Compassion International's steady growth helps Colorado Springs economy - and kids worldwide

By SUZANNE EVANS suzanne.evans@gazette.com - Updated: July 21, 2013 at 1:27 pm • Published: July 21, 2013 | 12:00 am 0

It's not a business, but the Christian-based nonprofit Compassion International probably has as much impact on the Pikes Peak area economy as any for-profit enterprise, and its presence keeps growing. And growing. And growing some more.The organization, which works to alleviate poverty among children worldwide, has grown so much since moving to Colorado Springs in 1980 that it has its own zip code and is the largest nonprofit in an area that has more than 2,000 of them.

"We are one of the top four largest international nonprofits in the United States," said Tim Glenn, the USA Communications Director for Compassion International.

Recently, Compassion expanded into the former LexisNexis building near Northgate and Interstate 25, which it purchased, along with about a dozen acres, for $15.7 million last year because the headquarters it built at 12290 Voyager Parkway had become cramped. About 900 of the nonprofit's 2,500 international employees are based in the Pikes Peak area - numbers that have nearly doubled since 2008.

"With an annual economic impact of nearly $3 billion, the nonprofit sector is a real differentiator in our regional economy," said Joe Raso, President and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, which counts nonprofits as one of its focus industries. "Compassion is a major leader in this sector."

Compassion International is probably best known for its one-to-one child sponsorship program, in which individuals or families pay $38 a month to provide the child with Christian teaching, educational opportunities, health care and other support.

Last year, the 61-year-old organization helped about 1.3 million children in 26 of the poorest countries in the world, and earned $598 million, with about 82 percent of it - $493 million - going to the sponsored children in the form of grants to Compassion's partner churches.

"That 493-million is for food, it's for clothing, it's for after school tutors, it's for teaching life skills, teaching hygiene skills," Glenn said. The remaining $105 million went for administration, salaries and fundraising.

In the eyes of one organization that rates nonprofits, that's a pretty good use of funds. Compassion has been rated as a four-star charity by Charity Navigator for 12 years in a row - ever year since Charity Navigator's launch in 2001. Charities are rated on a number of criteria regarding their financial transparency and accountability as well as sustainability and growth.

"That consistency and the excellence of their performance is something they should be very proud of and that can give donors a level of confidence when supporting this charity," said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator.

Miniutti said that, unlike a number of other faith-based nonprofits, Compassion makes a point to maintain its finances and have a healthy reserve.

"I think, many times we see that religious charities have a mentality that a higher power will provide, so they don't necessarily build the same level of reserves as other types of nonprofits," she said.

Compassion has experienced significant growth since 2008, even in the years when the economy hit bottom. From 2011 to 2012, the organization saw a revenue increase of nearly $50 million. Mark Hanlon, Senior Vice President, USA for Compassion International, is optimistic that growth will continue.

"We just had our biggest month ever in the history of Compassion in the month of May," Hanlon said. "We're seeing some incredible growth coming from the fiscal year and just from this last month. We see the economy recovering, we see good things happening. People are employed again, people are going out to activities that we're presenting at Compassion."

In May alone, Compassion had 21,000 people sign up as sponsors, and Hanlon expects Compassion's reach to continue to expand dramatically in the next decade.

"We feel that God is calling us to be prepared to handle up to 4 million babies, kids in our program and students by the year 2020," he said. "We'll be prepared and hopefully we'll get to 2018 and say, 'Man, we better prepare more,' because it looks like we're going to be busting off the doors on that."

Compassion's activity reflects their growth. In addition to acquiring a new building, the organization recently launched its monthly magazine, Compassion Magazine, in a free iPad app. It's been awarded the Gallup Great Workplace Award for two consecutive years, and recently participated in a study by Dr. Bruce Wydick, an economist and professor at the University of San Francisco, about the direct effects of child sponsorship programs.

The nonprofit's dramatic growth has come in spite of a decision not to advertise. Most people are familiar with commercials depicting poverty and attempting to guilt the audience with what Compassion calls the pornography of poverty.

"People get numb, get turned off," Hanlon said. "The flies in the eyes, the bloated bellies, you gotta do something, feel guilty. That's not how we want to motivate people as Compassion. In the long term, that isn't effective."

Hanlon said child deaths from preventable diseases worldwide have fallen dramatically since he began working with Compassion in the 1970s.

"What we've seen is that in a generation, it's been reduced by over 50 percent," said Hanlon. "Is Compassion the sole reason for that decline? No. But we're a part of it."

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