LDS Charities and Faith-Based Humanitarian Aid

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The women’s organization of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (or LDS Church) has a motto: charity never faileth. It comes from the Book of Mormon, the book of scripture that gives members of the Church their nickname: Mormons. The LDS Church as an institution that not only emphasizes the theological importance of charity in the lives of its adherents, but also supports humanitarian aid through institutional mechanisms, particularly its philanthropic arm, LDS Charities.

In the following paper, I will examine the way that this theological teaching of the importance of service is operationalized at an institutional level by LDS Charities. I will first describe the strengths and weaknesses of faith-based organizations in humanitarianism generally, then apply this literature to LDS Charities specifically. In doing so, I will demonstrate that LDS Charities has significant issues with accountability and transparency in funding (as many similar organizations do), but that, unlike similarly-situated organizations, LDS Charities utilizes a fairly professional humanitarian workforce. This makes LDS Charities an important case to examine in determining the role of religion in humanitarian aid.

Religion and Humanitarian Aid

The role of religious organizations in humanitarian aid is significant but debatable, and the role of LDS Charities is no exception. A careful review of the literature on religious organizations and humanitarianism will show the contours of a wider debate, but a careful review of the individual organization is also in order. I will examine each step of the aid distribution process at LDS Charities and compare their practices to the wider literature on faith-based organizations. I will show that LDS Charities’ financial practices are not particularly transparent, as the literature leads me to expect.[1] Additionally, their use of a transnational network of church members to drive a donor base and volunteer network fits in well with the wider theoretical understanding of faith-based organizations (FBOs). However, the relatively professionalized workforce employed by and volunteering for LDS Charities differs from other FBOs as described in more general academic work.

There are plenty of options for mechanisms and organizations to deliver humanitarian aid. Because the field of NGOs is so wide and so diverse, policymakers, donors, aid workers, and NGOs themselves should and do continually ask themselves what delivery mechanisms are effective. As part of this conversation, there is an increasing desire in both the policy space and academia to examine the role of FBOs as providers of humanitarian aid.[2] There are several systemic features of faith-based organizations that make them particularly effective in on-the-ground humanitarian aid, though they are not without their drawbacks.

There is a variety of definitions for the term “faith-based organizations” throughout the literature. For the purposes of this paper, I will use this term to refer to networks of people who are motivated by religious or spiritual beliefs and affiliated with a particular organized religious organization and who are working at the international, national, and local levels to provide economic and social humanitarian aid. When necessary, I will specify if I am discussing a formalized international organization or a local congregation, temple, or mosque.

To simplify my discussion of the humanitarian aid process, I use several key phrases. When referring to the final action of humanitarian aid – actual delivering of assistance (money, infrastructure, etc.) to a recipient, I use the term “aid distribution.” I refer to those recipients as both aid recipients and clientele.

The literature on humanitarianism and religion shows several key debates. Faith-based organizations, because they are part of transnational religious networks connected by strong internal solidarity, are in a unique position to provide humanitarian aid on the ground. They serve as a vital connection between resources (such as secular NGOs) and individuals, as they effectively reach remote areas and often enjoy high levels of local legitimacy. However, this is not always the case, and FBOs can suffer from problems with neutrality and accountability. I will investigate studies on each of these claims individually with their associated historical context.

The resulting debate over the role of faith-based organizations in administering humanitarian aid goes back several decades. Much of the question, particularly from the perspective of policymakers in the West, comes back to questions of church and state. This is particularly true of governments when considering which types of groups they will fund, as Western governments take at least the appearance of the separation of church and state very seriously.[3] However, as the field of humanitarian aid has moved more towards a holistic perspective by including values-based learning (e.g. democracy-building, education), rather than strictly economic forms of aid, the debate over the role of FBOs has become more salient.[4] Just as separation between church and state is important to liberal governments, fears of appearing too religious impact private donor decisions on which organizations to sponsor. Donors are historically skittish around associating the aid they fund with religion.[5] Debate among donors is ongoing, both from governmental and non-governmental sources.

Understanding the role of FBOs in humanitarian aid is critical, because the global role of religion continues unabated. Christians, Muslims, and Hindus make up 70% of the world’s population, even as Christianity becomes less salient in Western societies, most likely due to its growth in the global South.[6] The ongoing salience of religion is not purely due to sheer size of nominal adherence; it is the fact that religions are increasingly international in scope;[7] congregations are not siloed but exist as part of transnational networks of believers. This places FBOs in a unique social and historical position to administer aid.

