Last week a post by Russell Shaw on the proliferation of religious “trinkets” in direct mail appeals garnered quite a few comments and questions. Readers wondered why there’s a need for such tactics. Some shared helpful ideas; others vented their frustrations with what they see as wasteful at best, sacrilegious at worst. I thought I’d offer another view, since I actually have an unusual perspective on this topic.
For the past 17 years, I have been writing religious fundraising appeals for various religious congregations. I know many of the real reasons behind the “whys,” and none of them have to do with guilt or trickery or thoughtlessness. These organizations are desperate for funds and are competing against myriad other non-profit groups that garner the lion’s share of charitable giving. Think about all those pink ribbons and breast cancer awareness campaigns that just ended. There’s a cause for just about every week of the year. At school, at work, at church, and in the neighborhood people are bombarded with requests for donations. So religious congregations – those who do not get to stand face-to-face with someone and ask for money – have to find another way to make an impression.
Are cheaply made medals and crosses the answer? Probably not. The folks I write for don’t include those kinds of trinkets in their appeals, but we do sometimes include “premiums” such as holy cards, book marks or calendars – little things that are meant to thank those who have been donating regularly and to prod those who may have thought about giving but just never get around to it.
Maybe I’m more accepting of these kinds of mailings, which I receive in abundance just like everyone else, because I know the needs behind the letters. When I write appeals, I hear the stories first hand. I know about the 90-year-old Sister who cooks on a dilapidated "solar" stove in Central America because she lives without electricity, just like the poor people she serves. I talk to the Friars who serve street children in South America, where prostitution and abuse are rampant among boys and girls who should be sitting in a classroom instead of working a corner. I listen to the stories of Sisters who walk for hours along dusty mountain roads to minister to families because they have no money for gas. Donors supply those things. Without the generosity of people who send $2 or $20 or whatever they can afford, many of the missionary congregations out there doing the work of Gospel simply couldn’t survive.
When I first started writing fundraising appeals, a wise friend in the business told me to write every letter as if I were talking to my mother. To this day I still do that, always trying to be mindful of the people who will receive it and the people who will benefit from it. I think sometimes in our cynical world it’s easy to assume that it’s all about manipulation, but I’m here to tell you that I am inspired and touched by the stories I hear, the people I talk to, the men and women who truly have given up everything to follow Jesus. I guess I can't imagine begrudging them a little letter now and then -- even with a trinket inside -- to try to keep their work going against the odds.
The next time you get one of those little crosses or coins or prayer books, don’t feel it’s just a ploy to cash in on your Catholic guilt. Read the letter, understand the need, and then decide for yourself whether it’s a charity you want to support with a monetary gift. And even when we can’t send back a financial gift, we can send up our prayers for all those missionaries at home and abroad who makes sacrifices beyond what any of us can imagine. No postage required.