Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Good Stuff

“So what” I am told “The LDS Church does a lot of good”.

How much is a “lot” of good? The LDS church, which is so particular about keeping high precision figures, says it has donated “over $1 billion in cash and material assistance … since it started keeping track in 1985”. That is a whole bunch of aid. That is, in fact, over $37 million in aid every year.

Some people have pointed out that this is less than a tenth of what its for-profit investment firm has dumped into the downtown area redevelopment projects every year for the past ten years. Some have even pointed out that this is little more than a quarter of what its for-profit investment arm has dropped into the new City Creek Center mall every year for the past decade. But even if its activity in the realm of humanitarian aid is dwarfed by its competitive for-profit activities $37 million is a lot of aid.

It rivals such large corporate donors as Phillip Morris and Glaxo-SmithKline.

Glaxo-SmithKline’s banner donation was of $49 million dollars-worth of medicine in 2005. I’m sure that is a lot of medicine, but since Glaxo-SmithKline decides on the prices of the medicine the “worth” label raises red flags. Also what kind of medicines? These seem like reasonable questions. Do we really want to distribute ‘Alli’ (a popular weight-loss OTC drug made by Glaxo-SmithKline) to famine victims? We would also not want Phillip Morris handing out free packs of Marlboros, and calling that “aid”.

The LDS church should be held to the same standard. For instance, how much of their “$1 billion in cash and material assistance” is cash, and how much is material assistance. Also, who exactly do they give it to?

Glaxo-SmithKline manufactures Priorix, which is a measles vaccine. One might expect them to be a large contributor to the Red Cross measles initiative. Looking at the homepage for the measles initiative it states that it costs less than $1 to inoculate a child. 49 million children is a lot of children. However Merck, a major competitor of Glaxo-SmithKline, is a partner in the measles initiative, and they make the more popular M-M-R measles vaccine.

Despite recent measles outbreaks in Utah the number of measles cases worldwide has been dropping dramatically. The measles initiative claims to have prevented over 4.3 million premature deaths. By all measures this is a wildly successful program.

The LDS Church is key partner in the measles initiative. They have pledged to contribute $1 million per year to the effort. This is a major contribution, and will go far to alleviating suffering in the world. This donation also conforms to the recommended practices for effective corporate donations. This donation is made directly to the operational organization performing the service or distributing the aid. Bundling organizations often burn through as much as half the donation before it gets to the organizations doing the actual work.

I should point out that the Red Cross Measles Initiative accepts personal donations.

The measles initiative was also the only place on the LDS websites that spoke of actual cash donations. This is strange since the LDS Church is so keen on accounting, and money is such an easy thing to count.

They provide detailed counts for other types of aid:

Type of aid
Amount
Unit of measure
Food
61,892
tons
Clothing
89,296
tons
Medical Supplies
13,920
tons
Special Kits
10.3 million
kits
Volunteering
763,737
hours


These items are not given an individual dollar amount, but we know that they contribute to the $1 billion because it is referred to as "cash and material", and these are materials. I should point out that adding up just the materials accounted for in weight (clothing, food, and medical supplies) shows that over 330 million pounds of material were donated. This means that the LDS church is not overpricing their donations because, if they decided that this material was worth as little as $3 a pound, this portion of the donations would account for almost a billion dollars by itself.

Three-dollars a pound is actually a reasonable estimate. Some charities estimate the per-pound value of their clothing donations to be over $20.

Clothing makes up over half the weighed aid, and I suspect that much of that is unsold merchandise from the chain of “Deseret Industries” thrift stores. In overall impact then this portion of the aid should, perhaps, count twice. By shipping this material to foreign countries where it will be appreciated it does not fill up American landfills.

Mormons in Utah practice food storage. There is a cottage industry in huge basement can storage units, and many new homes are built with a special concrete-walled basement closet for use as a “root cellar”. Even though it is most efficient to actually eat the stored food some young couples find it tiresome to eat canned peas more than five days in a row. So during the semi-annual food rotation events there are many pounds of expired caned stuff donated. This is another example of where the LDS church has a unique ability to provide, and couples it to a need.