Faith-based organizations can engage with individuals in receiving countries in a unique way, particularly if they share a religious background with their clientele. In some Muslim countries, for example, FBOS have “engaged with clerics and ordinary believers in debate and dialogue over social policy.”[8] This shared language can lead to social change by meeting recipients where they are and speaking in shared scripts (e.g. framing development in terms of shared religious values). The social change that can come from these conversations is far-reaching and lasting. Brazilian Pentecostal and African charismatic churches have been able to change social attitudes in their areas of influence by specifically teaching the importance of financial well-being, leadership, and management (especially for women).[9] Social change requires changes in thought processes and social attitudes, both of which FBOs can facilitate.

In addition to facilitating social change, one of the most crucial roles that FBOs can play in the humanitarian aid space is that of a connector between economic resources (either from their own organization or other NGOs) and individuals. This is in part because they are able to connect the jargon of national and international aid organizations with the beliefs of the individuals in receiving communities.[10] These modes of communication are crucial in a field as complex as humanitarian aid.

A potential causal mechanism for this effectiveness in resource distribution is the globally networked nature of faith-based organizations. Many other types of humanitarian actors draw on international networks, but FBOs have the added power of being linked, not only by funding or programmatic goals, but also by powerful and shared spiritual values, which lead to strong in-group solidarity.[11] This can be particularly valuable when the global networks that support local FBOs are in line with the belief systems of the local clientele.[12] This international network is in part what leads to effective resource distribution.[13] The internationally networked nature of FBOs contributes to systemic effectiveness on the ground for solidarity and for resource distribution.

Because religion continues to grow in salience, particularly in the global South,[14] FBOs often enjoy unparalleled access to the most remote and resource-deprived areas. NGOs often struggle with reaching the poorest communities at a truly grassroots level and exist only in major cities, but FBOs, since they already exist in poor and remote communities, are more readily able to provide resources.[15] After the disastrous 2005 earthquake, Imams in Pakistan helped by providing food to the most remote regions of the country while other aid workers were restricted by geography.[16] This is a crucial role, one in which FBOs are in systemically useful positions to fill.

FBOs can be particularly helpful in distributing resources and initiating social change, because they tend to enjoy high levels of local legitimacy. Part of the reason that the Pakistani imams were able to distribute resources is because they lent their “seal of approval” to aid efforts and encouraged congregants to make use of them.[17] FBOs’ local legitimacy is particularly high among the poorest and most in need of aid.[18] FBOs can seem more trustworthy than even well-established secular NGOs. Take for example, the Iraqi refugee in Damascus who gave up on the U.N. High Commission on Refugees until a nun convinced her to go back to seek psycho-social aid for her son.[19] FBOs are also seen as more legitimate than foreign or domestic governments.[20] Local legitimacy is a valuable currency in aid administration, and one in which FBOs enjoy better standing than governments and secular NGOs, especially in poorer areas.

FBOs can also be useful in administering on-the ground aid because of the length of time they tend to invest in communities. Faith-based organizations are more interested in/more effective at developing staying power than many other NGOs.[21] The fact that many FBOs arrive before secular NGOs and stay long after others have left gives them a deep knowledge of their clientele communities.[22] Local knowledge, particularly in the immediate aftermath of disasters, is crucial to effective distribution of economic and social resources, and the power of FBOs in this process should not be underestimated.

These powerful systemic factors do not, however, mean that working with faith-based organizations is without risk. There are particular concerns about neutrality, accountability, and professionalism that should be carefully considered. Additionally, some of the systemic factors that make FBOs particularly effective can also make them damaging.

The humanitarian aid field values neutrality, and many international donors worry that FBOs will not maintain what they feel is a critical feature of the discourse around humanitarian aid.[23] However, while the discourse around humanitarian aid is important, neutrality on the ground may differ from Western perspective. The fact that a particular organization uses religious terms in and of itself does not mean that they are prioritizing some groups of people over others (although there are valid concerns about this as well).[24] In terms of neutrality, there are potential problems with proselytizing, with which foreign donors do not want to be associated, although FBOs have moved away from evangelizing as part of humanitarian aid.[25] Therefore, neutrality is a concern both as an aspect of the language around FBOs and as a means through which they actually distribute services and resources.

