Oct. 17--Billy Graham's claims about eternal salvation are not subject to independent verification. The famed evangelist's insistence on fiscal responsibility is another matter.

From the IRS to professional auditors to independent observers of large philanthropies to the individual donors that contribute most of the annual budget, plenty of people keep an eye on the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. And in an era in which many large religious and secular institutions stand accused of hiding financial hanky panky, Mr. Graham's organization is still cited as an example of doing the right thing. "They continue to this day to be a leader in accountability," said Dan Busby, vice president for member and donor services for the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability. "Their track record across the decades speaks for itself."

The crusade led by Mr. Graham that is scheduled to start Thursday night at Texas Stadium is the most visible part of an empire of Christian evangelistic activity. It's an empire in transition, with daily control of the operation shifting in recent years from Billy to his son, Franklin. Uncertainty about leadership and the tumbling economy contributed to a drop-off of more than $25 million in income between 2000 and 2001, association officials say.

But the standards for financial accountability pioneered by Billy Graham have not changed with the transfer of leadership, association officials and outside observers agree. And even with the drop in revenue, the association continues to spend close to $100 million a year on a variety of ministries. How that money is spent is a matter of remarkably open public record, say experts in philanthropy.

Want to read the association's income tax records? Three years' worth are up on the Web site ? along with the past four annual reports and their audited figures. A Web surfer can easily find out how much Mr. Graham was paid in 2000 ? $209,700, which includes a housing allowance and health insurance and other benefits.

The records also include many of the specifics of how the organization managed more than $400 million worth of donations, investments and properties in the United States and Canada. BGEA records say that the association spends about 7.5 percent to pay for administration and 6.8 percent for fund raising ? both considered very low compared even with other reputable organizations, experts say.

Many other religious leaders and institutions are much less forthcoming, said Dr. Thomas Jeavons, general secretary of a Quaker group called the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting and author of a book on management of Christian service organizations. "The majority do not go to the lengths that the Graham organization does," he said. The Benny Hinn Web site, for instance, offers no information for the casual Web surfer about the finances of that well-known Irving-based evangelist's operations.

Most of the BGEA annual budget is paid from small contributions: the average donation is less than $28, association officials said. That indicates the level of trust and the emotional bond between Mr. Graham and millions of donors, said Rebekah Basinger, a fund-raising consultant for Christian organizations. "I've never run into a donor who says they feel misled or manipulated or strong-armed by the Graham organization," she said. "Even though it's a very large organization and a lot of the people who are giving have never even met someone personally from the organization, they feel a real sense of emotional and spiritual attachment."

The elder Mr. Graham's concern with both appearing and acting financially responsible started early in his ministry. In 1948, he and co-workers and friends George Beverly Shea, Grady Wilson and Cliff Barrows met to discuss how to avoid the most common criticisms of evangelists. Among the points they agreed on, in what became known as the "Modesto Manifesto," was that the Graham team would avoid even any appearance of financial abuse.

In his 1997 autobiography, "Just As I Am," Mr. Graham recalls how that played out following a 1950 crusade in Atlanta. The day after the event ended, an Atlanta newspaper ran two photos: one of Mr. Graham smiling as he departed, the other of his aides struggling to carry away the bulging money sacks containing that day's "love offering." "Was I an Elmer Gantry who had successfully fleeced another flock? Many might just decide that I was," he wrote.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus