Charities: Pope Brings Hope – and Hopefully Funding

Charities: Pope Brings Hope – and Hopefully Funding

September 25, 2015

The pope arrived in New York City on Thursday night, stirring hopes among charities here that his popularity, coupled with his strong calls to give to the poor, will translate into donations and volunteer support for their efforts.

Speaking during a Mass this June, Pope Francis said caring for the poor means opening one’s wallet.

“When the faith doesn’t reach your pockets, it is not a genuine faith,” the pope said, according to Vatican Radio. “Christian poverty is that I give to the poor what is mine, not just what is left over, but even that which I need for myself, because I know that He enriches me.”

While it’s not unexpected that the pope would hope to inspire radical generosity, the pontiff’s popularity may make his admonitions more potent in New York. Recent polls show that the majority of Americans have a favorable view of Francis. Among Catholics, his support is so strong that 1 in 4 Catholics increased their donations, with 77 percent of those Catholics saying the new pope influenced their giving, according to a 2014 study by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, or FADICA.

“He’s basically standing in contrast to a lot of the culture we live with today, and lifting the people who are most ignored in our world,” said Monsignor Alfred LoPinto, who heads Catholic Charities in Brooklyn. 

In addition to decrying materialism and unbridled capitalism, the pope even departs from the expectations of his office. His penchant for abandoning his motorcade and dipping into faithful crowds to bless, lay hands on, or even sip soda with strangers has won him enormously positive attention. 

In a sign of how things have changed, politicians packed the chambers of Congress just to get a glimpse of the man. The glowing accolades politicians have showered on this “people’s pope” would have been unthinkable just decades ago when American politicians were suspicious of Catholic leaders’ sympathies, labeling them “papists.”

While his broad appeal is undisputed, what charities are waiting to see is whether the megastar attention showered on Francis will have long-term benefits for the cause he champions – namely, giving to the poor, the vulnerable and the needy.

“In so many cases, people have short memories,” LoPinto said. “Everyone gets excited for the moment, but then goes back to their own way of living.” 

But LoPinto is optimistic that the Holy Father’s visit will result in an outpouring of generosity. 

“We would hope that it would do that,” LoPinto said. “I think the thing we’d be as interested in is to see it translate into greater volunteer efforts. People wiling to give up their time and talent along with their resources in service to the poor.” He highlighted the needs of the elderly living in isolation, who benefit most not from donations, but “human contact on an ongoing basis.”

This sentiment was echoed by Food Bank For New York City CEO Margarette Purvis. “I would really never debase charity by making it that it’s only about a dollar,” she said. In fact, she said, some of the most effective giving begins with prospective donors spending time with people in need. “If someone can be inspired to just suspend what they thought they believed in order to open their heart to someone else ¬– doggone it, that’s the best fundraiser you’re ever going to have!”

Encouraging that human connection, charities say, is at the heart of Francis’ message, as well as faith-based nonprofits’ broader efforts to engage with their communities and get them involved in their work. In Washington, D.C., Catholic Charities organized a “good deed” donation drive as part of a “Walk With Francis” pledge.

“I think what Francis is calling the church to do is to walk with people who are poor, to get to know them, to know their stories, and once that happens, then it will be very likely that people will be more giving,” said George Horton, social and community development director at Catholic Charities in the Archdiocese of New York. “Certainly resources are needed, but what Francis is asking the church to do, it has more dimensions than opening the pocketbook.”

“There’s tremendous generosity out there,” Horton said. “I think there’s a deep desire for that part of our spiritual lives where we relate and help other people. And that desire, I think, is being tapped by this pope. It’s out there. I think Francis is tapping into that desire to be good.”

Given the pope’s widespread appeal across demographics in the U.S., there’s reason for non-Catholic groups to expect a bump in donations, too.

“It certainly seems like Pope Francis appeals to not just Catholics or Christians, but to a whole wide base, people of all beliefs,” said James Winans, chief development officer at The Bowery Mission. “And we’re always hopeful that events like this will inspire people to give and to volunteer and to become part of the cause.”

Among other faith-based organizations that have supported the pope’s call to give to the poor is the UJA-Federation of New York, a philanthropic Jewish nonprofit. “Pope Francis’ advocacy for the most vulnerable around the world is an inspiration to all,” said Eric Goldstein, the organization’s CEO. “His resolve to tackle the injustices of poverty, homelessness and hatred is a call to action that aligns with the values of the Jewish people. We welcome his interfaith outreach and stand together with our faith-based partners, including Catholic Charities, to help alleviate suffering and hardship for all New Yorkers.”

Among the reasons charities are excited about the pope’s visit is his itinerary. While he has booked events with world leaders in New York, he’s spending nearly equal time with nonprofits that are helping the poor and marginalized.

“The fact that he’s visiting nonprofits and other ministries serving the poor and vulnerable everywhere he goes, it’s going to lift up the mission of nonprofits that serve the vulnerable and the poor,” notes Alexia Kelley, CEO of FADICA. “That’s really critical.” 

Friday afternoon, the pope will visit Our Lady Queen of Angels School in East Harlem, a choice that charities say highlights his core priorities on this trip – elevating both the impoverished and the struggling immigrant community.

“We are thrilled that this Catholic charity received this awesome, awesome, awesome opportunity,” Purvis said, noting that the school is in “Spanish Harlem,” where many immigrant families are struggling with poverty. Food Bank for New York City stocks the pantries at the school. “You look at this city, and many times those who actually have the least, they are from an immigrant background, they are people who speak Spanish.”

While charities stressed that they don’t know whether the pope’s visit will result in increased donations, many said they can only hope it will. Hope itself is also a large part of the pope’s message.

In his address to Congress on Thursday, Francis asked his elite guests to remember those less fortunate than themselves. “I know that you share my conviction that much more still needs to be done. I would encourage you to keep in mind all those people around us who are trapped in a cycle of poverty,” the pope said. “They too need to be given hope.” 

Frank Runyeon
Frank G. Runyeon
is City & State’s senior reporter. He covers state politics and investigations.