At the top of the corporate pyramid are two holding companies, the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its subsidiary, the Corporation of the Presiding Bishop. The latter company primarily holds the church’s non-profit enterprises such as educational institutions and charities, as well as the global management of the church’s buildings and grounds. Almost all of these companies are tax-exempt (Arizona Republic 1991).
|Corporate structure of the Mormon business conglomerate as pieced together in the early 1990s by the Arizona Republic newspaper.|
Most commercial businesses fall under the Corporation of the President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. These include media and advertising businesses, radio and television stations, agricultural enterprises and industries, banks and insurance companies, hotels and restaurants, real estate development, forestry and mining operations, transportation and railway companies, etc. (Quinn 1997, pp. 198-225).
This dual structure allows the Mormon church to optimize its asset and capital management by moving money and assets between their tax-exempt and regular businesses as loans, donations or investments. One side of these transactions – the side where the money is made - is mostly obscured from view because churches are not required to file financial statements. The Mormon church doesn’t do so voluntarily either, like other churches and charities do.
Over the course of the last 20 years, the total value of the church’s assets has been estimated at $ 25-40 billion, mostly real estate. The church is also believed to receive $ 5-8 billion annually in tax-free donations from members. All Mormons are expected to pay 10% of their income to the church in exchange for religious privileges like baptism and access to the Mormon temple rituals (Ostling & Ostling 2007, pp. 116-132; Winter 2012; however, Mormonism101.com’s calculations for 2014 put the estimate in the $ 3.5 billion range).
|Consolidated structure of the Mormon business empire as outlined by Businessweek magazine in 2012.|
The most important commercial enterprise in the Mormon business empire is Deseret Management Corporation with an annual turnover of $ 1.2 billion. Another company, AgReserve, owns close to one million acres of farmland in the US alone but is also active in England, Canada, Australia, Argentina and Brazil. Other holdings develop commercial real estate such as the billion dollar City Creek Center in Salt Lake City.
Estimates of the Mormon church’s total land holdings are difficult to make. In principle, governments keep track of land ownership but the Mormon church uses dozens of subsidiaries with names that have no visible link to the church (although the term “Reserve” seems to have been popular for a while). Again, the church obscures its business dealings from the public eye. Nevertheless, it seems safe to say that the Mormon church is one of the largest institutional land owners in the US, and a large land owner in many other parts of the world as well.
Elderly members of the Mormon church are regularly set to work on these commercial properties as “missionaries”. They are expected to pay for their own housing, food, clothing and insurance while working 10 to 12 hours a day without remuneration of any kind. On top of these expenses, they are also expected to keep paying tithing and other regular donations. This type of exploitation is usually linked to extreme cults but also demonstrably applies to the Mormon church.
|Screenshot composed of elements from a Senior Missionary Opportunities Bulletin, in which elderly Mormons are asked to pay thousands of dollars for while providing free labour on one of the Mormon church’s many businesses. Click here to view the complete bulletin.|
Transparency and accountability
The financial services side of the Mormon corporate conglomerate is run by Ensign Peak Advisors, a mysterious entity of which little is known. In this company, billions worth of financial assets change hands every day without any form of internal control or external oversight (Winter 2012).
Mormons tend to be very proud of their church’s business acumen but transparency and accountability, two basic ingredients of responsible business practice, don’t seem to be a concern to the faithful. They neither request nor receive any accounting of the many billions in donations the church receives every year.
The last public financial report dates back to April 1959 (Quinn 1997, p. 219). In England, Canada and New-Zealand, however, the Mormon church is required to publish financial statements in order to maintain its status as a charity (a policy that was recently introduced, but not yet implemented, in the Netherlands as well). These records show that personnel costs and the maintenance costs of buildings and grounds are the church’s major expenses.
Only a tiny fraction of the money is actually spent on charity. This Welfare Services Fact Sheet lists the Mormon church’s humanitarian efforts in 2011 which, on closer inspection, are not the institutional church’s achievements at all but mainly free labour provided by church members to church businesses.
Between 1985 and 2011, the Mormon church also made $ 1.4 billion humanitarian cash donations according to this fact sheet. While this is a mind-boggling number in absolute terms, it come down to less than 2% of the lowest annual tithing revenue estimate per year – orders of magnitude less than other US churches (Ostling & Ostling 2007, p. 132). The 2013 Welfare Fact Sheet no longer lists cash contributions.