In the forums I visit online, Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent article on the finances of Open Stories Foundation has launched several discussions about donor’s understandings (and sometimes misunderstandings) of what their donations were being used for.
But first, a side note: I am tied between wanting to say “Damn you, Sam Brunson” and “Bless you, Sam Brunson” for always scooping the niche intersection of tax and Mormonism. I am so glad he wrote his latest post: “Does Open Stories Foundation Qualify as Tax-Exempt?“…but also a little upset that I didn’t think to write something like that first, since I too have been interested in similar questions for the past few weeks (but as a lowly tax accountant who doesn’t specialize in non-profits, I certainly didn’t feel comfortable to write that post). Let’s go with: Damn you, you magnificent blog person. But to all of you, I will also say this: hie thee over to By Common Consent and read that post (I’ll be back here when you’ve done that. EDIT: For a look by the numbers, also check out this compensation analysis)
And actually, the people who seem to be surprised or upset by Peggy’s article don’t necessarily care about private benefit or inurement, so what is the deal there? The issue I’ve seen is similar, but still distinct: transparency and disclosure. Specifically, when has an organization (like Open Stories Foundation) provided sufficient transparency, given that people engaging with that organization are always coming to that organization with different perspectives, at different times, for different purposes?
In Sam’s post, the discussion of transparency was explicitly bracketed off. From his post:
Also, yes, I know OSF discloses its finances and the church doesn’t, but, for the sake of this post, I don’t care. The tax law requires most tax-exempt organizations to disclose (and thus, OSF is complying with the tax law), but it doesn’t require churches to (and thus, the church is complying with the tax law).
For this post, I am not so concerned about the tax law responsibilities and demands for transparency, so I don’t really care that OSF discloses its finances and the church does not because of tax law requirements. I am not actually all that interested (for this post, at least) in the actual finances at all. What I am interested in are the sorts of ways that John self-discloses about his own purposes in soliciting donations for Open Stories Foundation and how different donors (from my anecdotal experience online) have processed these directives — and I’m interested in comparing that to how the church discloses about certain facts from its history and past and how various members have processed learning about those facts.
The Summer 2010 Deal
Let’s go through some history. John Dehlin has been doing Mormon Stories podcast for a long time. Episode 1 was published in 2005 (that’s 10 years ago!) and continued through to around the beginning of 2008 before John went on temporary hiatus. John came back on the scene in the beginning of January 2010 with episodes 112 and 113 (an interview with Joanna Brooks), and since then has created around 400 additional episodes (including some episodes created by other hosts, but excluding all other podcasts originated in the Open Stories Foundation [e.g., Mormon Matters, A Thoughtful Faith, Gay Mormon Stories, etc.,]). So, John’s listener base could spread as far back as 2005, but the majority of podcasts were created since 2010.
What else happened in 2010?
In May of 2010, John wrote and spoke about five important announcements for Mormon Stories Podcast. Of relevance to many people who use Facebook here, this announced the launch of Mormon Stories Podcast Community on Facebook. But of relevance to this post, it also announced the launch of Open Stories Foundation and a certain three-month experiment. Here’s a relevant snippet from the experiment:
…A 3 Month Experiment (Donor Drive): Over the past few months I have worked very, very hard to bring you some very high quality interviews. A few of you have been very supportive in terms of contributions, and I am very, very grateful for that support — but a new situation has arisen where I will need your help. Many of you know that I just finished up my first year in a 6 year psychology Ph.D. program. It was kind of crazy for me to leave a six figure job with MIT, with 4 young children at home, to go back to school — but my work with Mormon Stories has really led me to feel like I need to become a counselor – specifically to work with folks who struggle within the LDS church. Anyway — I was recently offered a $15,000 Assistantship to cover some of my expenses for next year as a grad student — but if I had taken it, I would have not been able to continue with Mormon Stories. So I took a bit of a crazy gamble. I turned down the assistantship, with the hope/faith that I could recruit enough monthly support from my listeners to at least make up for the assistantship that I turned down.So here is what I’m going to do. Over the next 3 months I have planned some of the most interesting and exciting guest and projects to date for Mormon Stories. In exchange, I am going to see how many listeners I can get to sign up for an automatic monthly subscription to Mormon Stories (which will help get me through grad school). If I can get enough people to sign up for monthly subscriptions, I will definitely keep Mormon Stories going at the rate of one, multi-part interview per week. If I can’t get enough listeners to support me in that way, I will probably keep Mormon Stories going, but will likely have to get a part time job in the Fall/Winter to support my family while in school — and will only release episodes as I’m able…
The deal was that people would donate money to John Dehlin, and he would spend time on the podcast. The important thing about the announcement of this deal was that it came in quick succession with several milestones — the starting of Open Stories Foundation as a non-profit, the restarting of the podcast in 2010, and the deal itself. I have no idea how many people donated prior to 2010, but it seems that as of the restart (after which Dehlin ramped up his podcasting [400 more episodes!]), he was very upfront and transparent about the deal.
