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Culture Investigations

Inside the Partnership: Christian Music Artists and Child Sponsorship Ministries

What are the arrangements, and where does the money go?

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Go to a contemporary Christian music (CCM) concert and often you’ll be greeted by materials about a child sponsorship ministry or other charitable group the band asks you to support. During the concert, a heart-wrenching video about suffering children implores concertgoers to sign up as a monthly sponsor.

But do concertgoers know that, behind the scenes, money is being exchanged between the charity and musical artists? What percentage of dollars raised during the concert actually reach the children in need? Is there a reason these relationships are not transparent?

According to the MinistryWatch quarterly survey of Christian ministry executives, 82% of respondents are not working with CCM artists to help raise funds, 13% are considering it for the future, and 4% have utilized the arrangement in the past. None of the respondents are currently working with musicians for fundraising.

However, plenty of large Christian ministries do work with Christian musicians to help raise awareness and funds.

Professor Leah Payne, author of the recently-released “God Gave Rock and Roll to You” about CCM, told MinistryWatch these financial arrangements between Christian charities and musical artists are “a longstanding practice that goes back to the early days of [contemporary Christian music].”

While research for her book did not get into specifics about the arrangements, her understanding is that “a variety of funding models have been used over the years,” including both flat fees and commission, and without such arrangements some bands might not be able to tour.

“It was (and still is) a mutually beneficial financial relationship for the artists and for the org[anizations],” she wrote.

While Payne didn’t opine about the ethics of the arrangements, she offered knowledge of artists who chose to opt out or decline this kind of arrangement for “ethical, theological, and sometimes artistic reasons.”

CCM industry insider and best-selling author Brant Hansen, an advocate for CURE International, told MinistryWatch he believes disclosure and transparency are important.

“I do wish artists would disclose the arrangement. Usually, if there’s a ‘but we can’t say that out loud’ sense, it’s an indicator that something’s amiss,” he said.

“I certainly don’t blame Compassion, for instance. I’m a longtime sponsor and love them. They have to compete in this weird environment. But I do think fans should know if a sizable amount of their first year of sponsorship actually goes to the artist,” Hansen said.

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Steve Camp, a well-known contemporary Christian musician in the 1980s and ‘90s, was part of arrangements with Compassion International and Food for the Hungry. Back then, groups paid a nominal fee to work with him and make presentations during his concerts.

He believes if musical artists are receiving tour support, the arrangements can be a net positive.

He cautioned that musical artists should choose carefully the ministries they partner with, exercising due diligence to find out how the money raised is being spent.

He suggested musicians be transparent with concertgoers about the charity and why they support it. Artists should also explain how the tour is being supported, and take that into account when setting ticket prices.

“It is good to function above reproach,” Camp told MinistryWatch. “If you can’t be transparent as to the nature of the organization or relationship, then there may be something that is being masked and could be a cause for concern.”

Ministries Who Have Artist Ambassadors

Compassion International was among the first ministries to develop a program with Christian musical artists who agreed to help promote the cause. According to spokesperson Tim Glenn, Compassion pioneered the artist ambassador concept in the late 1970s with groups like The Imperials.

Compassion currently works with nearly 100 artists and bands “who are passionate about our mission of releasing children from poverty in Jesus’ name,” including Casting Crowns and Matthew West.

The partnerships have helped connect sponsors to over 400,000 children.

When asked about Compassion’s financial arrangements with these musical artists, Glenn called them more than a “financial transaction.”

He acknowledged there is an “up-front investment,” but did not elaborate on whether the transaction is based on the number of child packets picked up at an event.

Glenn claimed the artist ambassador program is among the “most cost-effective, financially efficient ways we’ve found to reach Christian audiences and connect them to children in poverty through sponsorship,” adding that Compassion ensures over 80% of donations directly benefit the children.

Compassion International does not release its Form 990s to the public, so MinistryWatch could not review them for more information about payments made to musical artists.