Scholars of humanitarianism cite accountability as a major issue for faith-based organizations. Secular NGOs are accountable to donors, boards, and occasionally local governments or clientele. The question of accountability for FBOs is complex. If they receive no government funding, they are not liable to taxpayers or governments. Perhaps they are accountable only to religious institutions with whom they are affiliated.[26] This lack of transparency can be problematic if FBOs do not specifically publicize accurate information about their finances and the efficiency of their efforts.

Professionalism can also become problematic for FBOs if they do not carefully structure their organizations and make careful hiring decisions. If religious institutions send preachers or theologians to do their humanitarian work, they may quickly find that development and disaster relief requires a completely novel set of tools.[27] However, as FBOs have moved away from proselytizing in an effort to cease missionary efforts rooted in colonialism, spiritual leaders who come to recipient countries from the global north  are less involved in the distribution of aid.[28] This issue can be avoided more effectively if international FBOs hire career aid providers who have already developed this skill set.

While their effect on social attitudes, their connection to transnational funding networks, and strong perceived legitimacy in clientele communities are all strengths of many FBOs, they can also become weaknesses. When local congregations receive quick and large inflows of cash (such as after a disaster) from the international arms of FBOs, they are sometimes unable to scale up their activities effectively.[29] Additionally, the effectiveness of FBOs in shaping social attitudes in clientele communities can also work against resource distribution and aid if the views taught by leaders are not in line with development goals or encourage mistrust in humanitarian aid organizations.[30]  Local legitimacy, a crucial aspect of FBOs’ systemic effectiveness, is not a guarantee. Particularly when recipient communities’ beliefs differ from incoming international FBOs, being associated with a religious organization can make aid workers less trusted. In Romania, for example, Protestant groups struggled to connect with their Orthodox clientele.[31] Like all aspects of humanitarian aid, faith-based organizations have a high potential to alleviate suffering as well as serious risks.

Religion plays a crucial global role. As part of their dogma, many religious organizations teach the importance of some form of charity or aid to the poor. This has led many of them to create aid organizations (called faith-based organizations for the purposes of this essay) which are a crucial mechanism for the administration of humanitarian aid. Their special position in local communities as valued faith leaders often – but not always – lends them legitimacy with clientele, and their dense local networks allow them to reach remote, poor areas and to provide needed resources. Simultaneously, their transnational nature provides them with unique funding mechanisms and allows them to be a link between secular NGOs and clientele. Because there is such a great potential for FBOs to provide crucial aid for communities and individuals in need, they should be carefully considered on a case-by-case basis to determine how the systemic benefits of aid from FBOs are being maximized and how the risks are being minimized.

Hypotheses and Methods

Careful case studies of individual FBOs are not particularly common in the literature. There is a particular dearth of case studies on smaller religious organizations and their affiliated humanitarian FBOs. My research will contribute to this small but needed body of case studies by documenting the efforts of LDS charities – the humanitarian FBO affiliated with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints  – commonly referred to as the Mormon church. I expect that LDS Charities is, as discussed in the literature, effective at resource distribution via international networks and previous on-the-ground presence but struggling with issues of accountability and transparency. I also expect that, due to the LDS church’s ongoing missionary program, LDS Charities may suffer from issues with professionalism in their aid distribution and low levels of local legitimacy.

Operationalizing these concepts is an important next step in this research. I will use public information from LDS Charities to determine how the organization distributes resources and monetary aid. Where possible, I will attempt to find how often aid reaches its intended recipients. I am particularly interested to see how LDS Charities’ headquarters in Salt Lake City works with local clergy to distribute aid. The use of proselytizing missionaries will be a sign of a lack of a professionalized workforce. To measure accountability and transparency, I will analyze the following: whether or not LDS Charities’ donor list is public, whether or not they take public money, and how they report on the use of this money to the donor government. Local legitimacy is difficult to measure, particularly because I lack the ability to ask recipients of LDS Charities’ aid for their opinions. However, I believe that if local partners do not believe that LDS Charities provides legitimate aid, they will begin to refuse aid from the organization, or at least negotiate its nature. Declining aid, therefore, will be my measure of low local legitimacy.

