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How U.S. CATHOLIC readers pass the plate around.

Give all thou canst; high Heaven rejects the lore Of nicely calculated less or more.

--William Wordsworth

THERE ARE SO MANY CAUSES worth supporting. From soup kitchens to building homes, there are 600,000 charities and foundations in the United States--most worth receiving all thou canst give.

When it comes to giving money, U.S. CATHOLIC readers tend to be generous. The thin envelope they slip into the collection plate might not seem like much on its own. But of the 7.1 percent of their total income that readers, on average, say they set aside for donations, half is reported to go to their local parishes. Perhaps it's because of a tradition of philanthropy within Catholic communities. Many wrote that setting aside pennies for the collection plate at Sunday Mass was as much a part of growing up Catholic as meatless Fridays.

But wait a minute. Aren't Catholics known to give a lower proportion of their income than those of other religious bodies? A chart in Money Matters: Personal Giving in American Churches (Westminster John Knox Press, 1996) shows that Roman Catholics give less than 1.5 percent of their personal income to the church. (Mormons give the highest percentage to their church--more than 7 percent.) We hope no one committed a venial sin in filling out the survey! But maybe U.S. CATHOLIC readers are simply more generous.

We also should not forget that what one chooses to give is highly personal. Louisiana reader Margaret Lester disliked the survey and harrumphs, "It's a private matter." And of course she is right. Giving is neither something one is obliged to do nor has to disclose. After all, "when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing" (Matt. 6:3).

Fit to tithe

Over the years giving has become less regimented. In fact tithing, the once traditional process of giving 10 percent of one's income to the church, isn't required--nor is it necessarily expected. Still, many Catholics, like the Prices of Philadelphia, will always consider tithing to be an "act of justice, a top priority."

An Arizona woman who was taught to tithe sees it as "giving God what truly belongs with him anyway." And an Alabama reader writes that she tithes not the customary 10 percent but in proportion to what she has received.

Some, such as Joan Cutler of California, have their own personal tithing policies. "When I receive unexpected money, I donate 10 percent of it to Catholic Relief Services." Mary McLaughlin of Mitchellville, Maryland says she has a custom of giving one tenth of the returns on her stocks to Catholic Charities.

While giving or not giving reflects personal preferences, it also sheds light on what charities readers most believe in--and choose to contribute to in dollars and time. Many household names are close to readers' wallets and hearts. Among their favorite charities are Catholic Charities USA, Catholic Relief Services, and the Salvation Army (see sidebar on page 34 for the "top 10" charities).

But what do people really look for when deciding which groups or causes merit donations? Bridget Schmidt of Gainesville, Florida says her family "seeks out organizations that provide long-term aid and education rather than a quick fix." Joan Cutler tries to donate to organizations that focus on people's most basic needs, "the ones that provide food, clothing, and shelter."

A New Hampshire woman makes sure that "most of the money goes to help the people the charity represents. We also pick organizations that share our ideals, morals, and principles." Overall, readers say they look to give to missions, not to huge administrative budgets.

Readers also explain why they have chosen, in one instance or another, to dry up their philanthropic wells. A Nebraska man complains his dollars weren't going toward "good works," such as missionary activities. A Texas woman quit giving because she found the charity supports things she does not believe in, such as abortions. Another couple resented the fact that their money went toward big salaries and beautification projects, instead of fixing a leaky ceiling or paying the electric bill.

Others stopped giving because they found leaders to be immoral. Scandals--such as in 1995 when William Aramony, then president of United Way of America, diverted $1.2 million of the charity's money --have made some readers question the effectiveness of the staff of certain charities.

But despite the scandals, most readers believe their donations 8are handled responsibly, and they continue to give. As for huge salaries to nonprofit employees, they know that is the exception to the rule. In fact, one reader who works for a charity says her meager salary has her looking for higher paying work.

Too much asking

Still, that's not to say all is currently well in the world of charitable giving. Organizations fight for the philanthropic dollar, as evidenced by mailboxes stuffed daily with numerous fundraising appeals. Because soliciting charitable donations has become so competitive, many organizations resort to high-pressure techniques that readers find bothersome.

"I resent charities that send merchandise that was not requested. It seems like a lot of money wasted," says Helen Sheenan who complains that she receives at least two such requests a day. Chet Roberts of Cleveland agrees. "An envelope packed with `free' stuff is an instant turn off. Sorry, but the implied guilt trip of not sending a donation does not work at our house." Nevertheless not all requests are unwelcome. Reader Urban Furst determines the amount he donates on "how many appeals I get in one week's time."

Why we donate

If there is one thing that readers continue to underscore about charitable giving, it is that they donate to organizations supported by their church, family, and friends or to organizations with which they or their children are involved.

Belonging to a church or society exerts a big influence on where people give. Consider that readers give half of their philanthropic dollars to their local parishes. The second most popular choice to which readers donate, religiously affiliated organizations (19 percent), also depends on membership. Many alumni, in fact, say that their biggest beneficiary is their former Catholic school.

There are other motives for giving to charity. Readers give in the memory of a loved one. They give to help a child, sibling, parent, or friend in financial need. They give, as one reader says, when they see a problem in need of repair. "I may not be able to solve someone's difficulties, but money often helps people fix what's wrong."

And as there are various reasons to give, there are also various ways to give. Instead of tithing, an Indiana man says that he brings fresh bread to Mass. Valerie Schultz and her family collect little bottles of shampoo from hotels to distribute to the homeless. Dean Hermann and his family paid for a year's worth of health insurance for "someone who was doing the Lord's work without benefits." Chet Roberts and his daughters bought a goat for a village family.

