liberia. What do we know about Samaritan’s Purse and SIM?
This paragraph of Dennis’s about Samaritan’s Purse caused my jaw to drop.
Last year, the group had roughly $460 million in revenue, records show. It maintains offices in Canada, Australia, and the United Kingdom and has more than a dozen aircraft situated around the world, including two helicopters, to shuttle around ministry staff and to help reach remote communities or those hard-hit by natural disaster.
$460 million! I’ve never seen an official estimate, but my guess is that the spending of all conservative think tanks—including Heritage—can’t exceed $300 million, and may well be below $250 million. So Samaritan’s Purse is nearly twice as large as all the right wing think tanks combined. My guess is that you’ve barely heard of them.
Samaritan’s Purse is so large that it’s a nonprofit with its own air force. In March, the Wilkes (N.C.) Journal-Patriot reported that Samaritan’s Purse bought a 19,736-square foot hangar at the Wilkes County, NC, airport that used to belong to the Lowe’s hardware store chain. The newspaper said that the organization has a fleet of fifteen aircraft, including a Falcon 900 jet and a King Air 300 twin turboprop based in North Carolina.
Dennis says that Samaritan’s Purse “keeps a low profile,” but I think there are deeper reasons why the press doesn’t pay close attention to them.
(1) The press does a lousy job in covering philanthropy. These days, the dwindling numbers of journalists are drenched in information and if you don’t reach out to them they rarely reach out to you. Samaritan’s Purse has a press office and issues press releases, but it wouldn’t surprise me if their office doesn’t get many phone calls most of the time.
(2) The press does a lousy job in covering religion, and when they write about religion, they’re more interested in hot-button social issues than they are about less controversial matters of faith.
Remember the Chick-Fil-A controversy of 2012? I won’t bring back that unpleasant episode except to quote the wise comment of Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri that a sandwich shouldn’t be a symbolic political statement; it’s just a sandwich. But if you remember, the titanic controversy was over the charitable activities of the Cathy family, and the end result is that the Cathys aren’t likely to change their donations, but will probably never talk to the press again. (I wouldn’t blame them.) The end result of all the screaming about “hate chicken” is that we will now never know if the nonprofits the Cathys have created are effective or ineffective.
Brady Dennis does not appear to have talked to anyone at Samaritan’s Purse, but he’s done some searching and unearthed controversies. According to the New Republic, during the Gulf War in 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf questioned an arrangement Samaritan’s Purse had with the military to distribute Arabic-language Bibles in Saudi Arabia, which in Dennis’s words “violated an agreement that between the Saudi and American governments to avoid proselytizing.” Samaritan’s Purse called the exercise “Operation Desert Save.” In 2001, the New York Times found that Samaritan’s Purse, which has received $200,000 from the U.S. Agency for International Development, was using the tax dollars to preach to victims of an earthquake in El Salvador. The group was found not to have violated any federal regulations.
In addition, the head of Samaritan’s Purse, Franklin Graham, seems to be harder-edged than his father, Reverend Billy Graham. I didn’t find any interviews with Franklin Graham as in-depth as one that John Meroney did for The American Enterprise in 1999 (which is accessible at the invaluable website unz.org). But there are stories about Graham making impolitic statements about same-sex marriage and the depth of President Obama’s faith. In addition, in March Graham made some qualified endorsements of Vladimir Putin’s social policy that could be kindly characterized as incredibly clueless.
A more serious charge against Franklin Graham came in 2009, when the Charlotte Observer reported that Graham in 2008 made $669,000 as the “full-time” president of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association while simultaneously making $535,000 as the “full-time” president of Samaritan’s Purse. In 2008, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association laid off fifty-five employees, or 10 percent of its workforce. Graham announced that he would not take a salary from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, telling his board “to consider that I work for no compensation.”
What I don’t know about Samaritan’s Purse is this: does the Christian faith of its staff make it an effective public health organization? What sort of corporate culture is it like? What are its strengths and weaknesses as an organization? Those are far more important questions than discussing whether or not Franklin Graham thinks gays should marry. Those are also questions the press isn’t asking.
SIM is smaller than Samaritan’s Purse, but according to its website, it is one of the Victorian charities still doing productive work today. It was founded in 1893 as the Soudan Interior Mission (and in 1893 that’s how they spelled “Sudan”), merged with a bunch of similar Christian organizations in the 1990s, and went through many name changes while keeping the initials, until they ended up being just being called SIM in the same way that AT&T is no longer an abbreviation. This group should also be the subject of an article, showing how the group has changed over time.
In writing about any charity, reporters need to ask two questions: what is the charity trying to do, and how well is it doing it? The fact that most of us can’t really answer these questions about Samaritan’s Purse—which was founded in 1950—is further evidence of the poor job the press is doing in covering nonprofits.