To find this information, I will use the most recent comprehensive annual report from LDS Charities. This report contains most of the information I need, particularly about distribution methods and networks. The presence or absence of a donor list will also come from public LDS Charities information. I will also use an analysis of auditing practices (or lack thereof) as a measure of transparency and accountability. Where this information is not publicly available (such as how frequently potential recipients decline aid), I will supplement written public information with an interview with an LDS Charities employee in Salt Lake City.

These are, of course, imperfect measures. They are not corroborated by a third party or by aid recipients themselves. They rely entirely on what information LDS Charities chooses to make public and the knowledge of the LDS Charities employee whom I interviewed – who is not an aid distributor. I fully recognize the potential problems with using the decline of aid as an indicator of local legitimacy, as communities in desperate need are unlikely to turn down aid from anyone. However, due to an inability to speak directly to potential aid recipients themselves, I feel that this is the best possible measure I can use. Additionally, LDS Charities partners frequently with other FBOs and secular NGOs, some of whom would presumably refuse a partnership if there were issues with LDS Charities’ on-the-ground presence. This is the greatest potential flaw in my research design but as I wish to attempt to measure local legitimacy, I will cautiously proceed with using it.

Nature of LDS Charities’ Work

LDS Charities divides its work into several key initiatives: emergency response, the Benson Food Initiative, vision care, maternal and newborn care, clean water and sanitation, immunization, wheelchairs, refugee assistance, and community projects. In 2017 – the last year with a publicly released annual report, LDS Charities provided aid in 139 countries/territories on 2,705 projects.[32] This requires significant infrastructure and partnership.

Each year, LDS Charities releases an annual report detailing progress in each of these areas. The 2017 report included statements from the leadership of LDS Charities on their mission statement and guiding principles, information about the countries where LDS Charities had worked, brief descriptions of each project, a list of partners, and a page on how to donate and contribute to LDS Charities’ efforts.[33] As a whole, the 2017 report is more of a visual presentation than a statistical one; it focuses on a narrative structure about each project rather than a wider lens using quantitative data. This is a common theme in my analysis of LDS Charities public disclosures in their work. It is useful to an extent, but, as I will demonstrate, LDS Charities uses a wide variety of methods for each individual project they undertake, so their choice to share cases rather than statistics makes generalizing their methods rather difficult.

However, these narratives do provide an interesting look at the individual projects with which LDS Charities has involved itself.

International Networks, On-The-Ground Presence, and Resource Distribution

Since the literature on faith-based organizations emphasizes the role that international networks — including in recipient areas — are a major factor in FBOs’ effectiveness, I am most interested in the areas in which LDS Charities engages the membership of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The public annual report for LDS Charities breaks down their distribution process into four key points: receive funds, define needs and develop projects, identify and engage partners, and engage a volunteer network.[34] The middle two are primarily handled by a limited number of employees at LDS Charities’ headquarters in Salt Lake and about 200 full-time volunteers scattered throughout the world. Local faith leaders can request small amounts of funding for a particular project in their area; however, most projects are coordinated at the regional level by humanitarian staff. It is unclear what percentage of LDS Charities’ budget goes toward projects requested by local faith leaders.

Many of the main initiatives of LDS Charities are directly supervised by partner organizations rather than the organization itself, particularly the immunization, wheelchair, clean water, food, and refugee assistance programs. LDS Charities provides money and/or supplies, and partner organizations work directly with clientele. LDS Charities’ partner organizations include some other faith-based organizations (e.g. Catholic Relief Services and Muslim Aid), some large secular NGOs (e.g. UNICEF, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and the American Red Cross), and some smaller secular NGOs (e.g. Himalayan Cataract Project and Motivation Romania Foundation). In total, LDS Charities works with 43 other FBOs and secular NGOs.[35] Headquarters says that partner organizations are more effective with these initiatives primarily because they are being carried out in areas where it would be unsafe for LDS Charities affiliated volunteers to travel, in part because LDS Charities does not have a previous presence and local knowledge in these regions that would help ensure the safety of their volunteers.

This is a particularly interesting finding, because the literature suggests that one of the primary benefits of faith-based organizations is the system of local churches that can be utilized in aid distribution. Instead of relying on this network, LDS Charities has instead created an entirely new network of NGOs to distribute and provide aid. This is likely a feature of LDS Charities, because the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is not particularly widespread. It is much smaller and newer than Catholicism or Islam  — whose corresponding FBOs are often cited in the literature —  and while it is a fairly global proselytizing force, the membership of the LDS Church is concentrated in North America, unlike previously studied faith groups.[36] Therefore, the local networks that other FBOs might enjoy are simply not available to LDS Charities.