This deal wasn’t mentioned only in that May 2010 post. Over a cursory (not comprehensive) review of other posts and podcast episodes, I found references to the personal/familial benefit of the deal in several other locations, including:
- Episode 231: Mormon Stories 2011 and Beyond (January of 2011)
- Episode 298: We Really Need Your Support (October of 2011)
- Episode 355: What Mormon Stories is Trying to Do, and How to Keep it Alive (June 2012) (DOUBLECHECK)
- Strategy Announcement for 2012 (October 2012)
- Episode 516: 2014 Mormon Stories End-of-Year Update (December 2014)
Groceries and Grad School
As I said near the beginning, one thing I noticed with Peggy Fletcher Stack’s recent piece on the Open Stories Foundation’s finances from my review online was how many people were so surprised to discover that John was using donations to pay for things like grad school and family groceries. Several people had very reasonable alternative notions for what the donations were used for: some people thought it went toward equipment, while others thought it went toward hosting and other web expenses. Others focused on the conferences, saying they believed that donations were used to pay for travel/flight for the regional conferences. One person even suggested that the donations might pay for honorariums for certain podcast guests.
These are all certainly reasonable options, but the striking thing is that John has, at several times, pointed out what he has actually used the money for.
Transparency and Due Diligence
What I have been thinking about is this: what is the obligation of an organization (like OSF) to disclose and ensure every donor knows what he or she is getting into vs the obligation of a donor to perform due diligence and discover the organization’s purposes and intentions?
This does not just apply to John Dehlin, see, but also to church membership.
Even as I found those podcasts and blog post updates where John had mentioned paying for grad school, etc., I was reminded of a similar apologetic response to claims that the church isn’t transparent with its history (I’m not touching the finances here…just history). Some apologists say, “If you didn’t know about church history, that’s your own fault. Here is x, y, and z official church publication where these issues are mentioned.”
I know that in these instances, critics or doubters will usually respond: “But those things weren’t emphasized! Those things aren’t brought up week in and week out in Sunday School!”
And here, it’s also true that John doesn’t necessarily talk about grad school with every podcast. What he does talk about in every intro and outro of Mormon Stories is that donations will help support the podcast, keep the community alive, provide for new programs, and things like that.
And then I also realized that some people don’t even listen to the podcasts. For the people whose only engagement with Mormon Stories is through Facebook, how would they know? For the people whose only engagement was through local support communities or regional conferences, how would they know?
Nevertheless, there is no doubt in my mind that OSF and John are far more transparent than the church. While many were surprised about Peggy’s report, the thing that struck me was that it was all old information — straight out of OSF’s already published 2013 financials. So, the real question (in my mind) is not whether OSF is transparent or not…but where the comparative responsibilities lie. When does an organization meet its responsibility for transparency and the prospective donor (or member) pick up a responsibility for due diligence?
- Did you know that the money raised through Open Stories Foundation has been used to help fund Dehlin’s education and family expenses?
