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The Service Project Support Letter

I have a bit of a debate in my head that’s been bothering me for a long while. The case being: Support letters.

If you haven’t grown up in the church and gone on a missions trip this will all be new. But here is the general idea… mission trips are expensive. REALLY expensive. And most of the trips that kids go on are not possible without help of parents, or other relatives helping out. This is not to say that kids in churches do nothing to raise their own money to go on these trips. Many do fund raising activities such as car washes, bake sales and yard sales to raise the money to travel to the country and the world in order to do service projects.

What bothers me, and has always bothered me, is the idea of “support letters.” I don’t know who started this idea but I absolutely HATE it. Whenever adults or teens are going on a trip, they are often encouraged to write a letter to everyone in our family and friend circle asking for  ” support”. Usually it’s something like this:

Dear Auntie Marge,

I’m going to Africa this summer with my church. While I’m there, I’m going to do __________, __________, and ___________. This is such a tremendous opportunity and a real blessing.

I’d appreciate your prayers for me during this time. Also, if possible a donation for the trip would be lovely, as the price of airfare is really expensive…

Love, Jesse

Okay, perhaps not exactly like that, but very similar. Now is it just me or is that really money grubbing? I often wonder, usually when I’m opening letters from kids from my church, why they send them to ME seeing as we’re not close or really even friendly with one another. I also wonder, would the recipient really be satisfied JUST with prayer?

The other thing that really bothers me is that a lot of these kids go on the trip and NEVER send a thank you note. They receive our donation and best wishes and often we don’t get a thank you or even hear how the trip went.  (It goes without saying that these kids are never sponsored by us ever again.)

When I was in high school I had the unique privilege to travel to Honduras. I’ll never forget the trip- it changed my life forever. But I’ll never forget everything that went on before hand. The original due dates for money had to be moved back because kids did not have their money in on time. They were frantically writing “The letters”.

I found this all amusing because instead of following my Pastor’s advice,  I had refused to send out a single support letter, instead relying on my $6.50 an hour job at the ice cream store and cleaning jobs to pay my way. I worked at all the fundraisers, somehow finding time to balance in work, school and everything else. Since we had to sign up months beforehand, I barely spent money on pleasure items because I was saving for the trip. I was often amazed by how my fellow students had money for CDs and other goodies when I was cutting back. (Actually, I received a little abuse for my “tight fistedness”. I always had spending money growing up, however that stopped once I got my first job. My family is fairly well off, and I admit – unlike many kids I did not have to pay for my first car, or even gas money. However I still rode the bus to school and I only used the car to go to work, which was less than a 5 minute drive away.) Anyway, back to topic, Support Letters were both hoped for and expected from relatives and friends. And in my opinion, kids were far too dependent on them. They seemed to think they were entitled to the money, more so than it being a gift.

On the original day that the money was due, I walked into the pastor’s office and told him that I had the $3000 dollars and that I was prepared to pay him. The pastor was shocked. He asked me if I had received any help from anyone.  I think he was concerned because I had been taking some college courses online during my senior year of high school and he didn’t want me to struggle paying for everything. But as I said before, my family is well off, and my parents were generous to me. They told me that paying for my classes was their contribution of helping me go to Honduras). I’d like to add I was the only one, out of 20 people, who worked and paid ENTIRELY their own way. And it took every penny I had. But so worth it.

Last year I went to Mexico, this time all by myself instead of with a church group. I told people I was going and although I never asked for money, some gave me money anyway. I had one couple who said they felt that God was asking them to give me 10 percent of their daily paycheck every two weeks the whole summer. You’d better believe that when I got back, every person who gave me money received a card and a letter with pictures telling them what I did in Mexico, what I used their money for and thanking them for being so kind.I also did a little presentation at the community center and made Mexican food and set up a slide projector to show pictures of what I did.

