Politics & Media
Dec 14, 2010, 07:06AM

The Charitable Atheist

'Tis the season for giving responsibly.

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Go to any mall or big box store this time of year and you’ll see one—a smiling man or woman ringing a bell and standing next to a red kettle emblazoned with the logo of the Salvation Army. It's become as much a part of the holiday shopping experience as the carols, decorations and crowds. In fact, there is probably no other charitable organization as closely associated with Christmas than the Salvation Army. But even though I feel like a grinch, I pass by without dropping anything into their bucket because I just can't do it in good conscience.

It's not just because they are an evangelical Christian organization—although, as an atheist, that is enough to give me pause—but also because SA lets its ideology get in the way of helping people. They have notoriously discriminated against gays and lesbians, even going as far as to threaten to close soup kitchens serving tens of thousands of homeless in New York if the city forced them to extend benefits to same-sex partners. This year, they are already in trouble for trashing donated Harry Potter and Twilight toys rather than passing them on to another charity because they promote “black magic.”

Yes, the Salvation Army does a lot of good work and is known for funneling an astounding 89 cents on the dollar to recipients, but donors should remember that other 11 cents is used to fund an organizational structure that treats gays differently and to pay the salaries of lobbyists fighting gay rights legislation. If that doesn't sit right with you, let your wallet do the talking and give to more inclusive organizations providing the same services.

If you'd like your money to go toward helping the homeless, one place to start is by researching homeless shelters in your area with non-discrimination policies and giving to them directly. They are usually happy to take the old clothes you might have donated to the Salvation Army as well.

On the national level, you can give to the National Coalition for the Homeless, which engages in public education, policy advocacy, and grassroots organizing to end homelessness. They are particularly sensitive to the issues LGBT people face when experiencing homelessness. Habitat for Humanity, although a Christian organization, has also been supportive of gay rights issues in the past and has a policy of non-discrimination for both volunteers and recipients.

Salvation Army soup kitchens are not the only game in town either, so consider donating your time and money to a local soup kitchen or food bank. They often need extra help around the holidays to keep up with increased demand, particularly this year as people's jobless benefits expire. An excellent organization working to combat hunger at the national level is Feeding America.

If it's the Salvation Army's disaster relief efforts that motivate you to give, consider donating to AmeriCares instead, which provides disaster relief and medical outreach all over the world, regardless of race, creed or politics. They even operate free clinics in the US for the uninsured. Most impressively, they are able to keep their overhead extremely low so that 99 percent of the money they receive goes toward program expenses.

Wherever you choose to donate this holiday season, be sure that the organization represents the your ideals in all things. Always read their mission statements and non-discrimination policies, and use independent evaluation sites like Charity Navigator to find out if they are financially responsible.

  • I don't like a lot of things SA stands for but 89 cents on the dollar is impressive. I'm generally glad to see more than $.75 going to the cause. One question for you Jessica, when discussing Americare you use different terminology about their expenses. Was this on purpose, 99% going to program expenses can mean anything, or was it your intention to use the same criteria for SA as Americares?

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  • I have to say, i'm rather concerned with this piece. I work for the Salvation Army in the UK, as a support worker for homeless men. I'm also an atheist, something which i've always been open about to my managers and colleagues. I can't comment on how the American branch of the SA operate, but the things that you describe are alien to me. The organisation I work for works tirelessly for social justice, regardless of sexual orientation or personal belief. We have openly gay residents, in the closet residents, bisexual residents, transgender residents, the whole spectrum, and not once have I ever seen these individuals being treated negatively by the SA because of their sexual identity. I know of a hostel that hosted a talent show, during which one resident performed a drag act. This resident was openly gay and had lived for some years as a woman. The staff, religious or not, had a whale of a time. Residents are also permitted to read whatever they would like to. Harry Potter is obviously a popular title, and we have our own copy that we lend out to residents if requested. We also have a mobile library that comes in to lend books weekly, and we make no attempt to screen the books first for offensive material. We do have a chapel on site, and there is Christian literature sprinkled around the center, but as an organisation there is no effort to convert anyone. We provide the resources, should people want to make that decision themselves, but that's all. We also make allowances for other faiths wherever possible. For example, we have a fairly large Muslim population, and we attempt to link in with Islamic holidays and take account of prayer and dietary requirements. I can understand that this article is designed to teach people to research before they donate, and I can get behind that 100%. However, I think it is important that you remember that the Salvation Army is an international organisation, not a body that is limited to the USA, and that articles such as this (which also reach an international audience) are likely to tarnish the reputation of an organisation that works endlessly and tirelessly to help those in need. I condemn those responsible for the deplorable acts mentioned in your article, but they are well and truly the minority. They should not be considered to be the views or the actions of the organisation as a whole.

