Covenant House Sees Response Slipping From 2001 Numbers

NEW YORK — Covenant House is in a bit of a quandary. Its president, Sister Mary Rose, is retiring when she turns 75 in June, and the nonprofit doesn't have a replacement yet for the highly popular nun.

Denise A. Scelzo, senior vice president of funding and development at the New York-based charity, said she wants the transition to be as seamless — and as invisible — as possible, but “I don't know if that will happen.”

Speaking at the Direct Marketing Idea Exchange's holiday luncheon yesterday, Scelzo said Covenant House has yet to send out the nun's retirement mailing, but she has high hopes for it already.

“When we sent out the announcement that Sister Mary will be leaving us, she got 3,500 cards from people asking her not to retire,” she said. “A 95-year-old woman told her she was too young to retire.”

Covenant House provides shelter and services to homeless and runaway youth. Incorporated in 1972, it is the largest privately funded childcare agency in the United States. Scelzo said it has 700,000 donors, with a typical one being a 68-year-old woman who is probably Catholic. Last year, it raised $120 million. Scelzo said that 74 cents of each dollar donated goes to Covenant House's programs.

The nonprofit mails 22 times a year, but the fall — especially the holiday season — is obviously its prime time to appeal for donations. Last year's Christmas mailing saw a 25 percent response rate and brought in $6.7 million, Scelzo said. The average gift was $50. Part of the success, she said, can be attributed to a shift from a traditional appeal to one with more visuals, premiums and a stronger emphasis on its core mission.

“The new package used a No. 11 envelope instead of a No. 10,” she said. “The letter was longer. We also used a card to send back with the gift to give to the children. We got more than 10,000, and many had written a note to the children as well.”

Scelzo said she doesn't expect the nonprofit to bring in as much this year.

“We're seeing that response rates are going down overall. The gift size is also decreasing,” she said. “Foundation giving is being impacted. Stock gifts are down dramatically.”

Online, Covenant House brings in only $100,000 to $150,000 in donations annually, she said, “but we just spent a lot of money to redesign the site. I'll know in a year how that went.”

Scelzo is optimistic about next year, even though she is trying to craft a mailing schedule in case the United States goes to war with Iraq. She also said Covenant House has been unaffected by the recent scandals involving the Catholic Church.

“They haven't hurt us at all,” she said. “We're perceived as being outside the church. We don't report to the church.”

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