Jana Riess: I volunteered with the LDS Church’s ‘Light the World’ Giving Machines for Christmas. Here’s what I saw.

A faith that has been criticized for its vast wealth is trying to do more for charity.

In Latter-day Saint circles, it seems to be a trope that whenever we perform an act of service, we talk about how grateful we are for the opportunity to serve, and how it helped us more than it did the recipient.

Well, last night I volunteered to help with Cincinnati’s “Light the World” Giving Machines. Not to sound like a cliché, but I’m grateful for the opportunity, which I found touching and surprising. I doubt it helped me more than the recipients of the charity, but it certainly put me in a much better mood than I had been, since I’ve been grieving the sudden death of an old friend.

As background, the Giving Machines launched in 2017, when The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a single one in Salt Lake City. People responded to the vending machine concept — just swipe a credit card, and give a cow or some textbooks to a child in need. That first year, the church raised more than half a million dollars for global and local charities from that single machine.

Every year since then (or at least, every year when we haven’t been in a global pandemic), the program has grown.

In 2022, there were machines in 28 cities, and the effort raised more than $7 million for charity. This year, the church has more than doubled the number of cities that got machines — which explains why our humble city of Cincinnati received some — with more than 60 locations around the world.

Also new this year is the fact that more than 250 nonprofits are participating in the effort as recipients of people’s gifts, which the church says is more charities than all of the previous years of the program added together.

In my area, we have three machines, set up in the Macy’s corridor of the Kenwood Mall. Kenwood is that spotted owl of 21st-century retail: a busy, successful indoor legacy mall. So we had a good deal of foot traffic, especially because one of the suburban Latter-day Saint congregations decided to have its youth night right there inside the mall, where they brought their whole families and people made donations. There were a couple of live musicians playing and lots of wonderful low-key socializing.

We didn’t have many takers who didn’t seem to already be Latter-day Saints. But church members were certainly excited about the Giving Machines. Some of my fellow volunteers drove down from Dayton, about an hour away. And I have heard of families traveling from as far away as Cleveland just to make a donation and teach their kids more about charitable giving.

I spoke with Mark Motley, a volunteer coordinator for our area, who said it’s a blessing to these kids to get to choose for themselves what they want to give. “They pick out the soap or the goat or whatever they want to do, and then it becomes real for them. And you see that sort of light sparkle.”

I saw it, too — that sparkle in the kids’ eyes. They seemed fully engaged in the process. (Incidentally, the aforementioned goat was probably our strongest seller, with backpacks a close second.) I know there is a legitimate criticism to be made of the consumerist mentality that physically equates charitable giving to, say, buying a bottle of Coca-Cola. But I can’t deny that people loved it, and I was touched by their excitement.

I’m happy to see the church doing this, giving from its own vast resources to help small and large nonprofits work for good in the world. Some of the organizations we could support in the Giving Machines last night included international ones such as the Red Cross and Lifting Hands International, but others were local to Cincinnati, including our diocesan Catholic charity and Shelterhouse, which aims to break the cycle of homelessness in our city. I understand that other cities’ Giving Machines have a similar mix of international and local options.

As I’ve chronicled, painfully, in this column, the news that the church was hoarding more than $100 billion in its stock portfolio just about broke me. Since then, I have learned more about the church’s finances and have come to realize that $100 billion is only a portion of its wealth; the total figure is likely significantly higher.

I do not believe any church that claims to represent Jesus Christ in the world should be hoarding that much wealth. It is obscene, outrageous and spiritually dangerous. Having been burned before, I’ve become cautious about reports that the church has recently upped its game in charitable giving. Compared with the wealth it’s sitting on, even donations of a few million dollars here and there are frankly a drop in the bucket.

I’ve also seen skepticism online about whether the charities actually benefit from the money that’s promised to them through these Giving Machines. I understand why people wonder about this, since the church has broken trust about how it handles its finances. Happily, I have heard from charities themselves that they do receive every penny donated to them through the Giving Machines. In addition, the church handles the credit card transaction fees, which could have dipped into their donations by 3%.

I did notice that prominently displayed on the side of every Giving Machine at the Cincinnati location is the promise that 100% of donors’ contributions would be given to the charities of their choice.

It’s good to see the church is publicly making that pledge and standing by it. It was an honor to be part of the effort.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Religion News Service columnist Jana Riess.

(The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)