And if I may be so bold as to add… one lady from the community liked it so much she asked me to go to her church and do the same presentation and explain to the youth that this would be a beautiful thing for them to do when they come back from trips so that the community of people who had supported them could see what they had done during their time away. Unfortunately, the Pastor did not approve of the idea and it never came about. 0301-11

I share your twitchy perspective on letters from individual church members soliciting money to travel for service or missions projects.    My squeamishness is based on two things:

1)  Typically I barely know them and certainly have not had the privilege of being a prior recipient of their written social pleasantries such as Christmas cards, birthday cards, thank you notes, “how you doing?” or “get well” notes.   Therefore solicitation of support letters are often the first written correspondence I’ve ever received from these persons and I find that a little presumptuous upon the meager social connection we do share. I’m not partial to people using God as their justification of financial presumption upon others.   The moral of this is, if you couldn’t have been bothered to express yourself cordially and graciously among your acquaintances over the years, it’s probably not a good idea to presume they will happily receive a written solicitation for money.

2) I believe that if a person believes God wants him/her to go to XX and serve there, God will provide the means for that person to go without the need to beg for financial support among the family and friends.  Often that “means” is a healthy constitution and time to work to achieve what you believe your goal is with a little sacrifice thrown in.    My church sends out yearly service teams to an orphanage in Mexico for medical check ups, construction and repair projects, etc. and sponsors corporate church fundraising such as a huge yard sale, bake sales, car washes, etc to fund it.   How much each service worker donates of his/her own time to help at these functions determines how much of the pool of collected money is allotted to them to fund their trip.   No work, no money.

One clever way to raise funds was to solicit donation pledges from area businesses for every hour of work a person did at a local charity….in other words, a young person would work three or four hours a weekend volunteering at a local charity cleaning, stacking, organizing, etc and the money they would have earned per hour of work went into their fund for their service project travel.  It’s a great bang for the buck, a double whammy of benefit both locally and globally and encourages the mindset that something worth having is worth working for.


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  • Enna March 29, 2011, 9:38 am

    This is done in a very rude tackey way and does encourage anti-religious opinions. If someone works hard to raise funds and thanks people in the the correct polite way then that is proper. I liked the OP writing thank you letters and doing a presentation to show what s/he achieved. People should only ask those who they know and only expect to people to give what they can afford.

    When I was a young child I did a bike ride with other young Diabetics to raise funds for the local diabetes group – I asked both sets of grandparents if they would sponser me and they did because 1) I was their diabetic granddaughter they would want to help me and 2) diabetes is in the family on both sides (heance how I got it). I didn’t ask or demarnd for X amount I asked along the lines of “please could you sponser me and how much would that be?”I would be happy for £1 or £2 pounds – they gave me £20!

  • Enna March 29, 2011, 9:39 am

    P.S I also said thank you as I wasn’t expecting THAT much!

  • mayhug March 29, 2011, 9:44 am

    My daughter and myself have both participated in missions trips. I paid for mine, she worked hard to save the money and also sent a few support letters. They were all to people who we knew were willing to support the endeavor and she offered wo work in return for the money if possible. She spent a long time putting together pictures of our trip and writing individual thank you letters to her sponsors. As the Dame said, it was hard work, we were up with the sun and to bed late. We worked at an orphanage as well. We did story time/crafts with the kids in the mornings and hard labor in the afternoon. (One trip we mixed concrete by hand and poured a portion of road) Then in the evening we held church services for the local churches.
    While I agree that these letters shouldn’t be sent to everyone and their brother, they do have their place occasionally.

  • --Lia March 29, 2011, 10:30 am

    Thank-you for that excellent description of what the mission trips are like. The solicitation letter described originally is still outrageous, the one where the student asks for money and doesn’t thank the giver, but it doesn’t sound quite as outrageous as I originally feared. I’d never heard of either mission trips or the various ways they’re paid for and am glad for the information. One more piece of the big wide world I hadn’t known about. Thanks.

  • Michelle P March 29, 2011, 10:55 am

    I’ve been active in church for many years, and thankfully I’ve never had to deal with this. I’ve never been on mission trips that my old church had, because I couldn’t afford it. I do know that they are nowhere near a vacation, at least a real mission trip is not, based on what friends of mine who have gone have said.