It appears that LDS Charities draws most upon the global network of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for the first and fourth steps of their aid distribution process: receiving funds and engaging a volunteer effort. According to the annual report, “most of [their] funds come from small donations made by average, everyday members of the LDS faith.[37]” Since the more than 16 million Mormons throughout the world are encouraged to tithe  — donate 10% of their income to the Church) — this is a significant and global donor base.[38]

The transnational network of members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints also come into play with LDS Charities at the final step of LDS Charities’ self-described process. When a large quantity of manpower is needed for a particular project, congregations engage in so-called Mormon Helping Hands projects, in which a large influx of volunteers from nearby areas provides aid in the immediate aftermath of disasters.[39] These types of surges in volunteerism have occurred after major hurricanes and other natural disasters in the United States. There are potential problems with such an approach – volunteers coming in to an area can end up using resources that could be used to help victims – but LDS Charities through Church leadership in volunteer-sending areas attempt to mitigate this by coordinating volunteer efforts for specific projects via online signups,rather than going themselves in an unorganized fashion.[40] 

While the literature on faith-based organizations suggests that they become more effective as they use local clergy to evaluate needs and act as a point of contact and distribution between aid organizations and clientele, LDS Charities takes a different approach. They use a global membership to raise funds and occasionally as a volunteer force for disaster relief-related projects, but do not often use the network of Mormon clergy from across the world to actually distribute aid. For this, they primarily use partner FBOs and secular NGOs.  

Accountability and Transparency

Accountability and transparency are issues throughout the humanitarian field. As non-governmental organizations, FBOs in particular are not accountable to taxpayers. If they take no public money, they are not accountable to governments, either. They can often be held accountable by major donors, although depending on the interests of the donors involved, this may be problematic in and of itself. To measure accountability, I will use public records to determine whether or not LDS Charities is regularly audited (if so, by whom) and whether or not donors exercise decision-making control (and if so, how much).

LDS Charities lacks a specific avenue through which they can be held accountable for the success of their projects and their financial well-being. It appears that LDS Charities does not accept public money, and governments cannot ask for regular updates on their work – updates which would likely be made public as well. The question of whether or not LDS Charities are accountable to donors is more complicated. Since the donor base of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is so wide, extending to 16 million members across the world, no one donor can exercise control over the humanitarian process. Particularly because these donations go to the Church, who then distributes donations according to their (not publicly accessible) budgets to various Church agencies, including LDS Charities, Church members are not aware of how much of their donations actually go to which agencies, and therefore cannot account for LDS Charities’ use of their donations. The majority of donors to LDS Charities likely do not know that they are donors and therefore will not hold the charity accountable for project success and financial responsibility.

Not all of LDS Charities’ budget comes from regular tithes and offerings from members of the Church. According to an LDS Charities employee, the majority of their budget does stem from these offerings, but “some” comes from donations made to LDS Philanthropies, a separate but related organization whose actual purpose and size is unclear. Because it is so unclear, it is possible that donors to LDS Philanthropies can ask for particular accounting of their donations and therefore expect some kind of result from their input, but donor information is not available, nor is any kind of financial report from LDS Philanthropies.

One of the primary concerns with donor-based humanitarian aid is the potential for undue donor influence on project selection and the desire of donors for immediate results. If the entirety of the budget came from tithes sourced from the entirety of the Church, undue donor influence would not be an issue, since no one individual could demand certain projects or results. However, since some funding does come from LDS Philanthropies, it is possible (although impossible to ascertain) if such influence could come from this direction.

Since LDS Charities is not accountable to taxpayers, governments, or the vast majority of its donors, it is not particularly accountable to anyone. There is no public record of any sort of review of results or outcomes from projects, and no one is in a particularly good position to ask for one. This lack of accountability is problematic but could be addressed through transparent financial practices and widespread information about project results, so that members could make informed decisions about whether or not to make their regular tithing offerings; however, this financial information is not available due to a total lack of financial transparency.

Accessing financial information from LDS Charities is not possible. As a religious organization headquartered in the United States, LDS Charities is not required to submit or publish Internal Revenue Service form 990, which would show crucial financial information about total financial holdings, cash on hand, and percentage of budget spent on projects vs. overhead. IRS form 990 is the basis of many charity research and accountability services, including Charity Navigator.[41] While LDS Charities publicly states that 100% of donations go directly to projects, this information cannot be independently verified.[42] This lack of public financial information means that potential donors to LDS Charities are unable to see reliable, third-party information about the financial state of LDS Charities.

