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Investing in donors enables Catholic Charities to make a bigger impact

“When I first started here, a lot of people didn’t even know our diocese has a Catholic Charities. Every Catholic diocese does. In our case, we have 3 offices and were providing a service that no one even knew about,” said Executive Director Jean Johnstone. After more than 5 years of a partnership with Affinity Connection, things have changed for the social service non-profit, for the better.

“Catholic Charities are an essential element of every Catholic diocese, but in each one, the organization provides different services to its community,” according to Affinity Connection’s Jodie Dello Stritto who has worked closely with the board and staff of Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown. “In the case of our area’s Catholic Charities, the organization did not have its own identity and was struggling to fulfill its mission to its fullest potential.”

Revealing the donor perspective

The diocese wanted the organization to grow and establish itself more prominently, but it lacked financial support. “Everyone had a different idea about why more people weren’t giving to Catholic Charities—and our job was to separate fact from opinion,” Jodie said.

The project started with an integrated marketing audit, which is a fancy way to say, a lot of surveying. “We identified every stakeholder group that could influence the organization and conducted extensive interviews and surveys about their perceptions of Catholic Charities,” she continued. “Ultimately, we found that prospective donors among the Catholic community in the organization’s eight-county region simply didn’t know anything about Catholic Charities. On the plus side, they also indicated that they were interested in learning more.”

The results didn’t surprise Jean. “You couldn’t find us if you went to look for us,” she quipped. “When I started as executive director, the only thing available to me for fundraising was a mailing label sheet with names and addresses. There were probably only 50 names. We used it to send out a Christmas letter to those people once a year and that was the only development we did. While I had a lot of success writing grants, we needed more support. I finally went to the development office and said, ‘I’m not a development specialist and we really need help.’”

Committing to a plan

With the survey results in-hand, Affinity Connection presented an assertive plan for new donor acquisition that combined strategically growing the database and committing to a frequent and consistent storytelling initiative. “It was a comprehensive plan for development,” said Jean, “and we’ve stuck to it. Mailings, special events, emails, giving programs, an online presence—an overall education program about where our money goes and why it makes a difference. It’s healthy for an agency like ours to have such a diverse development plan.”

Adhering to the plan was critical, but Jean said the partnership made it easy.

“Part of the reason we worked with Affinity was to educate people about our mission: who we help, how we help, and that 100% of donations go to a person in need. That’s something I take very seriously. I knew we couldn’t let up on communications,” she said. “What I like best about Affinity is that it’s all managed, so even though I approve everything, all I have to do is share ideas. We didn’t have the talent or manpower here to implement this program.”

Proof in the results

Jean’s adherence paid off. Within three years, the number of unique donors increased from around 250 to more than 1,300, and annual dollars raised grew from $40,000 to nearly $200,000.

What did this mean for the organization and its impact on the community? Jean explained it this way: “When I first started at Catholic Charities more than 12 years ago, we could provide emergency financial assistance to an individual of around $50 and it would resolve their emergency financial situation. Then there was a massive recession and $50 was not going to cut it. So, we really had to find a way to meet people’s needs. Getting new fundraising dollars meant that we could really stabilize people,” she said.

“Now, we look at not just solving the emergencies, but solving problems for 90 days or more. For people who are marginalized and live month-to-month, it takes just one thing to become financially unstable, so we take a really comprehensive look at where their income is coming from, how can we solve this problem so that they can be stable. It’s not just throwing money at the problem. It’s working with them, advising them, directing them, referring them so that they can remain independent. With more fundraising dollars, we can serve more people, better,” she continued. 

Sharing this impact with donors has created a strong culture of giving and enabled the organization to identify individuals, businesses, and families who had a desire to do more with larger gifts.

People feel good about giving to Catholic Charities because they know where their money is going. We can tell them that for every donation, they’ve helped to resolve a specific issue for a real person, right in their community,” Jean explained. “That sense of balancing stewardship with charity is so important. Whether it’s $3 dollars someone puts in their envelope or $3,000, we should be responsible for that money and making sure it’s spent in a way that will help someone stabilize. Now, there is a higher level of confidence in the community about what we do and how we do it.”

A solid foundation to grow again

The future of Catholic Charities will be built on the strong foundation that Jean is leaving behind as she retires later this year. She said she sees new opportunities for growing donor support again by looking at other services for which there is a need, such as special programs for parenting, families, housing, food insecurities.

“How do we fit into that to fill those gaps? I see that for the future,” she said. “I think we are now able to make those leaps financially. In the past, we were not; but we can now because of Affinity’s help, and because we’ve been excellent stewards of our donors’ charity. We are very careful about how we spend every dime. Now the board and my staff are asking ‘where do we grow from here?’”