When Does Fundraising Become a Shakedown? — UPDATED!

Since yesterday, when news first broke of the conflict between Bishop Zurek of Amarillo and Priests for Life Head Fr. Frank Pavone, a number of readers have written critically of PFL’s funraising campaigns. On the Anchoress blog, one reader complains that her mailbox has been “flooded” with PFL appeals. Another provides numbers: “2-3 per week,” and rates paper and postage “a waste of time.” Today, in a stroke of perfect timing, a friend of Deacon Greg Kandra received a direct-mail appeal, whose text the Deacon has posted on his site:

I’m writing on behalf of Father Frank [Pavone].

My name is Jerry Horn and I am the Senior Vice President for Priests for Life…
…Let me tell you why Father asked me to send you this email.
On Wednesday, October 5, Priests for Life will mark its 20th Anniversary with a Mass at the Cathedral of St. Mary of the Assumption in San Francisco. The Most Reverend George Niederauer, the Archbishop of San Francisco, has enthusiastically agreed [to] be the main celebrant for the 6:00 p.m. Mass. His support reflects that of many bishops.

Father Frank had intended to write to you himself and invite you to join us for the Mass, but time simply got away from him. In fact, he just finished taping the

“Defending Life” series of TV shows at EWTN, and is now at his diocese in Amarillo.

So he asked me to write to you in his place.

Let’s agree to a couple of premises right off the bat. First, just because a given charitable organization solicits aggressively, doesn’t make it mercenary — or rather, doesn’t make it merely mercenary. Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton summed up post-industrial society to a “T” when he wrote: “though money is not everything, it is an indispensable condition for almost everything.” That includes every corporal work of mercy the Church has ever undertaken to perform, and — if indirectly — most of the spiritual ones, as well. Put it this way: Thomas Aquinas was a big ol’ boy. Someone had to feed him during his years in the seminary.

This being so, the Church has always sought to amass wealth — in the form of land or money, depending on the period. One reason Henry VIII (and later, the French revolutionaries) seized Church lands, particularly agricultural lands belonging to monastic orders, was that they were worth seizing; they would make an appreciable, even a crucial, difference in the state’s finances.

For just as long as the Church has needed bankable currency, people have felt squeezed. Political cartoonists depicted Don Bosco picking old ladies’ pockets. The marketing strategy of Johann Tetzel, O.P., may have been an aberration, but soliciting funds from those who felt themselves scarcely able to part with them was an established tradition among the mendicant orders. In the fifteenth century, a French poet named Jean Molinet denounced what he considered parasitism with the following toast:

“Please, God,
May the Dominicans eat the Augustinians;
And may the Carmelites hang from the rope belts of the Franciscans.”

Would it be anachronistic to say this went viral? Okay, then. It went plague.

Okay, we’ve recognized that: 1) solicitation has a long, at least partly respectable pedigree; but 2) that, past a certain point, “Gimme” becomes unseemly and alienating. Now the question remains: How much is too much? PFL’s saturation-bombing techniques remind me of my boiler-room days, when we’d dial the same numbers off the same leads until the owners disconnected their phones or added themselves to the Do Not Call List. “It’s all a numbers game,” we’d say, by way of consoling each other for the for the many negative responses. This was literally true; more calls equaled more sales. But nobody wants to think that the Church, guardian of individual human dignity, has reduced him to a number.

A friend of mine has made and lost several fortunes organizing direct-mail campaigns for businesses as varied as jewelers, resorts and gyms. He tells me that the most effective ones were the least random. Having managed to obtain lists of birthdays for the people in a given area, he’d send them fliers a few weeks ahead of time, advertising special birthday deals. I believe the response rate was something like 3-5%, which is enormous. Naturally, the recipients never imagined the businesses were contacting them out of the goodness of their hearts, but neither did they feel like cash cows.

Since I’m not on PFL’s payroll, I’m not going to make my brain sweat designing them a marketing strategy. Instead, I’ll turn the question over to my readers: What time, place and manner restrictions would you ask Church organizations to impose on themselves? Try to put yourself in the shoes of whoever needs the cash; recognize their right to push a little. If people gave only when the thought of giving occurred to them on its own, the world would probably be a much less charitable place.