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  • Well, In New Zealand when a bill was presented in Parliament to decriminalize homosexual acts between adult consenting males and to decriminalize anal sex between both Homosexual and Heterosexual adults, the Salvation Army openly campaigned against it. So no, nothing they do surprises me http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/homosexual-law-reform/reforming-the-law

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  • Hi, Texan. Actually, the different terminology was intentional. "Program expenses" is the term used on Charity Navigator in contrast to administrative and fundraising expenses. Because SA is a church, they don't have to release the same financial information that other secular charities do, so the 89 cents on the dollar figure comes from them directly. Charity Navigator cannot actually evaluate them. Since I couldn't be sure whether the figures were exactly analogous, I decided to keep the source terms. Most likely they mean the same thing, though. Mario, I recognize that many of the staff at SA are doing great work, and that's part of what makes me feel bad passing their collectors by, but they do have a track record, not just in the States, but internationally as asmith points out, of actively opposing legislation that benefits the LGBT community. I don't want to take the chance that even a penny of my donation would go towards something like that, so I choose to look for other recipients. I'm curious if donations that you receive locally can be plugged right back into your activities, though, or if they have to be sent back to the parent organization. If that was possible, then perhaps people could look into exactly what local chapters of the SA are doing and give in good conscience.

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  • As far as the SA in Australia goes... ?89 cents to recipients my arse. The SA refuses to make public their out of court settlements paid the child abuse victims in their care. Do donors know their cash is going to such a thing. The SA is a business whose board and managers fly ...business class hera & there and who get new cars each year, The SA latches onto corporations like K-Mart at Xmas time merely to fill their revenue coffers. How can their Giving Trees at K-Mart possibly identify and distrubute donated presents at 6pm on Xmas eve? And SA Op-shops are a pathetic rip off selling shit their workers have not already gotten first dibs at and pilfered forthemselves to keep or to sell privately (like fridges, TV etc). The SA even spends money on advertising and on printing their corporate logo on their op-shop plastic bags. The SA's food voucher money is fully a givernment funded thing with the SA merely administering it. The SA welfare workers who judge and hand-out these vouchers to desperate people always grill and integorate these poor people and often add their moralistic judgements to boot. Just give em the fkkn vouchers and drop the half-hour 3rd degree which is just an excuse to pay you a wage under the guise of job freakin SA welfare worker. Donations to SA go to employing their own people first all of whom must be Theists meaning an Atheist would be refused employment with them in an obvious breach of anti-discrimination laws. And being Christian Theists of course they'd disapprove of gays and lesbians and of unmarried couples and single parents. The SA is con, a scam sheepishly hiding behind their archaic religious piety front.

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  • I appreciate the response, and want to make sure everyone knows that i'm totally with you when it comes to their less than savoury activities. I know that the SA has been responsible for some questionable things. I suppose it's probably a cultural thing, at least partly, since homosexuality hasn't been a hot button issue in the UK for decades. We're a largely non-religious nation, which means that the SA is forced to operate in a slightly more secular manner in order to remain relevant. Not to mention the fact that those running the organisation here are products of the UK, and so are less likely to hold homophobic opinions than their American counterparts, where homosexuality still seems to be a political issue. As for donations, most of our funding is provided by local government, since we the hostel I work at is classed as social housing and comes under the government's responsibility to find accomodation for homeless people. As such, we don't often canvass for donations. If people want to donate, we attempt to use that money ourselves directly, since most people donate and say that they want it spent on one thing in particular, but most of the time they try and donate clothes, blankets or food. At this time of year, we accept blankets and clothes and give them out to rough sleepers (we don't decide who goes in our rooms, the council does, so there are plenty of homeless guys that come in looking for help, and the best we can do is give them layers and stay warm), and any food is health and safety checked, and if it passes it's given out to residents. Ian, i'm sorry that the SA act in such a way in Australia. I wouldn't work for them if they displayed such behaviour here. I just want to reiterate, none of that stuff is true across the board, so to describe an international organisation as a scam for the actions of national members doesn't seem fair to me.

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