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Ep. 170: Warren Smith Explains The MinistryWatch 1000 Database And The New “Donor Confidence Score”

I’m Warren Smith and I’d like to welcome you to the MinistryWatch podcast.

On today’s mid-week “Extra” episode I’ll be doing something a bit different.  Regular listeners may recall that a couple of months ago I did a Q&A episode, an episode in which I answered questions about MinistryWatch.  I didn’t know how that would go, but I was surprised to discover that it was one of most listened to episodes ever.

So today I’m doing that again, except this time I’m focusing on some of the questions I’ve gotten about the MinistryWatch database, and I am also using this episode to talk with you about a new product we have here at MinistryWatch, and that’s the Donor Confidence Score.

If you are a regular user of the MinistryWatch database, you already know that we have a database of the 1000 largest Christian ministries in the country at our site.  We call this the MinistryWatch 1000.  The MinistryWatch 1000 database has a webpage for each ministry.  And you’ll find a lot of information on those pages.  We publish, for example, financial information going back five years.  We calculate ratios so you can see how much and what percentage of the donations to the ministry get used for fundraising, for management costs, and for asset accumulation.

We use those ratios to calculate a Financial Efficiency Rating.  Every ministry in the database is rated from 1 star (the worst) to 5 stars (the best).

We also have salaries of senior executives, and statements from the ministries themselves.  We give the ministries a chance to have their say if they disagree with the way they’ve been rated.

If you’ve never used our MinistryWatch 1000 database, I really do recommend that you go there and explore it a bit.  It’s got some really great stuff.  And, I should add, our database is really what makes MinistryWatch different.  We think the journalism we do is different.  But others are doing journalism.  Great organizations like WORLD Magazine and Christianity Today.  But no one does that data-based journalism that we do, or has a database as extensive as ours.

The MinistryWatch 1000 database has another feature that we think is extraordinarily important, and that’s the Transparency Grade.

A ministry can get a Transparency Grade of A, C, D, or F.  We use three criteria do determine the grade:

  1. Does the ministry get an annual audit and make it available to the public?
  2. Does the ministry release its Form 990 to the public?
  3. Is the organization a member of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability?

If we can answer YES to all three questions, we give that ministry an “A” grade.  If it can answer YES to 2 out of 3, it gets a “C.”  If 1 out of 3, it gets a “D”.  And if it can’t answer YES to any of the questions, it gets an F.

By the way, if you’re a numbers geek, like I am, you might be interested to know that about 650 of the ministries in the MinistryWatch 1000 database get an A Transparency Grade.  About 175 of them get a D or F.

But one of the things we’ve become aware of is that no rating system is perfect, or complete.  I’m a baseball fan, and I should mention that I’m specifically an Atlanta Braves fan.  My family moved to Atlanta when I was a kid, and I’ve been a fan of the Braves through good times and bad.  When I was a kid, watching the Braves, I learned that it is possible to measure the wrong things.  In 1973, for example, the Braves had three players who hit more than 40 home runs:  Henry Aaron, Darrell Evans, and Davey Johnson.  As a team, they were near the top of the standings in home runs.  But they had one of the worst records in baseball that year.  If you measured the success of the Braves by looking at home runs only, you would have been measuring the wrong thing.

And this simple truth applies not just to sports teams, but also to corporations, even a rock band or dance company.  Is the most successful organization the one that makes the most money, has a winning record, does the most good for the community, produces a high quality product, or achieves artistic excellence?  And even if you could decide which measurements mattered, it is not always easy to quantify the results.

Christian ministries are the same way.  How do you evaluate excellence?  Here at MinistryWatch, we have been asking ourselves this question for a long time – for more than two decades.  We still don’t know all the answers, but we do know some of the right questions to ask.

That’s what the Donor Confidence Score is all about:  asking some of the right questions.

We have identified 20 questions we think donors should ask ministries.  We have asked these questions of the ministries in the MinistryWatch 1000 database, and we have given each ministry a score from 0 to 100.  If a ministry scores more than 60, we believe it is possible to “Give With Confidence” to this ministry.  If a ministry scores from 40 to 59, we recommend that you “Give With Caution.”  If the ministry scores less than 40, we recommend that you “Withhold Giving” from this ministry.

We have posted the answers to these questions on the profile of the ministry in our MinistryWatch 1000 database.  (We currently have 800 ministries rates, with ratings for the remaining ministries in our database coming in the next month or so.)

If you go to MinistryWatch.com, you will see that our March list is a list of ministries with a perfect 100 score in our rating system.  As you will see, this list has less than 50 ministries on it – less than 5 percent of the total number of ministries in our database.

It’s important to note that this list is dynamic and could – indeed, likely will – change over time.  This list is accurate as of March 1, 2022, you should look at the page for an individual ministry to find the “latest and greatest” information about the ministry that interests you.

I hope you found this short explanation of our MinistryWatch 1000 database and our new Donor Confidence Score helpful, and I hope you’ll explore the database and check out your favorite ministry.  In a couple of months, we’ll be doing another Q&A episode, so if you have questions you want me to answer about MinistryWatch on a future podcast, just email me at [email protected].

By the way, at the end of most of the MinistryWatch podcast episodes I mention that we get database and other technical support from Cathy Goddard, Stephen DuBarry, Emily Kern, and Casey Sudduth.  I want to highlight their names this week, because these are the people who keep database running and up-to-date.  I also want to add to this list Rod Pitzer.  Rod has been working for the past six months or more on the Donor Confidence Score.  He’s entered the answers to the 20 questions for more than 800 ministries so far, with the other 200 coming soon.  Thanks, Rod, for all your work to get us to where we are now with this project.

One final thing I’d like to mention before we go.  MinistryWatch offers everything it does for free.  We don’t charge a subscription.  We don’t have a paywall.  We don’t take advertising on our site.  The ministries themselves to not pay us.  We are completely donor and listener supported.  We have about 130,000 people on our daily email list, but only about 2000 of them have ever given us money.  That’s less than 2 percent.  If you’re among those 2 percent, THANK YOU.  If not, we hope you’ll prayerfully consider a financial gift to MinistryWatch.

If money is a little tight now…hey, I get it.  Been there a time or two myself.  You can still help the program.  Just rate us on your podcast app.  The more ratings we get, the higher we rank with search engines, and that means other people can find us more easily.  Rating us just takes a second, and it doesn’t cost you a dime.  It’s a free and easy – and important – way you can support the MinistryWatch podcast.

The producers for today’s program are Rich Roszel and Ben Warwick. And – again — we get database and other technical support from Cathy Goddard, Stephen DuBarry, Emily Kern, Rod Pitzer, and Casey Sudduth.

I’m Warren Smith, and – until next time – May God bless you.