    I wouldn’t dream of soliciting anyone, especially anyone outside of church or family, for anything!

  • 1st-Time Mommy March 29, 2011, 10:56 am

    Having travelled on quite a few missions trips throughout my youth, I can tell you that they run the gamut.

    The good ones are rewarding, backbreaking work, with a true focus on service. You get up at the crack of dawn and go about a task that provides for the community of wherever you are. This can be anything from digging wells, to building houses, to trash pick-up. You help create an infrastructure amongst the people of that community so that your good work is continued once you leave. And the focus is always on showing God’s love through serving others, NOT proselytizing. The focus is never on having a “great experience”, but on what good can be done for the people who live there.

    The bad ones are just glorified, self-righteous vacations. The kids who come focus mainly on finding a boyfriend or girlfriend to hook up with for the trip, and more days are spent sightseeing the location than actually out in the community. The “service” involves such obnoxious behavior as passing out tracts to strangers on the street, and putting on special performances (drama or music, usually) for local host churches. The whole attitude from the sponsoring churches for these types of trips is “what a great experience it will be for the youth”.

    I’ve come home from some missions trips very fulfilled and uplifted by the experience, and from others, disillusioned and disgusted. But I don’t remember us ever sending out support letters.

  • Nicole March 29, 2011, 1:56 pm

    My dentist makes an annual mission trip to South America to do free dental work. A great cause, but I got tired of him soliciting his patients (both in person and through his newsletter) for donations to fund the trip, and now he is my ex-dentist. He felt that donating his time and professional services was doing his part and that others should pay for his travel and lodging. I got tired of being asked every single time I went into the office for a donation. (And with what my dental work cost that year – I was already funding the trip!)

  • --E March 29, 2011, 2:13 pm

    I had never heard of such a thing until a letter arrived from my young cousin with such a request. My instant gut reaction: “This is tacky.”

    Soliciting money for direct charitable donation is one thing. Sponsoring someone in a Walkathon or other fundraising activity makes sense to me. But for a mission? I don’t know what the person will do–is it a glorified vacation? Is it just a chance to preach at the masses? What value are they bringing to the people they’ll be visiting?

    It seems a little shady because of the direct-solicitation arrangement. If you want to build a school or supply medicine or dig a well in a village, there are lots of existing charities that already do these things. Why does this person need to personally go there for two weeks? Mightn’t that money be better donated to Doctors Without Borders, Aid for Africa, or a Peace Corps project?

  • Rebel March 29, 2011, 4:15 pm

    OMG! I couldn’t agree more. I hate these letters for exactly the reasons given. One friend sent a letter addressed to my parents asking for money and I was horrified.

    I completely support the idea of going abroad for personal growth and/or for humanitarian reasons but the idea of sending out ‘support’ letters begging for money is just seriously offensive to me. Either earn the money yourself or participate in a fundraiser, that’s fine, but don’t go begging for money from people you barely know.

  • Maitri March 29, 2011, 4:31 pm

    “Another thing we do is help out church members by helping the clean thier house”

    I’m not religious, but if anyone I knew told me they’d help clean my house for a charitable donation, I’d be all for it. Merry Maids makes you sign a contract! I can’t afford a regular maid, but a one-time cleaning? I’d gladly pony up some cash!

    High schoolers should do this more instead of just asking for money.

  • HannaLee March 30, 2011, 7:00 am

    I have received these exact letters from family members *that I didn’t even know I had*

    One day I opened my mail and found out that my mother has a second cousin who was planing a mission trip to Africa. Not only had I never met her, but I didn’t even know she existed. The letters asked for prayers, support and, perhaps if you are feeling charitable, buying a share of the trip.

    I decided to write her a letter introducing myself and my family and wish her the best of luck with her mission to get money and well as her mission trip.

