Why are diocesan appeals going down?

Why are diocesan appeals going down?

money in a collection basket

Brendan Hodge has a good analysis at The Pillar examining diocesan annual fundraising appeals from across the US over the past five years to see if a link is discernible between bad news for the Church in the media and people’s giving.

Whenever these things happen, you hear from people on social media saying, “That’s it! I’m not giving one more cent to the bishop/the diocese/the Church until they clean up their acts!” Frankly, we’ve been hearing the same thing for the past 20 years, ever since the Boston Globe first broke open the Scandal in Boston and the Long Lent began. In this case, Brendan’s question was more immediately about the revelations about former cardinal Ted McCarrick about 3 years ago.

The bottom line appears to be that most dioceses are seeing less money, but that has been a long-term trend apparently unconnected to any specific event. My own opinion is that decreases in fundraising today– apart from a few trend-bucking bumps along the way–has more to do with a decrease in participation in Catholic life than any news event.

In the report, he breaks down appeal results by diocesan size and by arch/dioceses led by cardinals and those that aren’t, noting that Boston had declined the most among dioceses led by cardinals.

Diocesan finances and fundraising are complicated and every diocese does it a little bit different, which can result in a little bit of an apples vs oranges comparison. Here’s what I wrote to Brendan about the situation in Boston. 

Between 2007 and 2010, I worked on the Archdiocese of Boston’s annual appeal, most of that time as manager of gift processing and donor relations, so I’m very familiar with how things worked in Boston during that time and before and somewhat familiar with how it’s developed since. This is mostly what I wrote to Brendan in a comment on his Facebook post:

The giving to the Boston annual appeal is unusually top-heavy with a large proportion (about 1/3 when I was there and perhaps more now) coming from a small number of very large gifts (in the $100,000+ range). A shift in a few of those gifts can make a big change. In fact, I know that some of those major donors I remember from my time there died between 2016 and 2020, which could then result in the heirs not giving at the same rate.

Before the 2001 scandal, 90% of gifts to the appeal were from small (sub-$1,000 donors). Most of those were under $200. By the time I was involved in the appeal, it had shifted so that 80% of gifts (of a much, much smaller appeal) came from gifts larger than $1,000 and at least one-third coming from a handful of people giving over $100,000 each. That is an unsustainable model.

I will admit that I don’t know how those proportions have shifted in the intervening 10 years, but I have to guess not very much.

At this point, the small donors are the ones who will give no matter what until they die and that factor probably accounts for the vast majority of the decrease in smaller gifts, i.e. they’re dying off and not being replaced by younger donors. Anecdotally, I remember a lot of those gifts coming in with personal notes to the cardinal, as if he’s sitting at his desk opening the mail and depositing each of the checks, bless their hearts. It truly was the widow’s mite. 

So, anyway, basically no matter what happens in the news, that part of the appeal is probably "bad news" proof. 

Another factor in Boston is that in the early 2010s, Boston shifted from a voluntary appeal (which funded the Pastoral Center and Central Ministries) to a combination of the voluntary appeal and an assessment against the parish of its “fair share” of the central ministries’ budget. (And if they fundraise over their fair share in the annual appeal, the parish gets some of that money back.)

This is the model that most dioceses follow to one degree or another. In most places, all of the central budget is funded by a parish “tax” or assessment. Very few dioceses were still doing it the way Boston was in 2010. And in many cases, the annual appeal is a fundraiser for Catholic Charities, not the chancery operations.

Fundraising for central ministries was always tricky because while people want to give money to the outward-facing operations like youth ministry and seminary formation and ministries to ethnic communities, a big part of the budget has to go to things like accounting, which are hugely necessary for parishes and schools and the like. An archdiocese is dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars in assets and cash and investments, almost by virtue of being a couple hundred years old, along with hundreds of employees in parishes and schools and ministries and that requires competent people to deal with insurance, investments, accounting, property management, and so on. 

It’s important for average Catholics to support not just their local parish, but also the annual appeal, because the one can’t exist without the other. When vital people get laid off at the chancery and offices are closed, that makes it harder for your pastor to do what he does and can even lead to more parish and school closings. “Voting with your wallet” will be a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.