"It's times like these that our members really begin to collect on their dues."
Ed Borden, executive director of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, was speaking of the recent blitz of bad publicity attracted by the California-based International Christian Aid (ICA). That group has been accused of collecting millions for famine relief in Ethiopia, but not sending any supplies to the devastated country.
The charges have been denied by ICA President L. Joe Bass, who is no stranger to controversy in evangelical circles.
"When something like this happens, it highlights the need for standards" in funding and administering church-related organizations, Borden said.
Now headquartered in Reston, the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability was established in July 1979, Borden said.
"It was right after the scandal of the Pallotine Fathers in Baltimore," he recalled. The Roman Catholic order raised millions but accomplished few of the charitable works for which the money was sought.
"There was a feeling among evangelical leaders -- Billy Graham, Moody Bible Institute and World Vision were the catalysts -- they felt we should do something to establish definite standards and educate the organizations and the donors as to what those standards were before we had a similar thing happen in evangelical circles," Borden said.
There was also a threat, he acknowledged, growing out of the backwash of the Pallotine affair, of federal legislation to regulate religious and charitable bodies if they didn't regulate themselves.
ICA is not among the nearly 300 evangelical organizations and institutions that have agreed to the six standards of financial accountability the council insists on in order to generate a clean image for its members' fiscal affairs.
The standards require independent and regular audits, and a willingness to provide a full financial statement on "written request."
Fund-raising appeals of member organizations must "clearly identify the purposes and programs" for which money is sought, and then make sure that contributions go to those efforts.
Another point calls for "highest standards of integrity" and the avoidance of conflicts of interest involving relatives.
The use of fund-raisers who get a percentage of the take is frowned on.
Member groups include church-sponsored relief agencies, "colleges, rescue missions, seminaries, individual Christian denominations, religious radio and TV stations," he said. Among TV preachers, Billy Graham, James Robison and the PTL Club are members, he said. Jerry Falwell is not.
"We are a voluntary accrediting agency where we regulate our members," said Borden. "Organizations voluntarily associate with us. We don't go out and look for them."
He believes that the existence of the accrediting agency, even though membership is voluntary, has an educational effect far beyond its own members.
Bass, who heads ICA, is better known in evangelical circles as the head of the anti-Communist group Underground Evangelism, which seeks to smuggle Christian literature into Soviet-bloc nations.
The California attorney general's office is investigating charges that funds donated for Ethiopian famine victims may have been funneled into evangelistic efforts.
While the First Amendment shields religious organizations from some of the government checks that profit-making groups are subject to, laws pertaining to fraud apply equally. "When funds are raised and received for a definite purpose, they are restricted gifts and must be used for the purpose raised," said Borden. "That's not only morally but legally binding."
The Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability has a compliance review board, which holds regular meetings four times a year, Borden said. "We average about half a dozen compliance problems per meeting that have to be dealt with by the committee."
He added: "If the ICA were a member, I suspect we'd be having special meetings."