The “kits” are assembled from useful bits. The humanitarian aid website describes the assembly of a whole slew of different kit types. One of the simpler kits is called a hygiene kit. Here are the instructions for making it:

The following is an example of how to assemble a hygiene kit:
Place the following items in a heavy-duty, one-gallon sealable bag.
Remove the air before sealing.
  • 2 unbreakable combs without sharp handles
  • 4 toothbrushes (sealed)
  • 1 tube of toothpaste (6-8 ounces, no pumps)
  • 2 bars of soap (3.5-5 ounces each)
  • 2 hand towels* (approximately 15x25 inches) Dishtowels and washcloths are not acceptable.
*If sewing towels, use terry cloth and serge or zigzag edges to prevent fraying.

This is obviously an upgraded kit from the hygiene kits described in 2004 which only contained “a” toothbrush.

“Kits” are not a uniquely LDS way of providing aid. Many church groups assemble “kits” for distribution by their missionaries. Though the LDS church does not conveniently provide individual dollar values for the kits other churches do. Here are some kit values:

Kit type
Base value
Shipping cost
Hygiene
$10
$2
School
$15
$2
Baby
$39
$2


So it is reasonable to estimate that a quarter-billion dollars worth of kits were distributed.  Many of these are distributed by missionaries.
Volunteer time is also given an accepted value, but not conveniently by the LDS church. That value is $21.36 an hour (2011). Utah has a lower rate for volunteer hours; it is $17.54 per hour (2011) in Utah. This is over $16 million in volenteer hours alone. 

So even upon as detailed an inspection as is conveniently possible the Mormon Church easily surpasses the $1 billion dollar mark in aid donations. It appears as if as much as 99% of that aid is in materials, and over 90% of that could be in the form of old clothing and rotated food storage items.

The church, by its own count, has over 14 million members. The average monetary, non tithing, donation of those members surely must exceed $0.07 each per year. Perhaps a more accurate idea of the cash amount donated can be acquired by examining the donation path?

The humanitarian aid page at Mormon.org provides a whole bunch of pictures of smiling dark-skinned people; some of whom are being helped by white folks. With most of the pictures are descriptions of exotic assistance programs. Many sound very worthwhile. I mentioned my favorite ( the measles initiative) earlier, but there is also a picture for “clean water” (also near the top of my list of good things). At the bottom of the humanitarian aid page is a link to do online donations through “LDS Philanthropies”. It states:

Should you desire your contribution to be used for a particular program, you may do so on this Web site. However, not indicating a particular program gives the Church flexibility to use your contribution where it’s most urgently needed.


I followed the link to see what the choices were. I expected to see a list that mirrored, or at least captures, the list of aid programs on the page I was linking from. Instead I saw this list:

·         Brigham Young University
·         BYU-Hawaii
·         BYU-Idaho
·         LDS Business College
·         Polynesian Cultural Center
·         Church History
·         FamilySearch
·         Missionary Fund
·         Mormon Tabernacle Choir
·         Perpetual Education Fund

It would appear as if cash is more valued for church-advancing activities than it is in the humanitarian aid programs. This is understandable. A Church is a charity, not a philanthropic organization. Churches accept donations, and spend them on Church things, they are not donators. That the church is able to rival corporate donors like Phillip Morris, especially since the lion’s share of that is re-purposing what would otherwise be waste, is laudable.

However, material handed out by missionaries is an obvious hook for conversion attempts. When material is packaged with a proselytizing goal in mind is it aid or marketing? If the damaging effects that follow introduction of divisive western religions into developing nations are factored in could some of this aid be more damaging that Phillip Morris handing out packs of Marlboros and calling that aid? I don’t think Phillip Morris hands out packs of cigarettes and calls it aid. If they did it would be with an eye on hooking future customers no less keen than that of missionaries hoping to hook future Members for the LDS Church.

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