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The Mary Whittney Rule - Spending Donations Carefully


In today's economy, a lot of people only have a widow's mite left to give

By Dr. John C. Mrazek

Did you ever get an unsettled feeling about the way you spent money that was donated to you or your organization? Or, have been in a position of financial responsibility or team leadership and someone spent money in a way that shocked or frustrated you? I have in both cases and it caused me to create the Mary Whittney rule for me and my staff.

Mary Whittney was a long term member of a church that I worked at and one of the greatest people I ever met. Mary had been retired for a long time when I met her and lived on a fixed income that was barely enough to live on. But faithfully every month Mary would donate $75 to the church and she never missed a month! Not many people knew about the sacrifices that she was making continually to donate that $75. But I did and it influenced the way I led the finance team and how carefully I spent every penny.

The Mary Whittney rule is a simple process that involves an imaginary conversation between you and Mary. All I asked myself and my team to do was to picture meeting with Mary every time they spent money and asking her if she was OK with the expenditure. The process was effective because we all knew Mary and how much she trusted us to do the right thing with her donation. We also knew that as long as we were building the church and helping people bump into Jesus, Mary would be completely onboard because she regularly told us that she believed in us and the mission of the Church.

Before the Mary Whittney rule was implemented, there would be times when staff members made troubling spending choices. One time a pair of staff leaders, who sat next to each other every day and worked together on a shared ministry, decided to take them and their wives out to dinner for a “strategic planning meeting” and charged the church for the meal. Sometimes that makes sense and would be inbounds in my mind. But this time the $150 expenditure felt hinky to me and our finance director and I felt obligated to ask them some questions. Rather than attack them, I choose to couch my questions around an imaginary conversation with Mary and the rule was born. Both leaders agreed that they probably shouldn’t have spent the money that way and we chalked it up to a learning opportunity that should be not repeated.

The use of an emotional word picture (see Gary Smalley & John Trent), like the imaginary conversation with Mary, worked so well because it put a face and name behind the dollars. I have used this example to explain the use of the rule to many people and staff’s and each time everyone completely understood the power and appropriateness of asking ourselves that question.

Several years ago, radio talk show host Dr. James Dobson used a phrase that challenged me and helped fuel my desire to manage donations carefully. He told a similar story about donor that ended with him calling the donations “Blood Money”. It sounds pretty harsh, but there is a lot of truth behind his statement. For some people and families money is extremely tight and even making a marginal donation can impact whether or not groceries are purchased or bills are paid. When I combine the concept of the Mary Whittney rule with Dr. Dobson’s statement about blood money, I become even more convicted to spend donations very, very carefully.

If this interests you, the first step is to identify a Mary Whittney like person that everyone on your staff knows. Then, in a non-condemning way, explain to your staff how to imagine a conversation with that person where they explain the expenditure and ask them to approve or disapprove it. Most of the time it works and the staff member’s choice is either affirmed or not. If the Mary Whittney rule can stop a few dollars from being spent inappropriately, I think it is worth adding it to your team’s tool box of critical thinking techniques.

The key to spending donations carefully is to instill in your staff an awareness that the money we spend is not our own and that we spend it on behalf of people who sacrificed to give it in the first place. I have used the Mary Whittney rule to guide what I set salaries at for new staff, to evaluate if I needed to attend a conference or seminar, and what vendors I pick to purchase supplies or services from. This rule becomes even more effective when paired with other philosophies like “Totally Transparent Finances”, the 80-10-10 rule, and using projections to guide investments and budgeting.

I would definitely caution you not to become too legalistic about when and why you apply the rule. In my experience, staff are generally very frugal and try their best to be careful. But sometimes they need a gentle reminder and refresher on techniques to help them make the best decisions. Mary would be the first person to trust the decisions of the staff and support their plans. Once you equip your staff with the Mary Whittney rule you will find that there is generally more affirmation instead of less and the consistency of their choices being right will definitely increase.

Mary went home to Heaven a few years ago and I bet that she is smiling as she watches staff leaders carefully evaluate how they are spending their donor’s funds. Whether it is blood money or not, spending donations (while being mindful of the sacrifice of others) needs to be a major consideration of every donation reliant organization. Maybe having an imaginary conversation with your “Mary” will be just the thing needed to help your organization ensure that the impact of every penny given is maximized and not wasted?

By Dr. John C. Mrazek

johnmrazek@sharedxp.org

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