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Lutheran World Relief riding out financial crisis — so far

Diversified support provides stability in rough economic times

As the U.S. economy staggers, nonprofits are facing challenges. One such
organization, Lutheran World Relief (LWR), appears to be keeping its
operation steady without major dislocations. LWR CEO John Nunes told Metro
Lutheran, “We’re impacted [by the downturn]. But our budgetary planning
pushed us to a great amount of discipline. Our budget is pretty realistic.”
Nunes drew a contrast between LWR and a comparable relief agency, Catholic
Relief (CR). LWR receives between 10 and 15 percent of its income from the
federal government. CR receives around 80 percent. Much like a community
that bet on one industry to keep it economically healthy, there are risks,
Nunes said, in putting too many of your eggs in one basket when anticipating
Currently, LWR receives around a tenth of its income from foundations. But
the greatest portion of its support derives from two sources — Lutheran
denominations, including the ELCA and the LCMS, and individuals and
congregations. Denominations provide a hefty 35 percent, while donations
from congregations and individuals amount to a whopping 45 percent, nearly
half of the LWR budget.
The agency has an endowment backed by investments, but hasn’t depended
on that income for operations. It uses those funds for special projects. Like
any Lutheran ministry, the LWR portfolio has less value today than it had a
year ago.
That raises the inevitable question. What’s happening with support from
denominations, congregations, and individuals? One might expect to see a
tightening and a downward trajectory, but Nunes says not. “Our donors, and
the Lutheran church bodies as well, have been faithful. They continue to
maintain their support for our work.
The results of the most recent U.S. election appear to have helped LWR. So
have the changed realities of the September 11, 2001, attacks and the U.S.
involvement in two wars simultaneously. “Our supporters are [now] seeing the
world with new eyes. They really care about what we do, given the fact that
we have such an impact for good beyond this country’s borders. Lutherans
have a faith perspective. They are aware that the world is bigger than we are.”
Nunes travels the world a lot, visiting LWR ministry sites. He says the LWR
impact could be increased by the changed political reality in the U.S. “I see
Barack signs everywhere I go overseas. It becomes clear, as one travels, that
the U.S. is liked around the world. When I communicate that, it makes it
easier to get support for our work.”
But aren’t stateside Lutherans circling the wagons as the economic crisis
worsens? “We’re not finding a dialing back among our committed supporters.
I recently talked to a longtime LWR supporter who told me, ‘My industry
stinks’ [not his exact word]. He works in financial services. He’s cutting back,
personally, in lots of ways, including giving up season tickets to sports
events. No more NBA games. No more unnecessary travel. And yet, he insists
on keeping his LWR pledge where it was last year. So he sent us another
check for $30,000.”
Nunes is no Pollyanna about the situation for “ordinary” church folk. “I worry
about Lutherans in our country. The unemployment rate is impacting them as
it has everyone else. I know that for every one percent rise in unemployment,
one million people are affected. A lot of Lutherans are included in those
numbers. A lot of those Lutherans live in states like Pennsylvania and
Michigan, where the downturn has been absolutely brutal.”
One of the sad consequences of the downturn, Nunes admits, is that local
agencies are struggling. That includes area food banks, homeless shelters,
and similar groups. “They have fewer resources. They depend on the local
community. LWR, by contrast, has that diverse revenue stream. That’s
What happens if LWR begins to feel the pinch? “We have contingency
measures. Cutting staff would be a last ditch measure. Salary cuts would
come first.” Domestically, LWR employs 55, with an additional 60 staff in 17
international offices serving 35 countries.
Nunes was eager to communicate to the U.S. Lutheran community his
gratitude for continuing support for their work. “Lutherans have been heroic
in their LWR support. A lot of it is sacrificial. And no small part of that
support comes from those faithful Lutheran quilters.”
He added, “Our work goes forward. If it’s hampered, we’ll report on that. We
are committed to being good stewards, remaining sober and watchful, and
being accountable to the church.”