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Executive Council prepares to study United Thank Offering


Study’s aim is to improve efficiency, mission activities of 120-year-old group.

The Episcopal Church’s Executive Council is about to begin a “serious and extensive” three-year study of the United Thank Offering (UTO), the organization that has helped the church expand its mission for the last 120 years by making grants to ministries that address human needs.

The soon-to-begin study is the end result of a series of conversations that began in January and centered on the need to clarify the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s legal relationship with UTO. (The DFMS is the church’s corporate legal entity.) Sandra McPhee, chair of the Executive Council’s International Concerns (INC) Committee which suggested the study, told ENS that there is nothing in writing that spells out the UTO’s relationship to the DFMS.

“This becomes a problem,” McPhee said, because the UTO uses the tax-exempt number assigned to the DFMS by the Internal Revenue Service, which expects the DFMS to “control” the UTO.

“That’s a technical IRS term,” McPhee said.

She added that INC committee members and others involved in the conversations also encountered questions about insurance coverage, liability, and operational procedures. They also wonder whether UTO’s fundraising model and grant-making method need updating.

UTO grants are funded in large part with the money that Episcopalians deposit in “Blue Boxes,” which they keep in their homes and offices. Blue-Box income has declined in each of the last two years. The total amount of money available to grant in 2007 and 2006 was $2.4 million and $2.7 million in 2005.

Regina Ratterree, who leads the UTO’s governing body known as the Committee, told ENS that the UTO is “concerned that the offerings are down, but then all of church giving is down.” UTO knows that it must offer its donors online giving, she said, acknowledging something McPhee and others have also pointed out.

After early conversations included the suggestion that one solution to the issue of “control” would be for the UTO to form a separate tax-exempt organization (known by its IRS designation as a 501(c)(3) organization), Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori appointed an advisory group in February to study the issues. She asked the group to look at three things: the UTO’s relationship with the DFMS and how to comply with the IRS rules, the “missional convergence” of the UTO Committee and the DFMS, and how to “enhance the effectiveness of the UTO Committee’s operations.”

That group, of which Ratterree was a part, recommended to the Executive Council in August that the council should “control and oversee the activities of the UTO Committee” by increasing the 12-member committee with as many as six appointees. Two appointees would come from the council and up to four members could be appointed by the Presiding Bishop to provide any specific expertise that the UTO Committee might request. The recommendation also called for the Executive Council to adopt UTO’s policies and procedures, be able to revise them as needed, and to receive and approve reports on income, grants and other disbursements by the UTO Committee.

A member of the Executive Council had been part of the UTO Committee in years passed, according to McPhee and Ratterree, but that practice has not continued in recent years. Ratterree said the UTO Committee has reported to the council about its activities in the past. She also noted that the UTO Committee often asks people with needed skills to aid it in its work.

When the INC committee discussed the advisory group report during its October meeting in Helena, Montana, Ratterree asked the members to back the UTO Committee’s decision to form a separate 501(c)(3) organization, saying it wanted to be an “affiliated organization” of the Episcopal Church. “We thought that was the best option,” she told ENS, adding that the committee is “still willing to work within the [study] framework to listen to any other ideas if people have concerns about that.”

She said that she has written to Jefferts Schori to tell her that “the committee certainly wanted to take this as an opportunity to have the Executive Council and other people … to help us grow UTO and expand the circle of thankful givers.”

A history of thankful giving and granting
UTO was established in 1889 as the United Offering by the Women’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions and primarily supported the work of women missionaries. UTO later broadened its emphasis to include all areas of the church’s work. More information about UTO’s history is available here.

UTO suggests that people should daily pray and give in recognition of their daily thanks for what God has given them. Oftentimes, the people whom the UTO calls “thankful givers” supplement their daily contributions before sending the money to UTO either individually or through a process known as diocesan in-gathering. The UTO believes that thankful giving unites the givers spiritually with the people who benefit from their gifts.

In 2007, the UTO received $2,283,074.70 from the Blue Boxes. It had 198 grant applications in 2008 for a total of $7,923,979.05 and made 91 grants totaling $2,401,906.70 by combining Blue-Box income with interest income and money from returned or rescinded grants from previous years. The grants included 17 international grants and four companion dioceses grants. The funded initiatives ranged from new school buildings and a refrigerated truck for a food pantry to a parish nursing program and computer equipment and software for a community garden project.

Specific information about the 2008 grants is available here and information about the 2005-2007 grants is available here.

“The UTO Committee feels very good about what it has done” in terms of “our vision and our mission and how we work,” including conducting annual evaluations of its work and its grant criteria, Ratterree told ENS. The UTO will continue its ministry while the study is conducted, she said, adding that she and the rest of the committee are unsure why a study has to take three years.

Chance to take a longer look
The Rev. Dr. Ian Douglas, a member of the council International Concerns Committee, suggested during the committee discussion in Helena that the intersection of the committee’s recommendations and UTO’s desire to change its status, set in the context of the changing nature of relationships in the entire Anglican Communion, made it a good time to step back and look at larger issues.

