Catholics contribute less money to their parish than the members of nearly any other church in the United States. This has been confirmed by every study of religious giving in the last 15 years. In fact, the general rule of thumb is that the typical Catholic household contributes about half as much as the typical Protestant household in the support of their parish. Explanations for low Catholic giving have ranged from negative lay reaction to autocratic parish decision-making processes to the failure of the church to instill a sense of stewardship in the faithful.
Catholic giving to parishes is low. But what about the special collections, those so-called second collections, typically occurring after Communion, that many Catholics find to be so annoying and that cause some to complain about being nickeled and dimed to death? The U.S. bishops sponsor or support one special collection a month. These special collections sustain the heart of the church’s social ministry. They include funding for programs such as the American Bishops’ Overseas Appeal, the Campaign for Human Development, the Campaign for Latin America and the collection for The National Religious Retirement Office. These are large-scale programs. The A.B.O.A. special collections, for example, generated over $14 million in 1999, and the N.R.R.O. raised over $30 million.
Data collected in 1993 by Dean Hoge, Patrick McNamara, Michael Donahue and myself in support of our work on religious giving revealed that the average Catholic household contributed $192 per year to special denominational collections. What factors determine Catholic giving to the special collections? From the data, I was able to identify the following patterns:
Denominational-level factors. Not surprisingly, people’s attitudes toward the denomination are important. Those who are convinced that the church needs their money and those who are enthusiastic about the work of the church contribute more. In addition, those who feel connected to the church by reading religious publications (including local publications, like the local diocesan newspaper, or national publications like America) give more. Nothing surprising here. Those parishioners who expressed a desire to have greater lay involvement in denominational decision-making processes also contributed more to special collections.
Parish-level factors. Two parish-level factors proved to be important. The first was the issue of whether the parish was a stewardship parish. Those who belong to parishes that emphasize the message of stewardship as a guide for living contribute more to the special collections. The stewardship message has been shown to be effective in generating financial support (as well as contributions of time and talent) for parishes. Apparently that message carries over into other types of religious giving as well. The other key parish-level variable was a desire to have greater parishioner influence in parish financial matters. This speaks to the issue of parish financial transparency and accountability.
Personal characteristics. Not surprisingly, parishioners who attend Mass more often (at least weekly) and those who volunteer time to their parish contribute more to the special collections. But of particular interest is the finding that parents who currently have children in parochial schools contribute more. The Rev. Andrew Greeley was the first to recognize that parents of Catholic parochial school children contribute more to support their parish than do their fellow parishioners. Conventional wisdom had falsely said that these parents reduced their donations to the church because they were already paying tuition to the church.
Father Greeley’s findings were confirmed in my study of Catholic giving, although my own suspicion is that much of this is due to the common (but illegal) practice of pastors requiring a certain level of (tax-deductible) parish contributions in order for school parents to qualify for a reduced (not tax-deductible) school tuition. Such shenanigans are probably not at work with the special collections. Yet parochial school parents contribute more. The data do not offer any indication as to whether this trend is due to the parochial school parents’ simply being more committed, whether the causes supported by the special collections are more heavily emphasized in parochial schools or whether some other factor is at work. In any case, in spite of the decline in the number of religious sisters teaching in our schools, the N.R.R.O. collection appears to receive heavy support from parochial school parents (the data did not break out special-collection giving by program).
Decision-making about personal religious giving. One of the most effective techniques for increasing parish giving is getting parishioners to commit themselves to a certain level of giving (either an annual dollar amount or a percent of income). While Catholics do not naturally embrace the concept of pledging (many consider it to be a Protestant idea), the simple fact is that it works. Apparently, the discipline of pledging also affects giving to special collections. Those who approve of pledging, those who actually pledge, those who target their parish giving at either an annual percent of income or annual dollar amount, not only contribute more to their parish, but are also more generous in contributing to the special collections. The least generous givers, both to the parish and to the special collections, are those parishioners who decide weekly what they can afford to give (that was 38 percent of our sample).