UPDATED: Charity Navigator, reports that, through 2008, the last year for which data are available, PFL distributed its revenues as follows:

63.9% to programs

23.4% to administration

12.5% to fundraising.

Charity Navigator gives PFL an efficiency rating of 26.39%, or slightly more than one star out of four — a very low score.

I’m not sure where the boondoggle is, but whoever suggested PFL cut down on stamps and postage might have a point.

Many thanks to Deacon Greg of the Deacon’s Bench for the link.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709727236 Kortnee Bryant

    Having been on both sides, I have to say, yes, it is a numbers game.

    I’ve had it happen, twice! in different denominational churches!, where they needed money for the school or the youth group and the pastor has the doors locked and announces “We need $xxxxx to pay for *need*. Nobody leaves until we get it.” They then began a sermon on how important this was. One of them said, if they weren’t sending their kids to the school they were “raising” funds for, they were as good as sacrificing their children to demons.

    What’s an appropriate amount of mail to send? I’d say a thank you note when a donation is received, once a month most months, until November and December. Then, I’d say once a week, reminding people that it’s a tax deduction and can be given as a gift for that hard to shop for person. Twice a year, I’d do a longer letter as an update on the ministry, reminding people where their money is going and how it’s being spent. One of those I would send during December.

  • Anonymous

    Good gravy. Who was running that parish of yours, Chechen militants?

    One thing that impressed me about the letter Greg quoted: it was fairly low-key. It didn’t feature any pictures of aborted fetuses, or refer to modern-day holocausts, or suggest to the reader that, unless he gave, he sucked. To me, that’s playing the game fair.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/hermit/ Stephen Taylor

    I get a ton of mail each week asking for money from any number of Catholic organizations. They include expensive cards, address stickers, long letter on high grade paper stock, medals, holy cards, and I always wonder if they used that money getting money, for their own cause would they need to send out so much? Or does the money they get go into some very expensive pleas for money?

    I have never received anything from PFL but the moment I became a Catholic it was more like joining a charity mailing list. So I wonder do some of these places actually know how to handle money?

  • ImMeshallnoress

    For starters, Catholic charities ought to eschew coercive tactics. Several posters reported that they received notice from the Post Office of a package which they were required to pick up and sign for – only to discover the package was nothing more than a PFL solicitation. I find that deceitful and disgusting. Similarly, I really find it offensive when charities send sacramentals like crosses and medals in the mail. They are never of a quality that one would want to keep them, and scrupulosity prevents me from discarding them with the trash…

  • jkm

    “It went plague.” !!!!!

    You’re killin me here. I can’t even remember what the topic is, that’s so good.

  • Melody

    The registered letter that had to be picked up at the post office would have made sure that I would never give them another dime.
    I don’t donate to anyone over the phone. We give to the charities and religious orders who solicit at our parish with permission of the archdiocese; and to local things such as United Way and the food pantries.
    The particular fund raising technique mentioned by Kortnee was actually used in my husband’s former church (he is a convert to Catholicism). Trust me, it’s a very bad idea. Especially when you do it by getting the men of the church together and telling them that they don’t have to consult with their wives, because aren’t they the heads of their families? And you don’t have to worry about if you can afford it, because you can take out a bank loan and pay it off over time. (I’m not making this up!)

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    Certainly, I know from experience that once you make one donation to a charity, you will forever more be plagued with solicitations in your post practically every week. So “Priests For Life” isn’t unique in this.

    Whatever about the reasons the Bishop has pulled in Fr. Pavone, I would imagine that part of it has to do with exactly what he said in one line: that there are queries coming in about funding and how the money is being spent.

    I have no facts or inside knowledge, but given that there is a Presidential election coming up in your country, and given that election campaigns can turn very nasty, and give that some people think the bishops and the Church should keep their mouths shut about voting guidelines for candidates, I would not be at all surprised that some progressive action group has decided to try and unearth a minor scandal in order to make a big publicity splash about ‘sinister right-wing conspiracies within the church’.

