Opinion
September 22, 2015

The Pope's Visit Offers a Challenge to Nonprofits

Spencer Platt, Getty Images

The CEO of arguably the largest nonprofit social-service organization in the world is making his first trip to the United States this month. His name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio.

But you probably know him as Francis.

The wildly popular pope will visit New York, Philadelphia, and Washington during his visit this week, and while he will undoubtedly bring a message of love and salvation of the faithful of the Catholic Church, he will also signal an important moment in philanthropy — especially for Americans.

From the very beginning of his papacy, the pope has carried a message of service to the poor as his banner — and it’s a message that ties his vision for the Catholic Church to the very foundations of American philanthropy in a way that both celebrates the U.S. charitable sector and challenges its donors to do more.

In his 2013 apostolic letter to the Catholic faithful — Evangelii Gaudium (or Joy of the Gospel) — Francis exhorted the Church to focus on the poor and downtrodden.

"Each individual Christian and every community is called to be an instrument of God for the liberation and promotion of the poor and for enabling them to be fully a part of society. This demands that we be docile and attentive to the cry of the poor and to come to their aid."

Pursuing social justice, wrote Francis in words that surely resonates with American grant makers and nonprofit leaders, "means working to eliminate the structural causes of poverty and to promote the integral development of the poor, as well as small daily acts of solidarity in meeting the real needs which we encounter. The word ‘solidarity’ is a little worn and at times poorly understood, but it refers to something more than a few sporadic acts of generosity."

That strong focus on structural causes and not merely isolated generosity could be the introduction to a typical nonprofit strategic plan focusing on long-term impact over shorter-term "feel good" philanthropy. It is completely in sync with the evolving U.S. philanthropic sector, and its calls for greater measurement, better models, and long-term thinking.

But another section of the pope’s letter on poverty is that of a leader rallying a cause:

"This is why I want a Church which is poor and for the poor. They have much to teach us."

The pope arrives at a key moment for both civil society and the Church in the U.S., and its role as among the largest providers of health care, education, and social services in the nation. The United Nations is closely focused on releasing its new sustainable development goals, a challenging 15-year blueprint for global human development that follows the millennium development goals adopted in 2000.

"We need to tackle root causes and do more to integrate the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development," said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon of the 169 goals set to take effect next week. This hews very closely to the pope’s own call for structural change in society and institutions.

For the Church in the United States, the timing of the pope’s visit is no less crucial, not only for the Mass-going faithful but for the powerful network of nonprofit Catholic institutions that make up such a large part of the American nonprofit sector.

With 68 million recognized Catholics nationally — the largest religious denomination by far in the United States — and as many as 100 million Americans who have been baptized, the Church enjoys a large base of lay support, but it’s been challenged severely by the clergy sex scandal that erupted in 2002 and has cost billions in lawsuits and reparations, while damaging the reputation of Catholic institutions.

As the Pew Research Center found, about half of those Americans who were raised Catholic have left the church. Those institutions include, according to The Economist, a quarter of the nation’s top-ranked hospitals, 6 percent of its schools, 11 percent of its health-care facilities, and 244 colleges and universities. In terms of donations, Catholic Charities USA raises more than all but six other nonprofit organizations. It was No. 7 on the Philanthropy 400 last year. For this large part of our charitable sector, the pope’s visit will surely be seen as both a rallying cry to heal and teach and feed and clothe — as well as a signal that a dark and terrible cloud may be lifting.

There are already signs that Pope Francis has had a big effect on philanthropy. Last year, the organization Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities conducted a major survey of attitudes of Catholic donors. It found that nearly a quarter of donors had increased their giving in the previous year, and among those who gave more, fully 77 percent cited enthusiasm for Pope Francis as a reason for the increase. Indeed, half of those donors specifically cited the pope’s message of compassion for the poor.

The "Pope Francis effect" may go beyond Catholic nonprofits and donors. As The Chronicle reported last spring, non-Catholic charitable causes are also looking forward to the pope’s visit. For example, environmentalists are excited about the pope’s message on climate change and humankind’s power to stop it.

"The buzz around him is about as high as any person in the world," said John Coequyt, director of federal and international climate campaigns at the Sierra Club. "People are excited whether they are Catholic or not."

Of course, the pope’s visit is not without controversy. Conservative groups are protesting his stance on climate change, gay rights, immigration, and the regulation of markets. And women’s advocates will highlight the Church’s unchanging position on the role of women in the Catholic hierarchy and reproductive health.

But over all, the pope’s message is one that reverberates in the U.S. social sector because it stresses both structural change and the kind of do-gooderism — a broad kind of empathy, really — that attracts so many people to work for (or support) nonprofits.

Crowds will gather to hear Francis in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, and his trip will virtually close off parts of those cities. Yet it’s likely he will reiterate a simple message that might fit in a tweet from @Pontifex, the world’s most influential user of Twitter. Here’s one from two years ago:

"True charity requires courage: Let us overcome the fear of getting our hands dirty so as to help those in need."

Tom Watson, a regular Chronicle columnist, is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University