Boston Archdiocese Changes Annual Appeal in Wake of Abuse Scandals

As the Catholic Church reeled from the priest abuse scandals brought to light in 2002, one hard hit archdiocese reacted by revamping its annual fundraising appeal for 2003 to address the situation and recover lapsed donors.

At the start of 2002, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was readying for its annual spring fundraising campaign, said Damien J. DeVasto, director of appeal for the archdiocese. He previously had worked with the archdiocese for about a year on major gifts and capital endowment activities, but came on board to work on the appeal Jan. 2, 2002.

“For Catholic dioceses or archdioceses, appeals or fundraisers are the financial underpinning to the work of the church, and in the archdiocese of Boston that had traditionally been the annual Cardinal's Appeal,” he said. “It is truly the financial lifeblood of the church, underwriting anywhere up to 90 percent of the operating budget for the archdiocese on an annual basis.”

So when allegations of involvement by priests in sexual molestation and perhaps even a coverup by Cardinal Bernard Law and other church leadership started to fly in Boston in early 2002, there was concern over the appeal's use of Law as its focus.

The Cardinal's Appeal began in the late '70s and was institutionalized in the '80s under Cardinal Law, DeVasto said.

“One of the approaches was that it was tied to one personality, which was Cardinal Law,” he said. “While that may have been successful in times past, the downside was that as the crisis in the church became exposed, that personality took over the meaning of the appeal.”

Still, the archdiocese decided that it could not rebrand the appeal in time for the spring campaign and proceeded with a direct mail piece containing a letter by the cardinal.

“There was no textbook for this,” DeVasto said. “There was no plan out there that existed from another organization for dealing with it.”

Just as Martha Stewart's company and brand seemingly suffered from the insider-trading flap that involved her, the archdiocese was affected by donors' perception of the scandal and the cardinal's possible involvement in keeping it quiet.

But since the Cardinal's Appeal contains many components other than the initial spring direct mail campaign, the archdiocese used the rest of 2002 to get messages from other voices in the archdiocese out to parishioners.

“It had been the norm for Cardinal Law to write all of the letters for the appeal, which included a launch letter, the request letter and the reminder letter,” DeVasto said. “He wrote the initial request last year, but we added voices to the other components of the appeal. The critical thing for us was to immediately bring home the importance of the appeal to the work of the church as opposed to this being a collection for the cardinal.”

Other components to the Cardinal's Appeal in 2002 included reinforcement in the parishes' church bulletins, videos shown to parishioners and ads in print and television through Catholic media outlets.

Yet the 2002 total was just under $9 million, down considerably from $15 million raised in 2001. Further, though about the same number of direct mail pieces were sent both years, the number of donors in 2002 dropped from 80,000 to fewer than 45,000.

Though DeVasto said factors such as the economy and that the archdiocese also had a large capital endowment campaign going on last year must have affected results, he admitted the scandal was a major factor.

In December 2002, Cardinal Law resigned, and the archdiocese was taken over on an interim basis by Bishop Richard G. Lennon. At that point, the archdiocese needed a new appeal for 2003.

“At the end of the year we were faced with the recognition that we no longer had a cardinal, which prompted the need to look at the appeal,” DeVasto said. “We recognized this as an opportunity to rebrand the appeal.”

After meeting with parishioners from different demographic groups across the archdiocese and discussing the 2003 campaign with Bishop Lennon, it was decided that the new appeal should reinforce the message of the church and its works. The name was changed from the Cardinal's Appeal to the Catholic Appeal, and the theme chosen was “One Church, Many Works.”

“The appeal is about Catholics coming together to support the works of the church,” DeVasto said. “The messaging was not that the crisis was behind us. The messaging was that we are coming together in a difficult time to underwrite Christ's work here in the archdiocese of Boston.”

The first wave of direct mail for the 2003 effort went to the 400,000 Catholics in the archdiocese's database in April after a news conference was held to get the word out about the new appeal.

Included with the appeal letter was a prayer card as well as an insert listing the ways in which donations are used. The insert stressed that no donation dollars from the appeal would be used for legal defense or settlement of lawsuits that might have been filed against the archdiocese based on the scandal.

DeVasto also noted that the appeal is not a standalone fundraising effort. Just as with the Cardinal's Appeal, there is a multifaceted campaign centered around in-church messaging as well as print and television messages to boost donations.

So far, the archdiocese is pleased. The new campaign has raised about $5.7 million of its stated baseline goal of $9 million and is expected to surpass that target.

The appeal is 15 percent ahead of projections and $700,000 ahead of where the old appeal stood at this point last year, according to DeVasto. Also, about 10,500 new or re-engaged donors have contributed this year out of a total of 27,000 contributors.

“Our results to date are extraordinarily encouraging,” DeVasto said. “We're looking at this as a step in the process. In order for the appeal to really come back, it will be a multi-year approach.”

However, with a new bishop, Sean P. O'Malley, installed July 30 to replace Lennon, next year's campaign is up in the air. Though the archdiocese likely will continue with the new appeal, the bishop will have input into that, DeVasto said.

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