- Are you OK with this? Have you ever donated to Mormon Stories or Open Stories Foundation?
- Do you think that OSF and Mormon Stories do a good job of transparency?
- Do you think that it was reasonable for some people to expect the funds to go only for podcast equipment, expenses from hosting podcasts, conferences, etc.,?
- Now that Dehlin has been excommunicated, what do you think will be the fate of Mormon Stories podcast and the Open Stories Foundation?
2 a) shrug b) no I haven’t donated.
3 Well, given I answered yes to 1, haven’t listened to very many podcasts, and am not on Facebook, but picked it up somewhere, the answer has to be, I guess they must. I did also read somewhere donors receive some kind of annual financial statement or something?
4 If that’s what they were led to believe when they contributed, I can understand they’d be aggrieved. Have they contributed long enough to have had the opportunity to read the financial statement I mentioned above (assuming I got that right…)?
5 I’m not sure why it would necessarily make a difference. Would the likes of Bushman or the Givens still be happy to be interviewed?
Isn’t the issue of due diligence with respect to OSF the same issue of due diligence with respect to people griping because “the church didn’t tell me about (JS’ polygamy, or whatever issue of the day)?”
that is one of my questions. I mean, I think people can reasonably argue that the church doesn’t talk about JS polygamy all that much, and when it does, there is not a lot of attention or fanfare.
But with osf, is the situation similar?
I have not donated. I would if I could. I feel deceived by tithing and since I was 12 was a full-tithe payer and just hoping to be saved by faith in a law that never brought the “provide for your family that they will not want for the needs of this life” (per husbands patriarchal blessing). So after 20 years of marriage, a life time of church devotion, I feel so much pain over the church’s narrative.
Those that feel John has not been open, should have asked him if they wondered and I am sure he would have said something. Released other statements. If you ask the church, you get nothing.
I looked at the statements. Looks good to me.
If my family of 5 kids could live on what he says he is living on, they are not living the high life. I find my family can’t live on less than $100,000 with any ease. Especially when you pay taxes, and (did previously pay) tithing, on his gross of course.(lol).
If people donate, it at lease isn’t felt like a commandment and you will be denied blessing if you don’t.
Funny Hedgehog mentions Bushmans and Givens’ as those are the only podcasts I’ve listened to (other than a few mofem ones) and they really helped me through my faith transition. I wonder if his exxing will effect it that much. Without heavy weights willing to go into that space again . . . . maybe Doug Fabrizio and Jennifer Pierce will become the new go-to place?
Question: Do you support, affiliate with, or agree with any group or individual whose teachings or practices are contrary to or oppose those accepted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?
If you financially support Dehlin, you’d fail this question today. You’d also lose a current temple recommend if you did.
Todd – I don’t think I agree that it is one in the same. Gotta run to church right now! (really I do!)
“Did you know that the money raised through Open Stories Foundation has been used to help fund Dehlin’s education and family expenses?”
That is a poorly-worded way of asking if I know John Dehlin gets paid for his work at OSF, to which I answer yes. I am sure most people’s paychecks don’t say here is money for you to pay for your education and family expenses, but say, “salary or wages”.
Are you OK with this? Have you ever donated to Mormon Stories or Open Stories Foundation?
Yes I am ok with it, but since I have never donated, it doesn’t really matter.
Do you think that OSF and Mormon Stories do a good job of transparency?
Having listened to many of the podcasts, I felt I have known for quite some time what the money was primarily going for. The BCC article made the point of the high percentage of salary to gross income of OSF, comparing it to other charities. This was a totally worthless comparison due to varying natures and missions of various charities.
Do you think that it was reasonable for some people to expect the funds to go only for podcast equipment, expenses from hosting podcasts, conferences, etc.,?
“Only for podcast equipment….” No, since it seemed to me it had been clearly stated that these efforts would be supporting JD. I never thought podcasts were an expensive venture, so I would expect JD to get most of the money.
Now that Dehlin has been excommunicated, what do you think will be the fate of Mormon Stories podcast and the Open Stories Foundation?
