Catholics respond to general appeals to support whatever works of mercy are needed most. 

They also donate to specific causes when their hearts are touched by the homeless in India, African children orphaned by AIDS, the need for a new playground at their parish school, or funding to help single moms in their diocese. 

Local, regional and international programs provide many of those opportunities to make a difference. Here are the stories of three Catholics. 

Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.

Catholic community building

With $200 million and 1,000 funds under management, the Catholic Community Foundation in St. Paul, Minn., considers itself the nation’s largest community foundation serving Catholic philanthropy.

Kelly Webster, Director of Gift Planning and Legal Affairs for Catholic Community Foundation.

Its mission is similar to other foundations in dioceses all over — to financially support the spiritual, social and educational needs of the Catholic community, and much of the financial support comes from ordinary people.

“You’d be surprised who the donors are,” said Kelly Q. Webster, director of gift planning and legal affairs. “They are all kinds of people and you would never consider them wealthy.”

Catholic foundations support programs that do the work of the Church or that are consistent with Catholic teachings. That’s a major draw for support, but many donors also like to designate where their money will be spent, and the options for growing their money.

Some include the foundation in their estate plans along with their heirs or provide monies through life insurance, retirement funds and investments. Gifts and annuities provide payments through the donor’s lifetime, and other investments generate ongoing returns. Some donors create endowments to honor or memorialize loved ones, and have specific intentions. For instance, parents who lose a child may want their endowment to help children.

Catholic Community Foundation serves the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the Diocese of New Ulm and Catholic institutions throughout Minnesota. Education accounts for 42 percent of the distribution, with the rest supporting seminaries, religious ministries, parishes and a variety of social services.

“So many donors are the products of Catholic education and want to support it and pass it on,” Webster said. “They also support our seminaries because they see the need for priests. Other donors want to support the work of Catholic Charities, and others want to support their parishes because of how their parish communities have supported them.”

Donations to the foundation continued through the economic recession, a factor that she attributes to the donors’ “relationship with God and the commitment to their faith and their community.”

“I am blown away by the magnitude of their generosity,” Webster said. “It has been extraordinary to witness people of all means, even modest means, give extraordinary gifts.”

The foundation also has a Community Priorities Fund that provides grants to small non-profits serving young mothers, at-risk children and elderly people who are living independently. 

Business with heart

Sean Miller learned from his late father that Catholics have a responsibility to give of their time and treasures. 

“That’s the kind of background I grew up in,” he said. “That’s what we did as a family.” 

Siobhan Miller, 14, in El Salvador. Courtesy photo

That legacy continues in the insurance and consulting business, the Robert E. Miller Group, that his father founded in Kansas City, Mo., 51 years ago. The company insures and advises numerous local non-profits, including the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, and supports many of them philanthropically. 

Years ago, Miller’s father started an annual golf event, Priests Appreciation Outing, that’s run by Miller’s brother Matt, also a partner in the business. In addition to raising money, it features an on-site tailor who fits priests with suits and shoes. 

“We give them tires and batteries for their cars, things they need that you wouldn’t think about,” Miller said. “It’s a nice way of celebrating priests and all the great things they do. We have a similar event for nuns, a two-mile walk, Blisters For Sisters, that my father started, and the Serra Club now runs.” 

The business encourages philanthropy among its 60 employees by offering matching donations to The Miller Way to support local charities. 

“The first year, we gave away about $40,000,” Miller said. 

The company responds to the needs of its own staff by matching contributions to an internal Benevolent Fund that provides up to $2,500 in grants to employees experiencing medical or financial setbacks. 

Employees also donate their time and talents by fixing up homes for local non-profits that house people with developmental disabilities. They have international volunteer opportunities to build homes in Central America and Haiti with Homes From The Heart. Miller, who is chairman of the board, was instrumental in founding the organization 10 years ago. He and his wife Karen, their four children and his mother and sister recently went to El Salvador on a building project. 

“We have been given a lot,” he said, “so we have the responsibility to do a lot.”  

Going Global

Mark Melia, acting Executive Vice President for charitable giving at CRS.

Catholic Relief Services was founded in 1943 by the bishops of the United States to help those who were suffering the ravages of World War II. The first collection was taken up in churches around the country, and funds are still raised from the pews for CRS’s broadened assistance to the poor and vulnerable. 

According to Mark Melia, acting executive vice president for charitable giving, CRS based in Baltimore, Md., receives approximately $11 million annually from its share of collections taken up in churches nationwide. But in fiscal year 2010, there was $276 million in private support from direct donations, with $100 million sent in response to the earthquake in Haiti. And that’s one thing that many donors appreciate, that they can designate where their money will be used in 100 countries and the United States. 

Donors can contribute to emergencies, hunger, education, health, peace building and other programs. They can shop an online gift catalog to choose shares in numerous projects including fighting polio in India, saving mothers and babies in Ghana, battling slave labor in Brazil and improving water supplies in Ethiopia. 

“We are very focused on honoring donor intent,” Melia said. “If people say they want it to go to programs for AIDS, we put it towards AIDS. But we have found that most people give to us without any designation. They just want it to go to where the need is the greatest. That’s a real blessing to have that flexibility because the needs are always changing.” 

While CRS receives sizable donations from foundations and major donors, most of the support comes from small donors who send an average of $50, and they usually continue giving. 

“The lifeblood of our agency are the donations from faithful Catholics in the United States who want to help the poor of the world,” Melia said. “Most of our donors see their gifts as an expression of their faith. I think that’s a natural expression of the blessings that they’ve received.”

Read more from the charitable giving special section:

Catholics finding a reason for generosity

The science and art of practical philanthropy