  • C.J. March 30, 2011, 8:32 am

    I have never been one to make these types of notes, but, when I was in middle school, our family could not afford the cost of church camp due to exceptional circumstances one year. When people asked me why I wasn’t going, I talked about the summer reports I had to do for school. I suppose my youth pastor, knowing the circumstances and that I never missed an opportunity to be at church or an outing, saw through these excuses, though, and offered my mom a scholarship. I’d helped with the car washes and yard work that had helped offset the cost of the other kids’ trip (it wasn’t enough of an offset to help me, but I liked helping), and my youth pastor took the difference out of a discreet scholarship fund he’d had. Suddenly, my school work could wait one week.

    My friend wants to become a missionary, and last year, he spent several years out of the country serving others and learning about being a missionary. The cost was over 5,000 dollars, and he expected it all to come from the generosity of others, not from any changing of his own lifestyle habits. Mind you, the guy’s not rich, but he lives at home and works full time, so a little willful saving from the moment he realized he wanted to do this would have kept him from needing any handouts. Secretly, I was amazed that he expected people to pay for his training while he spent his money as he pleased in the months leading up to his trip. One day, at dinner, he groaned that his fund wasn’t where it needed to be at this point in the fundraising, and that maybe it wasn’t meant to be. He and I are close (and I’d already given him $150 dollars), so I explained that God doesn’t help those who won’t help themselves. Suddenly, those dinners out became far less frequent. 🙂 Although… I never did get a thank you card.

  • Enna March 30, 2011, 11:52 am

    It’s not just anti-religious feeling this kind of rude behaviour encourages it is also encourages anti-charitable behaviour. – you can also put any campagin word to replace “religious”.

    I volunteer for a charity and sometimes when we do mail-outs donors will ask for ONE appeal letter only a year and the chairty does its absoulate best to honour that. When we do our Annual Review Mailout we do hope people will donate but only if they want and how much they are happy giving. In away just letting them know where their money has gone provides enough statisfaction when sending out the Annual Reviews.

    If they don’t donate maybe a firend or a relation will pick the Annual Review up? Also it’s not just about money – many donors give lovely knitted or croqucted goods such as teddies, blankets, scarves, baby booties that are vital to helping the children. If I was going to do a sponsered event such as camping in a “huanted field” (weird example I know) but I would ask for donations of goods as well as money – if someone had a sleeping bag they could loan me or camping clothes / equipment that they could loan or if they didn’t need anymore I could donate to chairty afterwards.

  • RP March 30, 2011, 1:07 pm

    The other thing that really bothers me is that a lot of these kids go on the trip and NEVER send a thank you note. They receive our donation and best wishes and often we don’t get a thank you or even hear how the trip went.

    OK, that’s the thing that tears it for me. I can of see how someone would think that because it’s a good cause and in support of mission work that it’d be OK to ask members of the church to help out. I understand how they got from Point A to Point B.

    What I do not get is not thanking someone for a gift. Every non-profit I’ve ever given to says, “Thank you”. They know they are only able to do their work through the generosity of others and they show it. Even if the mission work is exempt due to it being a non-profit or charity thing that doesn’t make the people sending these letters exempt from sending thanks. If anything the letter of solicitation ought to require an equally formal thank you card.

    I also don’t like the idea of not telling people how the money will be spent or how the trip went. Again, non-profits disclose how much money is spent directly on the goal of the charity instead of overhead and they report how well their efforts are going. This shouldn’t be any different.

  • Jules March 30, 2011, 1:57 pm

    Mission trips aren’t big things at all in this country and when they are undertaken are usually done by retirees that can pay for it by themselves.

    However, I have similar qualms with many charity related expeditions. Especially at my age, in the early twenties, its not a secret that much of the work done in the name of “charity” is to look good on one’s CV or university application. I do not appreciate receiving any form of contact from people who’s “fundraising” goes towards their flights, accomodation etc etc rather than the cause. If I donate ten pounds to your chosen cause on the understanding of yo completion of climbing kilamonjaro or whatever then I want the cause to recieve ten pounds, not the airline, not the guides, not your accomodation – YOU need to pay for that.