Of special interest is the relationship between regular parish giving and contributions to the special collections. I have spoken with any number of pastors who frankly resent the special collections because they are convinced that money contributed to the special collections comes at the expense of parish giving. This is a myth, backed only by anecdotal evidence. The data show that those who are more generous to their parish also contribute more to the special collections. In fact, I found that those who are more generous to their parish are also better givers to non-religious charities. Giving to parishes and giving to other causes are complementary activities, not substitutes for one another. Living out the message of stewardship doesn’t stop at the parish boundaries.
Because of these findings and those of other studies, I offer four recommendations for increasing parishioner contributions to special collections:
1. Use the special collection as an occasion to reinforce the ideal of stewardship. The simple truth is that stewardship is a mission-driven approach to religious giving that works. Parishes that preach the message of stewardship receive larger contributions of time, talent and treasure than do other parishes. And this message carries over to other giving. Our study shows that parishioners belonging to stewardship parishes also contribute more to special collections. Wise directors of the special collections will, therefore, couch their appeal within the framework of stewardship. At the same time that they appeal to parishioners to give to a need, they ought to help parishioners develop a need to give, to learn the joy of giving. Or as one bishop has put it, to teach us to be as reckless in our generosity to the church as God has been in showering gifts upon us.
2. Be accountable. Parishioners want to know where their money is going and how it is going to be used. This is true for parish-level giving, and it is also true for denominational giving. The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA), located at Georgetown University, conducted an in-depth study of the American Bishops’ Overseas Appeal in 1999. Parishioners were asked about factors that would motivate them to contribute more to this special collection. The number one response (determined to be very much or somewhat important by 86 percent of the respondents) was knowing who benefits from the collection. The directors of the special collections have to make certain that parishioners understand exactly where the money is going, and who specifically is benefiting from their programs. If the church wants parishioners to be generous, it has an obligation to show that it is exercising good stewardship itself in the use of contributed funds.
3. Put a face to the collection. This is related to the issue of accountability. Development professionals know that one of the first rules of fund-raising is that people give to people. There is no substitute for the personal touch. Think of all the missionaries who have passed through your parish over the years, appealing for financial support for their missions by telling stories of the hardships they face, and the immense benefits that even a small contribution will bring. Ask yourself, would you have been as generous if you had read the same information in the parish bulletin? One reason why the N.R.R.O. has been so successful (generating more than double the contributions of the next largest special collection) is that parishioners associate a face with the cause. The face could be that of a beloved nun encountered while growing up, or it could be a current nun making the appeal in person at Mass. In the CARA study mentioned above, two-thirds of the respondents indicated that having speakers at Mass the day of the collection would motivate them to be more generous. Most of the special collections’ communication with parishioners is impersonalthrough bulletin announcements, special collection envelopes included in the regular packet of parish envelopes or posters that the directors distribute and hope that the pastors will display. A much more effective use of resources would be to distribute funds to their diocesan liaison people to train lay members to go out to the parishes and make presentations on their behalf. People give to people.
4. Get the bishops on board. It is sad, almost to the point of scandal, that many bishops do not support their own conference’s special collections. Some bishops drop particular national special collections in favor of special collections for a local diocesan cause. Some bishops combine two or more special collections into one and then arbitrarily divide the proceeds. In recent years, participation in the special collections has ranged from a low of 125 dioceses for the collection Aid to the Church in Central and Eastern Europe to a high of 172 for the American Bishops’ Overseas Appeal. Even such a popular cause as the National Religious Retirement Office has not always been supported by all dioceses.
The executive directors of the special collections are hard-working, dedicated professionals who do a marvelous job in the face of daunting odds. But there are some proven approaches that could receive more emphasis. Stressing stewardship, ensuring accountability and making their appeals more personal are obvious first steps. The most critical factor, however, is to convince the bishops to get their own act together in support of these causes.