Updated April 7: Church agency sues over UMCmarket

Editor's note: After this story initially ran on April 3, Geir Thomas Kristiansen, the executive director of Foundation Automation, contacted United Methodist News Service to share his reaction to the lawsuit.

The United Methodist Church’s finance agency has filed a lawsuit, alleging a vendor contracted to promote a program for giving has failed to pay the amount due and is now infringing on the denomination’s trademarks.

The general church agency filed the suit Friday, March 28, in the federal court in Nashville, Tenn.

The General Council on Finance and Administration’s lawsuit said the agency signed an agreement with Foundation Automation to market, provide a helpdesk and communicate with donors to UMCmarket. The online service, launched last year, allows United Methodists to shop online retailers such as Amazon with a percentage of the sale donated to a local church or United Methodist ministry of their choice.

What the finance agency does not dispute is that the money collected by the UMCmarket program so far has reached the designated United Methodist churches and ministries. As of March 2014, users who made purchases through the program have donated more than $54,000 to United Methodist churches and denominational entities, the lawsuit says.

Instead, the finance agency’s lawsuit contends that Foundation Automation has paid only $5,000 of $100,000 it owes to the finance agency as an “annual sponsorship fee” and has not paid a 10 percent royalty fee based on donations collected. The suit also says that the company is now squatting on the program’s Facebook page and the website UMCMarket.org.

In the meantime, the finance agency announced late April 2 that it has launched UMCmarket.net to continue the online giving program.

“We are confident that donations made through the old web address have reached or will reach their intended United Methodist church or organization, and that they will continue to receive their donations through participation in the enhanced UMCmarket.net system,” said Scott Brewer, an executive with the finance agency.

The UMCmarket.org currently says it is “down for maintenance” and “making necessary improvements.”

The New UMCmarket.Net

The General Council on Finance and Administration announced April 2 that the UMCmarket program has moved to UMCmarket.net. Any churches that previously signed up for the program will be automatically enrolled at the new site, the agency said in a press release.

The new site offers enhanced features for users including:

  • New browser applications with improved functionality that works with all browsers. 
  • Automatic handling of Amazon orders. No more manual verification.
  • Improved customer service with faster response time.
  • A new team with marketing staff that will help educate churches on how to benefit from the program.

“We apologize for the inconvenience and confusion this change may cause, however, we are confident that donations made through old web address, www.UMCmarket.org, have reached or will reach their intended United Methodist church or organization,” the agency said. 

Visit UMCmarket.net

“This message to users is false,” the lawsuit says. Another company, Zebraplace, developed and hosts the platform on its servers. But, without the finance agency’s knowledge, Foundation Automation has registered in its own name the domain name “UMCmarket.org,” the suit says.

The finance agency “has been and continues to be damaged by Foundation Automation’s ongoing and unauthorized use of the UMCmarket.org domain name and ‘UMC’ and ‘UMCmarket’” trademarks, the lawsuit says.

Foundation Automation is a limited liability company based in Boca Raton, Fla., that specialize in micro-donations. 

Geir Thomas Kristiansen, the company's executive director, disagreed with many of the assertions in the lawsuit filed by the General Council on Finance and Administration. Kristiansen, the son of retired Bishop Øystein Olsen, said he initially entered the agreement with the council and Zebraplace because he wanted to help the church. He said he is now talking with his lawyer to determine how to proceed.

"I just think it's sad," he said.

Brewer said the agency’s policy is not to comment publicly on pending legal matters.

Brewer said his agency vetted Zebraplace and Foundation Automation in accordance with council policy on Non-Traditional Revenue Initiatives.

“We continue to review and revise this policy periodically because of the relative newness of the project. We look forward to our continued working relationship with Zebraplace as we continue to offer this innovative giving opportunity to United Methodists and their local churches.”

The lawsuit accuses Foundation Automation of breach of contract, trademark infringement, unfair competition, violations of the U.S. Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act and wrongful interference and deceptive trade practices under Tennessee state law.

The lawsuit seeks that Foundation Automation be required to discontinue any and all use of the UMCmarket.org domain name and Facebook page. The finance agency also seeks payment with interest of the royalty and sponsorship fees, punitive damages and attorney fees.

*Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected].

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