Caller Beware: The Prayer Line Business

Prayer lines are the secret ingredient driving the financial success of televangelism.

In a recent Form 990, Christian Broadcasting Network reported, “In 2020, the prayer center department handled 184,859 outbound and 1,935,522 inbound phone calls. A total of 4,488 people prayed the prayer of salvation with our prayer center employees and 6,677 people rededicated their life to Christ.”

When viewers call the prayer lines, call center employees and volunteers manning phones collect donations and say prayers after obtaining names and addresses.

The harvesting of contact information is a critical component of fundraising. Once a viewer is added to a ministry’s mailing list, solicitation letters are soon to follow.

When a viewer requests prayer for a job or health problem, their prayer need is listed in a database which is later used for generating personalized solicitation letters.

In 1991, ABC Primetime Live broadcast an investigative report featuring a secretly recorded meeting between Jim Moore, head of Response Media, and Trinity Foundation founder Ole Anthony.

The goal of the meeting was to learn the techniques televangelists used to grow their media empires. Moore told Anthony, “Give them something free. You know, we ought to mail you the latest copy of X and get their name and address. New names is the key, new names.”

Telemarketing Costs

One of the key metrics for concerned donors is program services. This is the money spent on the mission of the non-profit organization. Program services is determined by subtracting management and fundraising expenses from total expenses. These amounts are disclosed on the Statement of Expenses Page of a Form 990.

Religious non-profits with a national media presence often rent mailing lists of like-minded organizations. When launching media campaigns, ministries may turn to telemarketing companies with large call centers.

The costs of telemarketing and direct mail solicitation for religious organizations (churches, synagogues and mosques are exempt from filing) are disclosed on Schedule G of the Form 990.

The following picture lists ten fundraising companies working on behalf of International Fellowship of Christians & Jews in 2019.

Three of the telemarketers were paid more than the amount of money they raised. For example, MDS Communications was paid $1.2 million while raising only $600K. Is this effective stewardship?

InfoCision, the Ohio-based telemarketing firm representing politicians and political causes on the left (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and right (National Rifle Association of America), is a common telemarketer for religious charities.

In 2018, InfoCision paid a $250,000 penalty for false solicitation during phone calls. The Federal Trade Commission reported, ” … despite initially saying they were not calling to solicit donations, InfoCision’s telemarketers allegedly asked consumers to donate money, typically in amounts ranging from $10 to $50.”

InfoCision telemarketers violated the Telemarketing Sales Rule which prohibits misrepresentation during telemarketing calls.

Trinity Foundation is seeking tips from donors that have been the target of fraudulent telemarketing calls and direct mail solicitation. Victims are encouraged to email Trinity Foundation or fill out the Religious Abuse or Fraud Questionnaire.