The only publicly released piece of financial information about LDS Charities is the total number of U.S. dollars spent on aid since its inception in 1985, which they began publicizing in 2016. That year, the cumulative total was $1.89 billion.[43] In 2017, the cumulative total was $2.07 billion.[44] Therefore we can infer that in 2017, LDS Charities spent $180 million on humanitarian programs. The fact that they began publishing even this small amount of financial information is a good sign for LDS Charities and financial disclosures. Even such a simple piece of information helps contextualize the scope of LDS Charities’ efforts, so beginning to include it in their annual reports, especially if they continue to do so for a sustained period of time, will at least allow observers and participants to track overall expenditures over time.

While the Church does have an independent auditing department, these audit reports are not made public. Annually, the head of this department makes an announcement to the global Church audience that an audit has taken place and that it has found that all donations have been used appropriately.[45] No documents involved are publicized.

This lack of financial transparency is problematic, because it prevents anyone involved in the aid process, from donors to volunteers to clientele, from knowing exactly where LDS Charities stands. Donors cannot make informed decisions, and volunteers cannot be sure that their efforts are part of a wider effort that is effective. Clientele must act on faith that LDS Charities is an effective and responsible partner in their humanitarian efforts. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has a general policy of not commenting on any financial matters not required by law to be disclosed, a practice which has only recently come under increased scrutiny (see note on page 1).[46]

Despite this lack of institutionalized accountability and transparency in finances and auditing practices, LDS Charities does publicize their goals, which may allow partner organizations and some donors to at least ask informed questions about their progress. In their 2016 annual report, LDS Charities listed four goals of the United Nations’ seventeen goals, announced in 2015, for sustainable development and specific plans that LDS Charities had for how to meet those goals (e.g. the United Nations has a goal for zero hunger, and LDS Charities planned to create and expand home food production and storage programs).[47] Listing programmatic goals is a helpful way of giving at least a bit of accountability to LDS Charities; however, the 2017 annual report provided no follow-up on these goals.

Professionalized Workforce and Local Legitimacy

The proselytizing missionary program of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is almost as old as the Church itself. These missionaries are an extremely public face of the Church and are often the first thing associated with Mormonism. If this was not clear before a hit Broadway musical was written about them, I suppose it is now. Because they are an active proselytizing force and missionaries are tied up in the colonial history of many aid-recipient countries, the fact that they are one of the most well-known aspects of the Mormon church may affect perceptions of their legitimacy.

However, proselytizing missionaries are not used in aid distribution from LDS Charities overseas. All aid distribution is done by local partners vetted by LDS Charities employees or by employees themselves. There are “service missionaries” who are specifically assigned to areas in need of training, particularly for LDS Charities’ Maternal and Infant Care Program, which trains doctors and nurses about neonatal resuscitation, and the Vision Care program, which (in addition to donating glasses and frames) provides mentoring to local medical professionals to build local capacity to provide vision care. These service missionaries are specifically non-proselytizing, are older couples (rather than the young people who serve traditional proselytizing missions) and are subject-matter experts who volunteer their time overseas.

Not using proselytizing missionaries as the primary distributors of aid is an important way in which LDS Charities promotes a professionalized workforce. There are, however, important exceptions to this. Occasionally, in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters, proselytizing missionaries participate in wider volunteer efforts with other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to participate in short-term clean-up efforts (e.g. clearing out destroyed homes to allow new building projects). Proselytizing missionaries are instructed not to evangelize aid recipients during these projects.[48] I lack data (quantitative or qualitative) of whether or not the participation of proselytizing missionaries in this type of short-term humanitarian effort increases or decreases recipients’ level of comfort with receiving aid; however, it does prove to be an exception to the general rule that LDS Charities follows: not using proselytizing missionaries as aid distributors.

Subject-matter expert volunteers provide much of the on-the-ground for two of LDS Charities’ main initiatives: the Maternal and Newborn Care initiative and the Vision Care initiative. They serve for 18 month periods in a specific country or area, providing a specific service. There are currently 100 such couples volunteering.[49] Still, these missionaries recognize that they serve less as actual aid distributors and more as project coordinators.[50] For example, one couple was assigned to infrastructure projects in Cambodia, but since senior service missionaries tend to be retirees, they could not exactly build wells themselves. Instead, they focused on which local businesses to hire using LDS Charities funds to complete aid projects.[51]

The local longevity for these couples likely makes them more effective at their work. Remaining on the ground in one country or region for a year and a half affords them the opportunity to see projects through to completion and learn the ins and outs of a particular situation. It is also significant that LDS Charities missionaries hire local companies and individuals to work on projects, as this becomes another way of helping local economies and providing both work and capital to local individuals.[52] Service missionaries are self-funded retired couples, meaning that no donated money is spent on paying them, but they also have the capacity to stay in an area longer than a younger volunteer who would eventually need to make money. These service missionaries are not permitted by LDS Charities or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to proselytize.[53] LDS Charities believes that their local partners and aid recipients understand this and are not concerned about evangelizing during aid projects, although it is not possible for me to corroborate this with local partners. 

While there are some LDS Charities employees on the ground performing approximately the same work that service missionaries do, LDS Charities materials emphasize the voluntary nature of their work. All interactions I had with employees and all literature I have read, both from the Church’s website and from LDS Charities’ annual report, deemphasized the role of employees and played up the role of volunteers.[54] The reason for this is unclear, but this approach to explaining their work makes it difficult to ascertain the exact number of LDS Charities employees and their job descriptions. However, it is clear that some exist, particularly at their headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Overall, the humanitarian efforts of LDS Charities are relatively professional and free from proselytizing. While typically proselytizing missionaries are occasionally used to provide short-term aid, longer projects are taken on either by partner organizations, LDS Charities employees, or long-term humanitarian volunteers with subject-matter expertise.

According to my review of the literature, this relatively formalized structure for employees and aid providers should increase the likelihood that partner NGOs, local individual aid recipients, businesses, and governments would want to work with LDS Charities. While it is impossible to find specific data on this, an LDS Charities employee at their Salt Lake City headquarters stated that partners and recipients do not turn down aid. This employee cited the faith-based nature of LDS Charities and their emphasis on volunteerism as reasons for their being a desirable partner. He also cited the financial structure of LDS Charities – that it is entirely donor-based and mostly supported by small donations from individual members.


My initial hypotheses are somewhat supported, but the actual practices of LDS Charities are more complex than the literature suggests. I initially believed that the transnational networks of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would use their transnational networks of believers, and therefore potential volunteers, as an aid distribution force. While this is somewhat true, in that LDS Charities draws on about 200 subject-matter experts to act as service missionaries, the majority of actual aid distribution is not performed by members of these networks, but by partner organizations – an idea not addressed in the reviewed literature. As I expected, LDS Charities lacks mechanisms for accountability and transparency. Annual audits suggest that there is some form of internal accountability, but since those reports are not transparent (that is, publicly available), LDS Charities need not report on the success of its projects to any third-party entity. The LDS Church’s ongoing missionary program was not as much of a factor in local legitimacy as I had expected. Proselytizing missionaries are used on extremely rare occasions as a volunteer force for LDS Charities, and the philanthropic arm seems to enjoy relatively high levels of local legitimacy, both to clientele and to NGOs who are also on the ground.

As LDS Charities combines the Mormon theological importance of charity with best practices in humanitarianism, there are inevitably challenges. But as an institution, they face many of the same issues as other FBOs. Still, many aspects of their faith-based activism make them effective in project selection, local partnership, and the development of local legitimacy. Becoming more transparent and accountable is a logical step forward for LDS Charities to develop best practices in humanitarianism.


[1] Note: In discussing the financial practices of LDS Charities and the LDS Church in general, I do not make use of the December 17th, 2019 Washington Post article “Mormon Church Has Misled Members on $100 Billion Tax-Exempt Investment Fund, Whistleblower Alleges.” While some of the suggestions I make address the systemic failures alleged by the Post, the tax-exempt status of the Church is a separate discussion and not one which I address here.

[2]  Thomas, Scott M. “Building Communities of Character: Foreign Aid Policy and Faith-Based Organizations.” SAIS Review of International Affairs 24, no. 2 (2004): 136.