In the short term, I can see Dehlin ramping things up. Over time, however, the only thing that will keep him as deeply involved as he now is if his profession has him dealing with these issues. It will be interesting to see if he can get high-profile believers that he has in the past, now that he had been branded.
Money is a huge incentive. I had no idea JD was making 90K via his blogs. He had many reasons (90 thousand) to hawk his wares to those with a faith crisis.
I wonder if JD would have made 90K with a faithful approach? Doubt it.
Just speculating here. Don’t know what was really driving JD. But whatever it was, it has taken him out of the church.
John has stated that he would trade his salary for the stipend that the apostles and First Presidency receive. This seems to imply that this stipend is more than John makes. I have no idea if it is true. If it is true, at least we know what John makes. How much is Oaks making? Or Bednar? Or Monson?
At least John is being open about it. Does anyone else know what LDS authors Gerald Lund, Neal A. Maxwell, Sheri Dew make? Cause I’ll bet it’s a whole lot more than 90K/year.
Beware of casting stones.
There is, IMO, a difference between getting paid via direct donations and how the GAs receive their stipends. GA stipends are not contingent on the quality of what they say (one way in which John might rightly be jealous). Plus they are past the point of retirement age (another possible point of jealousy). But I also think there is merit in creating a situation in which people don’t have to worry about money so they can focus on the gospel. They don’t get paid more for being more orthodox. Them being paid a stipend frees them to spend their time entirely on church matters, and the calls that are for life free them to say and do what they think best without regard to promotion or positioning.
Is it strange that the article appears in the SLTribune, at the same time as he is exed? Is it intended to undermine his credibility?
It’s quite self evident that John and his family must sustain themselves anyone concerned about the source of that sustenance could probably easily find out or reasonably conclude donations as the source.
When you’re brought up by the church to believe that Joseph was monogamous or that he “translated” the BoM it doesn’t follow that one should go looking for additional wives or a seer stone in a hat or a monkey grinder since none are implied.
Thus we can deduce the church was being deceptive and John was not.
Also there is a considerable difference in magnitude between a $100K and several $ billion.
If this is an academic attempt have fun but sorry, the comparison isn’t even hand grenade close.
Hawk, Michael Quinn has already talked about all the GA’s who get on Board of Directors (especially on church-owned businesses) simply based on their stature as apostles, and get all kinds of compensation. Apostles/Seventies write books that make money, and their stature as an apostle or Seventy certainly influences how many books they sell. It does seem that there is some compensation that few church members question.
If it was discovered that Elder Oaks makes say $500,000/year (just to throw out a number–I have no idea if this is true or not) between his stipend and book deals for a book like Life’s Lessons Learned, would church members feel that this was “just” compensation for an apostle? Jared, what do you think if such numbers were accurate?
1. Did you know that the money raised through Open Stories Foundation has been used to help fund Dehlin’s education and family expenses?
Yes. I paid attention to what he said when he started the fundraising.
2.a Are you OK with this?
2.b. Have you ever donated to Mormon Stories or Open Stories Foundation?
3. Do you think that OSF and Mormon Stories do a good job of transparency?
I’ve never looked and don’t really care. He could be using it hookers an blow then lying about it, and I don’t care. He also probably doesn’t care what I use my money for either.
I donated but didn’t take a deduction for it because I think calling it a tax-exempt entity is inaccurate. It’s a business (looks like a duck, etc): money for podcasts, simple. No “public good relieving the govt burden to provide for the public good” which generally justifies tax-exemption.
3. Do you think that it was reasonable for some people to expect the funds to go only for podcast equipment, expenses from hosting podcasts, conferences, etc.,?
“Only?” No, not reasonable. He said it wouldn’t, and if any of it did end up as pop-filters then bully for them.
4. Now that Dehlin has been excommunicated, what do you think will be the fate of Mormon Stories podcast and the Open Stories Foundation?