    Mind you, I have no information that this is so, but I’ve seen plenty of fulminations from both progressives and conservatives about Vast Shadowy Conspiracies channelling money into (name your favourite whipping-boy think-tank or activist group) in order to manipulate the democratic voting process, shock, horror!

    So I think that the bishop is trying to be prudent and head off a manufactured financial irregularity scandal, and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if there were some kind of technical difficulties to be found with the charity – after all, these are priests and not professional accountants, so they’re reliant on the hired help to make sure everything is compliant, and having seen the state of the bank collapse (where auditing companies were lax, to say the least), I wouldn’t be confident that there was absolutely nothing that couldn’t be seized on to manufacture embarrassment.

    Again, I’m not saying there is any deliberate fraud or malfeasance on any side, just that I think in this case the bishop is getting heat from somewhere and he’s right to be extra-paranoid about i-dotting and t-crossing.

  • Anonymous

    I had intended for this thread to cover fund raising; you’re talking about fund managment. But you’re not wrong to do so, since it’s the more significant topic. The more I learn about PFL’s finances, the cagier the organization looks. This is a recent development. The organization has existed since 1991, and has apparently made its financial information generally available until 2008. That’s just a year after Zurek incardinated Pavone into the Diocese of Amarillo. Though he’s not the ordinary of PFL as a whole, Zurek apparently feels an obligation to use whatever leverage he has to make Pavone reveal what the it’s been up to these past two years. The upcoming election might be influencing his judgment,but not necessarily. There would be plenty of people licking their chops over the scandal regardless of the year.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Martha-OKeeffe/100002559433793 Martha O’Keeffe

    Good grief, Max, I think I should set up as one of those psychic hotlines :-)

    I said that maybe some activist group was perhaps making trouble with the bishop? Apparently, there is a group named “RightWingWatch” keeping a stern eye on all the right-wing conspiracies out there, and they have a post up about this very thing with Priests for Life and Fr. Pavone and Bishop Zurek, in which they say:

    “Frank Pavone, the head of the prominent anti-choice group Priests for Life, has been suspended from his position because of concerns over financial improprieties. Pavone is a priest in the Roman Catholic diocese of Amarillo, Texas, but has used his position in Priests for Life to be a full-time political activist. He garnered national attention during the Terri Schiavo case when he called her husband Michael “a murderer.” He gained more notoriety after bringing in Alveda King to Priests for Life, when he launched “Freedom Rides” in the South in an attempt to connect abortion rights opponents to the Civil Rights Movement. Pavone increased his standing by working with Republican leaders including John McCain and Sam Brownback. Catholics for Choice has consistently warned about financial inefficiencies in Pavone’s organization and “PFL’s electoral campaign-style selling of Pavone as antichoice personality.””

    So are there any Catholics for Choice in the Diocese of Amarillo who perhaps, as “clergy and laity” raised “persistent questions and concerns” with the bishop?

    As a side-note, please don’t take it amiss if I ask: are you Americans crazy? RightWingWatch and AttackWatch on one side, and the various likes of Glenn Beck and the talk-radio hosts on the other, all convinced that there are shadowy groups going around conspiring to delude the plain people of America and (doubtless) twirling their mustachios and enfolding themselves in their capes whilst doing so?

  • Anonymous

    Remember those people I said would be licking their chops? Well, those are the very ones I had in mind. I visited the sites earlier today. They don’t seem a bit unhappy about this, do they?

    Are we crazy? Hoo-boy, are we ever. I was about to say it was a relatively new thing, but actually, it goes back and forth. Hopefuly, we’ll head into calm waters before I get too old to appreciate it.

    Something else I’m remembering: Pavone came to Amarillo after he’d had what journalists describe as a “falling out” with Cardinal Egan of New York. No idea what that means, but Zurek does mention he’s not the only one who’s found him hard to handle.