    My brother does this. He has done many expeditions and endurances for charity in far flung places, but the donations he receives cover EVERYTHING. He literally does not have to raise a penny and I find this disgusting. I feel like I am being constantly asked to pay for him to have big and exotic holidays under the name of “charity”. Of course the charity’s still receive sizeable donations from his endeavours but that is not the point. Basically the only “work” he puts into it, on top of his normal fitness regime, is sending out mass emails, Facebook messages, sweetly worded letters and updating his blog. I find it vile and I have always refused point blank to give to him. I feel he is stocking up his CV and life experience on other people’s wallets and it says a lot for the reality of his moral compass.

    And I think the many, many people that do this – that trek through the Amazon, climb through the Himalayas, visit the arctic etc in the name of goodwill on other people’s pretty penny are not only bad ambassadors for the charities they claim to represent and for their own generation but they blight the paths of the people who have worked long and hard to cover their own needs to afford these sort of trips for causes they passionately believe in with suspicion. I find it very, very sad and it makes me very, very angry and I will never, ever condone anything like it.

    If you cannot afford it, you do not go. Full stop.

  • Dulcibella March 31, 2011, 6:36 pm

    This “support letter” thing was unheard of to me until I received a letter from my niece’s school asking for a donation for her track team. So I mailed a nice check (she lives over 1000 miles away.) I never heard a word of thanks from her or from the school. So the next couple of years when the letters arrived they went straight into the trash.
    Where I live the teens do fundraising events for mission trips or for their sports teams. Like car washes, bake sales, spaghetti dinners, pancake breakfasts, raffles, etc. The only ones I don’t care for are when they sell junky stuff door to door. I have on more than one occasion just given the kid some money as a donation because I don’t want to buy any of the junk.

  • Enna April 4, 2011, 6:09 am

    It’s about getting a balence: polite promiting your cause with maxium donations rasied for your chairty in the correct manner. Sometimes coperate businesses will sponser e.g. donate money or living costs or sponser runing clothes to help assit a charity with volunteers as this can often get them advertising too.

  • Jennifer April 13, 2011, 2:43 am

    I’m not fond of mission letters (religious or general international aid) for several reasons.

    One is the nature of many of these trip; the person is partially motivated by a desire to help people, but is also generally motivated by the opportunity to travel to a foreign country for an interesting trip. These trips are extraordinarily inefficient means of helping others or spreading a religious message – thousands of dollars of airfare and travel expenses to send an untrained person for a couple of weeks. If you really, really want to help as much as possible you can

    1) Volunteer your time to local religious activities or charities, with a much lower overhead.

    2) Donate money directly to a reputable organization already involved in country X, which has trained, knowledgeable personnel in place and functioning.

    3) Volunteer for an amount of time that makes the overhead of training and transportation logical. That means not a couple of weeks over summer break, but a couple of years of your life.

    4) Admit that this is really as much vacation as religious fervour or charitable impulses, and pay your own way.

  • Grey Ghost January 2, 2013, 5:24 pm

    We are Latter-day Saints (Mormons). Two of my sons have been missionaries; one has returned, one is still serving, and both my wife and I have served missions. These are not “mission trips,” but full-time proselyting missions. The missionaries themselves, and their families, are expected to pay the entire cost of these 24-month missions (during which missionaries do not come home, and write emails to their families weekly, calling only on Christmas and Mother’s Day). I know that many of your readers may not look kindly on those white-shirted young men knocking on their doors, or have much interest in their message – but readers, rest assured they aren’t committing a major etiquette faux pas in obtaining funding to be there! 🙂

    Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints would be shocked and mortified by the tawdry practice of soliciting funds for a mission. It is simply never done. There are families who are unable to cover the cost. Other more fortunate members of local congregations usually discreetly let local leaders know that they are able and willing to help support a missionary who wishes to serve, who has made every effort, but who cannot afford it. I cannot imagine getting a letter from a young Mormon man or woman asking for support for their mission.

    Former high school classmates of my wife, adults with children of their own, are currently full-time professional missionaries for an evangelical organization. We get a couple letters a year (generic newsletter-type things) telling us what they’re doing and asking for financial support. I have to confess that my uncharitable reaction is usually, “Come home and get a job.”

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