He will continue to make money from people who find themselves with some extra money because they stopped paying tithing. He will continue to “do his thing” (however one characterizes it), but he won’t be able to market himself as a faithful member to those who are leaving, or a mole on the inside to church critics. His “just asking questions” schtick will have to be marketed as direct criticism of a club he doesn’t really want to be a member of, and he wants them to change.
He’s found a niche of internet customers who are willing to pay to be told they were right all along to leave the church. No different from people who are willing to pay to be told they can make millions from investing in real estate with no-money-down. It’s internet multi-level marketing 101. It will continue as long as he feeds it and grows his audience.
The way Peggy’s article was written read to me to be very friendly — I think any negativity only comes from the title (which was probably not written by Peggy). Nevertheless, John still had a response to the Peggy’s article.
This section of yours really highlights the tax difficulty of things:
Do you think other donors get the sense that this is a business, that is, and that the tax-exempt purpose isn’t that great?
I see the tax-exempt as very much a side issue between John and the US gov. I donated to Mormon Matters, but I didn’t take that as a tax write off as I don’t think it should be.
But for those donating outside the US it would be even more “who cares?”
I know there has been in various circles a lot of angst about GA stipends. I have no insider knowledge, but I suspect since many interrupted their careers to go into full time Church service and some were not company executives especially outside the US and Europe, a stipend might be needed to support them where retirement and personal funds are not available. so, I would think that the stipends vary based on need.
Those who have pensions or our wealthy probably get less than those who are not. the books and other materials are probably used to supplement those funds so that the Church needs to provide less.
When they attend conferences, they usually stay in local leader’s homes even though the Church pays for their travel expenses.
I suspect they generally live a pretty comfortable live, but I doubt many of us would like to have their schedules.
And, they are no longer permitted to sit on any outside Board of Directors. Just Church-owned businesses.
“Do you think other donors get the sense that this is a business, that is, and that the tax-exempt purpose isn’t that great?”
That’s my only beef, the 503-C3 status. Even a 503-C7 (non-profit, but not deducible) would be OK with me.
“Money is a huge incentive…he had many reasons to hawk his wares”
I can only imagine John made more than that at MIT and Microsoft, his previous employers. The same might possibly said for those who earn “stipends” (which apparently is Heaven’s word for money paid for work) if the church would publish the salaries of the special witnesses instead of teaching church members from the time they can hear and read that there is no paid clergy in the church. I wonder if JD called his pay a stipend, instead of money for his education and groceries, church members would consider him unpaid?
Brian – I did chuckle a bit on the “what if John called his pay a stipend?” comment. But as Hawkgrrrl has mentioned, that isn’t the same as with the 12 and such as John had the opportunity to increase his earnings by what he says. The top church leaders get some unknown $ and (I would assume) they don’t get paid more or less based on what they say.
And I do think someone with a curious and sharp mind like John that he would do well at Microsoft and MIT. That type of inquisitiveness and “never accept the status quo” is highly valued in those organizations. I have no doubt he would be making WAY over $100K – unless he did something to piss off the Dean or his VP.
I don’t think we can impune JD’s motives any more than we can the paid church leaders. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If the church is based on lies and a false beginning as many more believe than the number who believe it is a valid path to heaven, his motives are as pure as church leaders and his real pay is the fruits of his labors, ie people making more educated decisions, whether stay or go.
“If it was discovered that Elder Oaks makes say $500,000/year (just to throw out a number–I have no idea if this is true or not) between his stipend and book deals for a book like Life’s Lessons Learned, would church members feel that this was “just” compensation for an apostle?” I’m sure that would vary from person to person. It would certainly give some folks pause. I’m already on record as questioning those who are in the religion for profit game. That doesn’t mean they have to be destitute either. To me, this is a question between them and God. I don’t buy books written by church leaders. I don’t need to. I have the scriptures, the holy ghost, and personal revelation, right?
One reason John made more at MIT & Microsoft is because there’s a much bigger target market for what they make. Different jobs pay differently. We all choose what to do for a living.