Douglas, who is also a professor of mission and world Christianity at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told ENS that the study is “a great and wonderful opportunity.”

“It does mean change though and I appreciate that change is difficult,” he added. “As a member of Executive Council, I don’t see this as a desire to take over the UTO” but rather a way “to help the UTO be even better and do its work even more efficiently and in a bolder and great way for the next century.”

Douglas said UTO’s “historic” commitment to sacrificial giving out of thankfulness for what God has done in one’s life has “as much efficacy now as they ever have, if not more so” and “is absolutely the right theological perspective from which we should be motivated in our financial lives.”

He added that the UTO legacy of women working for the betterment of other women is an important part the Episcopal Church’s history of motivating people and money, and effectively delivering programs, for the work of mission. Yet, he said, UTO’s operations “need to be considered from a contemporary understanding of organizational dynamics.”

McPhee agrees. “It’s a situation that needs a really thorough analysis [and needs] three years of work, not two months of work,” she told ENS. “What I would love to see is for the UTO to re-imagine itself using current models of philanthropy in a way that re-energizes the church.”

The result of the INC’s discussion in Helena was an Executive Council resolution expressing “profound gratitude for the faithfulness” of the UTO “and its leadership in praying for and supporting the missionary work of the [DFMS]. Resolution INC055 calls on Jefferts Schori and House of Deputies President Bonnie Anderson to appoint a 10-member ad hoc committee to ”undertake a serious and extensive study of the current and future“ of the UTO ”as to its roles, purposes, function, operational procedures and vision for faithfulness to God’s mission in the 21st century"

The committee is to make recommendations to the 77th General Convention in 2012 “as to how the United Thank Offering can continue and expand its work in The Episcopal Church’s faithfulness to God’s mission.” In the meantime, the resolution puts on hold the UTO’s request to form a separate tax-exempt organization. Representatives of the council, the UTO and its diocesan liaisons are to be part of the committee. Anderson told ENS December 9 that she and the Presiding Bishop were close to announcing the committee roster.

McPhee said UTO’s model of thankful giving -- “the concept of giving constantly and of being constantly aware” of and thankful for one’s blessings -- is a “terrific model for Christian giving.”

“I think that the UTO -- re-imagined for current times -- can really encourage this in all members of the church, not just in the women but in men and youth and everybody else, too,” McPhee said, adding that “I’ve got a little blue box in my kitchen and I grew up with the little blue box. My mother always had one when I was young and I really do put a coin in on a regular basis.”

Answering the ’control’ question in the interim
After the Helena meeting, DFMS staff members began discussing how to answer the IRS “control” question while the new ad hoc committee does its work. During those discussions, staff members learned that the UTO Committee had begun work on a website that provided for online giving and that would reside outside of the domain where it is currently housed.

After consulting with the other Church Center staffers involved in the discussion, Episcopal Church Chief Operating Officer Linda Watt sent a letter to the UTO Committee on December 1 telling the members that UTO “must follow DFMS operational and institutional policy, procedures and practices.” Thus, Watt wrote, the UTO Committee must stop the website work and to consult with the Church Center’s Office of Communication and cannot contract for services on its own. She also wrote that the committee must coordinate its work with UTO program officer Elizabeth Beach-Hacking and work with her and the Office of Communication in its marketing efforts “in order to protect DFMS intellectual property and ensure consistent message,” and provide the DFMS treasurer’s office with a 2009 budget by the end of this month.

Watt wrote that “if the UTO Committee believes it is unable to comply with the above requests, the DFMS will have no alternative than to assert the direct authority of the Executive Council over the expenditure of the assets of the trust funds used to support the administration of the UTO.”

Watt, who in her letter called the UTO a “valued and esteemed ministry of the DFMS,” told ENS on December 8 that “the hope is that we can work together cooperatively -- collaboratively -- for the good of the program.”

There are eight of the trust funds that benefit the UTO Committee to which Watt referred with a total of $5 million (as of November 30), according to Episcopal Church Treasurer Kurt Barnes. Interest from that money pays for the UTO’s operations, including reimbursing the DFMS for 20 percent of salary and benefits for Beach Hacking and UTO Grants Administrator Marci Wold, and paying for the cost of the 12-member committee’s roughly 40 days of meetings each year. Ratterree said some of the trust funds’ remaining interest has been used at times to supplement the annual grant amount.

The DFMS budgeted a net $165,000 in 2008 for costs of the UTO’s operation, including the rest of Beach Hacking’s and Wold’s salaries and benefits, and maintenance of the UTO office at the Church Center in New York.

Ratterree expressed confusion about what prompted the letter. “I still do not know what anybody is upset about,” she told ENS. “No one has contacted the UTO Committee to say anything specifically, to ask us any questions or to get any input. And we have not done anything any differently this triennium and particularly this year than we have in the past.”

While the committee had not formally responded to Watt’s letter as of December 9, Ratterree told ENS that day “we’re just going to continue to do what we ordinarily would do and we’ll cooperate with folks at the Church Center who say they have to approve things that we do.”


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