A friend of a California reader took a hungry man to the grocery store and bought him a week's worth of food. Marie Johnson of Cataumet, Massachusetts donated paid vacation time to an ill coworker. "Not only did the recipient remain on the payroll," she says, "she was able to continue her health benefits."

Patricia Leiper of Sacramento even considers subscribing to U.S. CATHOLIC and other Catholic magazines as giving to charity. After reading U.S. CATHOLIC she donates it to the parish library, which she runs. "The magazine helps adults to read about their faith."

Many give to charity out of a sense of responsibility to society. Or as payback--either for gifts given, past sins, or for their own good luck. Mary Caracciolo writes, "When my mother-in-law found herself a young widow with two children she was at a loss where to receive help. For Christmas that year the Salvation Army was there with food and gifts. Every year we in turn remember them."

Personal experience is another powerful force, as illustrated by this story told by a 73-year-old reader: "My mother used to come home from work, go immediately upstairs, and fill out her church envelopes. That was the first thing she did after giving her sister room and board. Her example has stayed with me all these years."

Marie Johnson likewise says her mother is her charitable motivation. "I saw my mother share in the deepest days of the Depression. When times improved, I watched her, suffering from cancer, buy and deliver groceries to needy neighbors. I try to set the same example for my children."

The giving cycle

In spite of such stunning examples, readers of all ages acknowledge that they cut back on their charitable donations when their "bankbooks are low," or if they feel that they or their family members are not financially secure. "I donate," says a Montana reader, "but only after my family's needs are taken care of."

Young professionals, those aged 26 to 35, struggle most with setting aside extra money for donations. Of their total income, they gave away 5.2 percent. The biggest donors were those aged 66 to 75. They report giving 8.5 percent of their income to charity. "Admittedly," says one Missouri reader, it's easier to give "after the children have left the nest."

But as readers get older and live off fixed incomes, many are forced to cut back their donations. Those aged 76 and older give roughly the same as young professionals, 5.7 percent. As Marian Shields of Texas puts it: "Being a low-income, senior citizen with medical bills, there's just very little left to give away."

While the amount readers donate differs, many have similar intentions when giving to charity --including fostering a generous spirit among the next generation. Not only are children's charities an ever popular cause, many parents also try to get their kids involved in charitable activities that they "can see and touch." Kathryn Mesward, for example, has her kids take cans directly out of their home pantry. Then, during the Offertory at Mass, they place the food on the altar. "This helps our kids understand that food is going from their home into another's who doesn't have as much."

A Virginia reader has her son help her collect money and participate with her in walkathons. Valerie Schultz assists her teenagers in building homes for Habitat for Humanity--then together they help a family move in. One reader even says his friend has his kids present as he pays his monthly bills. "Their father explains where the money goes and what's left over and why they should tithe." And parents, take note: Doing charitable acts with your kids can be a great way to strengthen parent-child relationships.

How people get involved

Being both a member of and a donor to an organization can be very meaningful for those who give. A Chicago reader writes, "My husband and I had only recently returned to a parish when an unassuming man made a presentation about the renovation of the church. We were so moved by his passion that we made a three-year, $1,200 pledge. That commitment made us feel a part of the community very quickly."

Ruth Carlsgaard of Mercer, California says as an RCIA sponsor, CCD teacher, and parish donor, "giving time is just as important as giving money."

With nonprofits seeking donations from all over the U.S., some, like Father Paul Maier of Lebanon, Virginia, say we should strive to keep charitable dollars in our communities. "We need to look locally because the local charities generally receive few outside funds."

In this global world, however, "giving local" does not always mean right next door. Bill Walsh wrote that instead of registering for gifts, an engaged couple he knew asked that donations be sent to a Haitian hospital where the bride-to-be had worked as a nurse.

Making meaningful donations often involves more work than just writing a check, readers say. Many like to participate in an organization, learning how it works from the inside before they give--or to volunteer when they can't afford a donation.

"When we are financially unable to give money, we often donate time to different organizations. This allows us to actually meet and work with those who utilize the charities," says Christine Bradshaw.

Serving as a volunteer, or simply attending an event sponsored by a charity, also provides opportunities to see how well it is run. If she cannot visit a charity in person, a

Wisconsin woman who says she has been giving for years, asks for a yearly financial report before she sends money. An Indiana reader wishes she had been so donor savvy before answering a heartrending appeal. "Recently I contributed to an organization I thought was `Right to Life.' It was not" (see story on page 8). Now, she says, she does more legwork before sending off a donation. (For tips on careful giving, visit U.S. CATHOLIC'S Web site at www.uscatholic.org.)

When it comes to charitable giving, this much is simple: Those who want to give, regardless of the size of their bank account, will find a way. And those who do not want to give, will not. But as Sister Loretta Sedlmayer, R.S.M., who lives and works among the impoverished Crow Indians, in Crow Agency, Montana reminds us, those who receive are thankful.

"People have been very good to me," she says. "I am pleasantly surprised when I receive a donation for use in my ministry. I am so grateful for others' generosity."

WHERE DO U.S. Catholic readers donate their dolars

50 percent goes to local parishes

10 percent goes to community organizations

11 percent goes to the church at large

5 percent goes to large, secular organizations

19 percent goes to religiously affiliated organizations

5 percent goes to other charities

RELATED ARTICLE: TOP 10 CHARITIES U.S. CATHOLIC readers' most popular causes:

1) Local parish

2) Catholic Charities USA

3) Catholic Relief Services

4) Salvation Army

5) Habitat for Humanity

6) Area homeless shelter

7) Catholic schools

8) St. Vincent de Paul Society

9) Knights of Columbus

10) Foreign missions
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:charitable donations
Author:Pavlik, Cara
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 1, 1999
Words:2368
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