  • ElizabethFreiling

    At the risk of “piling on”‘ I am very unimpressed with Fr. Pavone. I am a pediatric nurse with a NICU background who currently works with children such as the little boy he helped”save”. The video and articles surrounding this case rather worried me as he doesn’t strike me as behaving appropriately at all with a sick child. Very show-boaty. This is when I started having all the alarm bells go off about Fr. Pavone and stopped donating to Priests for Life. Something is wrong.

  • Roger Conley

    You’ve got the wrong victim of the shakedown. “This is patrimony of the Church. It belongs to the Church. People give their money over the understanding that it goes to the Church or Church auspices and programs and ministries.” Msgr. Harold Waldow, Vicar of Clergy and Moderator of the Curia for the Diocese of Amarillo.

  • Gail Finke

    Wow, those are not good numbers. There are “charities” that spend much more on administration and fundraising, but 64% on programs is pretty bad.

  • gail finke

    Martha O’Keefe: Americans have always been into conspiracy theories. They were big in the Founders day (beware the Bavarian Illuminati!!!) and they are big now. It’s part of our national character, I guess… probably because as a people we don’t like to be told what to do, and thus the idea of someone secretly controlling everything is our worst nightmare.

  • Holly in Nebraska

    How about geographic restrictions? Solicit within a given radius of where you are. (Subsidiarity?). If the people where you live don’t want you around…

    Do we need national organizations? Are they even efficient? I wonder. 3-5% enormous? Wow. Even so, you might think the internet age would have made operations cheaper. PFL has good resources, but do they need millions?

    Having pitched tons of crap into the recycle, I would appreciate only being contacted once a quarter. And stop it with the 3 page, double-sided letters. I know what’s going on, and I don’t really buy that you are having an “emergency” every month. How about a single letter with reply card and envelope? And stop sending the cheap-ass rosaries. Very nice people find it hard to throw those out. Guilting people is very unseemly. If they are going to use my feelings against me, I don’t have any qualms about dumping their not-really-holy-because-they-are-using-me shit in the trash.

    Except the address labels. Keep those coming.

  • Kmac2166

    I believe Mother Theresa refered to it as a holocaust. She also said,’if abortion is not wrong, then nothing is wrong.’ How parochial of her!

  • Debraran

    I think it should be illegal to do that, send a certified letter from a charity to appeal. A company, bank, ccard notice…but a charity? One poster said she walked in the rain, was later to work, you think you are “in trouble” or its important. They would hear more than a letter from me if that happened.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709727236 Kortnee Bryant

    The first time it was a Baptist church my grandparents went to. The second, it was a Seventh Day Adventist church my husbands family helped build. And they wonder why I won’t convert.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=709727236 Kortnee Bryant

    The first time it was a Baptist church my grandparents went to. The second, it was a Seventh Day Adventist church my husbands family helped build. And they wonder why I won’t convert.

  • Donor Fatigue

    And a lot of that garbage is made with slave labor in China. All for the good of the charity’s missions to the poor. Go figure.

  • Donor Fatigue

    And there is that new book out about the money in the Vatican…

  • Donor Fatigue

    Don’t forget, we all have the option to go online and choose the level of communication we receive or unsubscribe totally. I chose online only. So far, PFL has never mailed me anything. And, if they do not respect my account preferences for little or no emails, I have a big, fat spam button on top that takes care of all my favorite charities gone wild.

    We need to pray for our priests. Tho’ this topic is not the blog post focus, I’m reminded to do this more and more. They are like ducks at the shooting gallery. Easy to pick off.

    I’m guilty of being critical of priests, despite knowing that Jesus Himself told St. Gertrude the Great how it grieved His Heart, even about the bad ones. I tell people: if you don’t vote, don’t b*tch. Its the same with our clergy: if we don’t pray them through this vocation, we should just shut up. Simple.

    I think taking an I’ll-pray-while-I-wait-and-see stance would be best. Instead of taking sides.

    Don’t forget how some greedy bishops wanted to get their hands on Mother Angelica’s money…so who knows what is really up. We can conspire away or we can pray.

    Let us pray.