Before lifting a glass to toast the New Year, many Americans spend the afternoon of Dec. 31 writing year-end checks to charities, perhaps from a stack of envelopes saved for the past few months. 

For Catholics, the year-end giving season is more about Advent and Christmas than it is about tax deductions, religious-giving professionals say, but the result is the same. The highest percentage of charitable giving comes at the end of the calendar year. 

“People associate giving and Christmas, and they are a little more focused on good causes and the central Christian message of charity,” said Frank Butler, president of Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, Inc. (FADICA), a nonprofit association working to strengthen and promote Catholic philanthropy. “Of course there is, for some, the motivation of wanting to make the donation so they can get into the tax year, but that’s not a huge factor.” 

“Giving patterns for the Catholic community are very much tied to the Church calendar,” said Mark Melia, deputy vice president for charitable giving for Catholic Relief Services, the international aid arm of the U.S. bishops. 

“The biggest season is Christmas, Advent, and then Lent, Easter,” Melia said. 

The ‘giving season’ 

Most organizations receive between 33 percent and 50 percent of their total annual contributions in the last three months of the year, said Michael Nilsen of the Association of Fundraising Professionals. 

“This ‘giving season’ is by far the most important time of the year and critical to the success of most organizations’ fund-raising,” Nilsen said. “Part of this is the holiday season, the sense of looking out for others and religious holidays such as Christmas, Hanukkah, etc. Another important part of this is tax considerations at the end of the year, but this isn’t a huge factor.” 

In times of disaster, such as the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti, the 2004 Asian tsunami or Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Catholics’ and Americans’ donations increase. For instance, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, FADICA’s Butler noted, “In almost one Sunday, the Catholic faithful came up with $168 million.” 

However, Nilsen said disaster donations do not usually affect the total amount of giving. “While crises and relief efforts for natural disasters do create a short-term spike in giving, they traditionally do not have any impact on overall giving numbers for the year,” he said. 

Charitable contributors  

In a 2006 survey of its members, Network for Good found that most people still give via check in response to direct mail appeals. But in times of disasters, most use online giving, often via a link from a news story or e-mail appeal. 

“Whether due to the impulsive nature of online giving or the credit-card effect, online donors are more generous than offline donors,” the survey of its members found. 

“Online and social media are playing a nearly as important role in raising awareness as direct mail is now,” Nilsen said. “Over the very long-term, direct mail is going to drop in importance as e-mail and other technologies take over, but let me stress, this is going to take a while! Certainly nothing that’s going to happen in a few years — direct mail will be around for a while because it works.” 

Religious people are the bulk of charitable donors, Butler said. “Of the $300 billion that is given every year in the United States, the vast majority are going to religious congregations or to religious institutions. Most of your donors in the United States are connected to faith communities.”  

The Sunday collection is still very important. Melia noted that when the tsunami struck Indonesia and its neighbors, Catholic Relief Services received about $180 million, half from church collections and half from direct donations. 

Catholics give less? 

The tradition, based on Scripture, of tithing 10 percent of one’s earnings is not a Church requirement. Rather, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “The fifth precept (‘You shall help to provide for the needs of the Church’) means that the faithful are obliged to assist with the material needs of the Church, each according to his own ability” (No. 2043). 

Catholics give much less than Protestants, says Charles Zech, Villanova University professor of economics and statistics, and director of the Center for the Study of Church Management. “Catholics give 1.2 percent of their income to their parishes; Protestants give 2.5 percent, double.” 

“People like to have a say in what happens with their money,” said Zech, author of “Why Catholics Don’t Give ... and What Can Be Done About It” (Our Sunday Visitor, $19.95), but he said the biggest reason Catholics don’t give at as high a percentage as Protestants is that the Church does not preach stewardship as a spiritual obligation as well as it could. “Too many parishes preach about giving to a need; we need to pay the bills. Stewardship is about needing to give. It’s a spirituality type of thing.” 

“Our faith teaches us that we are called to help the poor,” said Melia. “Throughout the year there is just a tremendous support, even in regular times. CRS serves the poor of the world on behalf of the U.S. bishops, and that is the reason people give to us.” 

Butler acknowledges American Catholics could give more, but he said it is important not to lose sight of several facts. 

“We are the largest charity in the United States, period. We have the largest system serving the poor through Catholic Charities. One-fifth of the beds in hospitals are in Catholic hospitals. We have the largest private school systems, and, in urban Catholic schools, we are carrying a tremendous load serving primarily the poor,” he said. “So, you look at that, and you say, can anyone come close to that? Our parishes each year raise about $7 billion. As we are talking about giving behavior, it is important that we have some perspective. It is a remarkable institution.” 

Valerie Schmalz is an OSV contributing editor.

How are Catholics giving? (sidebar)

Many members of the Church are not only willing to open their wallets to give to charities and the Sunday collection at Mass, but they are choosing to approach charitable giving in a variety of ways. See their stories on Page 16.