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.

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