Shaun Groves, a contemporary Christian musician who partnered with Compassion, addressed concerns about “kickbacks” for child sponsorships. In a 2008 blog post, Groves said his arrangement with Compassion was not a kickback scheme, but that it would pay him “enough to cover my road manager/booking agent and pay myself” while the concert would be free to attendees.

MinistryWatch asked if that accurately described the arrangements Compassion has with artists 16 years later, but Glenn did not reply.

World Vision is a Christian relief group behemoth that works with “celebrity ambassadors” to promote its work. Its annual revenue is over $1.4 billion.

On its 2021 Form 990 Schedule G, World Vision lists several Christian bands it paid for fundraising, including Finding Favour Music, 33 Miles, RVRB, and Building 429. The bands were paid between $50,000 and $140,000.

MinistryWatch sent an inquiry to World Vision about its partnerships with musical artists, their effectiveness, and their structure. World Vision’s spokesperson Ann Lauricello asked for an extension of a deadline in order to consult with “several key stakeholders.” When the extension was reached, Lauricello claimed they had “attempted” to answer the questions, but pressing situations would prevent them from sending a reply.

OneChild, which has annual revenue of nearly $21 million, has a radio and artist engagement program that claims to “work with artists and influencers around the U.S. in mutually beneficial partnerships to minister to your audience in a powerful way and help find caring sponsors for children.”

The program’s director, Faron Dice, declined to be interviewed by MinistryWatch about what a “mutually beneficial partnership” means. “I am happy to tell you that we love finding people and partnerships who champion the cause of children to their audiences. For us, it’s all about authentic relationships and heart-level commitment,” Dice wrote in reply.

An examination of the OneChild Form 990s does not include a Schedule G where fundraising activities are normally listed.

ChildFund’s annual revenue approaches $200 million. It engages with Christian music artists to promote its work among poverty stricken children around the world.

It lists a few dozen artists as part of its program. “ChildFund International’s artists’ program has proven to be a powerful and inspiring way to support our mission,” spokesperson Cheri Dahl told MinistryWatch via email.

“The program fosters connections between compassionate individuals and children in need, providing essential support for children, helping them overcome challenges and grow up healthy, educated, skilled and safe.”

Thriving Children Advocates (TCA) is a professional fundraising organization incorporated in Tennessee that acts as an intermediary to partner charities and musical artists together for fundraising.

From its Form 990s, it appears ChildFund and TCA have been fundraising together for several years to the tune of millions of dollars.

On the 2019 Form 990 Schedule G, ChildFund reported that TCA raised $11.3 million for ChildFund, with $9.28 million going to TCA and only $2.06 million going to ChildFund.

The next year, ChildFund reported TCA raising $16.5 million, with $3.2 million going to TCA and $13.3 million retained by ChildFund. It also listed TCA as an independent contractor receiving nearly $8 million in compensation.

On the Form 990 for 2021, ChildFund did not include TCA on its Schedule G for fundraising activities, but included it as an independent contractor who was compensated with $2,114,985.

Most recently, ChildFund paid TCA $2,360,570 as an independent fundraising contractor, according to its 2022 Form 990. On its Schedule G, ChildFund reported that TCA raised $9.8 million with $3.3 million paid to TCA and the remaining $6.5 million retained by ChildFund.

ChildFund’s Code of Business and Ethics says it values, “Demonstrating integrity, openness and honesty, including stewardship of all resources by: being accountable to our stakeholders for actions and results, practicing good business ethics, [and] being transparent in our relationships.”

However, when MinistryWatch asked ChildFund about its arrangements with TCA, Dahl declined to provide any specific answers, only replying with the same general statement about the benefits of their artist program.

Additionally, TCA did not respond to email inquiries about the artist partnership services it provides. It has an address in Brentwood, Tennessee, however on its website’s frontpage, the phone number listed is 123-456-789.

Main photo: Musician Matthew West performs in Indianapolis in 2016. Photo by Caleb Cook via RNS

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Kim Roberts

Kim Roberts is a freelance writer who holds a Juris Doctorate from Baylor University. She has home schooled her three children and is happily married to her husband of 25 years.