A funny thing happened to me last night when I went to Mass. There was no Catholic Charities Appeal. It turns out I misread my calendar, and the Appeal is next week. I carry a certain ambiguity about the annual campaign that probably dates back to my first one as pastor in the 1970’s. A few recollections from someone who conducted fifteen Catholic Charity drives in the role of pastor may explain my dyspepsia.
In the first instance, when your individual parish announces its financial “goal” for the annual campaign, this number is not a spontaneous inspiration. It is calculated by a secret formula that no pastor, to my knowledge, has even been able to crack. Since the goals are public knowledge (I always knew what my neighboring parishes were expected to give) we pastors used to sit around at social gatherings and attempt to crack the code. Looking back, I doubt that even Dr. Sheldon Cooper of “The Big Bang Theory” could crack the code. Needless to say, complaints among pastors about their goals being set too high were rife; again, relying on memory, I think there was an appeal process, but I can’t recall an avalanche of successes.
The campaign was awash (and still is) in euphemists. The “goal” is not an idealistic plateau; it is in actually an assessment, or to be more blunt, a “tax.” A parish that does not meet its goal in a fiscal year is billed for the balance from the parish’s general operational funds. My first goal back in 1978 was $8000. My present home parish is assessed around $550,000 this year. Another euphemism, and one that is much more troubling to me, is the use of the word “charity.” In popular language I think it is fair to say that “charity” is defined as direct services: feeding the hungry, providing tuition assistance, caring for the sick, etc. There are watchdog organizations such as Charity Navigator that monitor the ratio of dollars raised to direct services; about twenty Catholic Dioceses are listed in the Charity Navigator database; these dioceses were not rated poorly. This is a very useful site, by the way, for all of your charitable giving beyond the church as well. (One troubling point: in looking at the sites for three dioceses today on Charity Navigator, all three were running at deficits per IRS reporting.)
It is my impression over the years that while most dioceses advertise as hands on charities in brochures and videos, most of the moneys are actually targeted toward diocesan or chancery administration. A good case in point is Catholic schools: while children in plaid Catholic school uniforms grace the visual promotions, my own diocese does not in fact have a tuition assistance program for low income children. This need is addressed by a parish’s offertory income when possible, and in a few cases, by endowments established by visionary pastors. “Funding of Catholic school children” is in reality funding of the Office of Schools. There is nothing inherently dishonest or fraudulent here; Catholic schools are accredited by the State of Florida and are bound to strict regulatory record keeping. Obviously, this cannot be overseen by volunteers. But I do not see a clear and adequate explanation in fundraising mechanics.
One of Charity Navigator’s measures of an institution is transparency or disclosure: donors have a right, within reason, to know how their moneys are spent, as well as the general health of an institution. Some years ago a national consulting firm advised me that as pastor I should advertise the actual cost of educating a student in my school, which was considerably larger than the announced tuition. Much to my surprise, a number of parents offered to pay the entire amount, and others in the parish came forward to adopt a child’s tuition. Although it went against my personal fears, I gradually learned to have more trust in the wisdom and good will of active Catholics.
Trusting the Catholics of any diocese with a clear picture of the Diocesan financial structure would go a long way in restoring a positive attitude toward this annual event. My diocese used to call its drive the Bishop’s Annual Service Enrichment campaign, or BASE. For some reason this strikes me as more forthcoming. That said, sometime this week this household will go on line to participate. I will be honest that Catholic Charities is not my highest priority goal; the religious order that paid for my college and graduate schooling has a much greater claim on my charity as its geriatric costs climb. But, while our priorities may differ; our obligation is universal.
On My Mind