[3] Mayotte, Judith A. “Religion and Global Affairs: The Role of Religion in Development.” Johns Hopkins University Press 18, no. 2 (1998): 65-66; Zaman, Tahir. “Jockeying for Position in the Humanitarian Field: Iraqi Refugees and Faith-Based Organisations in Damascus.” Disasters 36 (July 2012): S132.

[4] Thomas, “Communities of Character,” 136.

[5] James, Rick. “Handle with Care: Engaging with Faith-Based Organisations in Development.” Development in Practice 21, no. 1 (2011): 111.

[6] Ferris, Elizabeth. “Faith and Humanitarianism: It’s Complicated.” Journal of Refugee Studies 24, no. 3 (September 11): 609.

[7] Thomas, “Communities of Character,” 137.

[8] Ibid 141-142

[9] Kaplan, Seth. “Faith and Fragile States: Why the Development Community Needs Religion.” Harvard International Review 31, no. 1 (Spring 2009): 23.

[10] Kraft, Kathryn, and Jonathan D. Smith. “Between International donors and Local Faith Communities: Intermediaries in Humanitarian Assistance to Syrian Refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.” Disasters 43, no. 1 (January 2019): 24-45.

[11] Ferris, “Faith and Humanitarianism. ”

[12] Flanigan, Shawn Teresa. ”Paying for God’s Work: A Rights-Based Examination of Faith-Based NGOs in Romania.” Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations 18, no. 2 (June 2007): 156-75.

[13] Clarke, Matthew, and Vicki-Anne Ware. ”Understanding Faith-Based Organizations: How FBOs are Contrasted with NGOs in International Development Literature.” Progress in Development Studies 15, no. 1 (2015): 37-48.

[14] Thomas, “Communities of Character,” 137.

[15] Clarke and Ware, ”Understanding FBOs”; James ”Handle with Care,” (111-2); Kaplan, ”Faith and Fragile States,” 23.

[16] Russell, Simon. ”Reflections from the Field.” Forced Migration Review 1, no. 48 (2014): 26-27

[17] Ibid.

[18] James, ”Handle with Care,” 111-12.

[19] Zaman ”Jockeying for Position,” S137.

[20] Clarke and Ware ”Understanding FBOs”

[21] Clarke and Ware, ”Understanding FBOs”; James, ”Handle with Care,” 111-12

[22] Mayotte, “Religion and Global Affairs,” 66.

[23] Ferris, “Faith and Humanitarianism”; Kraft and Smith “Between Donors and Communities.”

[24] Ibid.

[25] Mayotte, “Religion and Global Affairs,” 68.

[26] Flanigan ”Paying for God’s Work,” 160.

[27] Mayotte, ”Religion and Global Affairs,” 68.

[28] Ibid.

[29] James, ”Handle with Care,” 115-116.

[30] Kaplan, ”Faith and Fragile States,” 24.

[31] Flanigan, ”Paying for God’s Work,” 165.

[32] “2017 LDS Charities Annual Report.” Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, n.d. 10-12

[33]  “Annual Report.” 3.

[34] “Annual Report.” 8

[35] “Annual Report” 44-45.

[36] “Worldwide Statistics.” Newsroom. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2018.

[37] “Annual Report” 8

[38] “Tithing and Charitable Donations.” Newsroom. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[39] “Mormon Helping Hands.” Newsroom. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[40] “How the Church has Responded to Hurricane Harvey.” Newsroom. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

[41] “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Charity Navigator.

[42] “Annual Report.” 8

[43] “2016 LDS Charities Annual Report.” Salt Lake City, Utah: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 9.

[44] “Annual Report.” 9.

[45] Jergensen, Kevin R. “Church Auditing Department Report, 2018.” presented at the General Conference of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2019.

[46] “Church Finances and a Growing Global Faith.” Newsroom. Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

[47] “2016 Annual Report,” 14-15.

[48] I was told about this guideline during my interview with an LDS Charities employee. However, I was unable to find documented proof in the guidelines given to proselytizing missionaries. The only evidence I found of this claim was that in a 2018 update to the training manual for missionaries (entitled Preach my Gospel), a section on service as an opportunity to find potential converts and people to teach was removed. Therefore, while prior to 2018, proselytizing missionaries were explicitly encouraged to find people to teach while serving, they are no longer given explicit encouragement to do so.

[49] “What do Senior Missionaries Do?” LDS Charities.

[50] Ibid.

[51] Ibid. 

[52] Ibid.

[53] Ibid

[54] “Annual Report.” 8