News and analysis
September 23, 2015

Papal Visit Loosens Wallets in Philadelphia

Chronicle photo by Megan O'Neil
ProjectHome volunteer Pat Suplee, right, wearing the cardboard house, was one of about 80 people who took the streets in Philadelphia Thursday to raise money and awareness for the Francis Fund, a $1.4 million fundraising effort that will benefit the homeless.

Late last year, philanthropists John and Leigh Middleton gathered the contributors to the Middleton Partnership, a multiyear, $300-million effort to significantly expand the work of homeless services provider Project HOME. The charity co-founder and Chief Executive Sister Mary Scullion told her audience of donors she wanted to dedicate a new 94-unit, low-income housing complex in honor of Pope Francis, slated to open around the time of his visit to Philadelphia.

Present were two trustees from the Raynier Institute & Foundation who approached with a $3-million gift. In June, philanthropists John and Janet Haas committed $700,000, raising the total to $24 million and drawing the fundraising to a close.

"We have been working very hard for many years," Sister Mary said Monday, just hours after dedicating the Francis House of Peace. "It is just that Pope Francis’s global leadership shines a brighter light on work like this."

As the leader of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics commences his six-day visit to the United States — he touched down Tuesday afternoon in Washington — there is at least some empirical and anecdotal evidence that he is having a positive impact on giving.

In a survey of 1,003 Catholics conducted last year by Foundations and Donors Interested in Catholic Activities, a fourth of respondents said they had increased their giving in the previous year. Of those, 77 percent cited Pope Francis as an influence.

The impact on Hispanic Catholics was more pronounced — nearly a third said they had increased their giving, with 85 percent citing the pope.

‘Doors Are Opening’

Sister Georgette Lehmuth, chief executive of the National Catholic Development Conference, a professional association of charitable religious fundraisers, said she hears anecdotally from her 300 member organizations that the pontiff has become an effective talking point.

"Doors are opening more easily, perhaps," Sister Georgette said. "It gives those who go into people’s homes to talk about making a major gift a common point of view. They are able to say, ‘If you like what the pope said about this, well this is what we’re doing.’ "

His emphasis on the poor "plays right into our wheelhouse," she said, noting that many member groups work with vulnerable populations. The National Catholic Development Conference will ask its members about the effect of the Argentine leader on development work in its annual survey this year, she said.

Pope Francis’s U.S. appearances include an event at the White House with President Obama and an address to a joint session of Congress. Sister Georgette and others said they will draw a who’s who of Catholic donors.

And Sister Mary, at least, is riding Pope Francis’s popularity and the buzz around his first visit to the United States right to the bank.

Chronicle photo by Megan O'Neil
Sr. Mary Scullion, left, co-founder of ProjectHome in Philadelphia, took to the streets of Philadelphia on Thursday to drum up support for the Francis Fund, a $1.4 million fundraising effort to benefit the homeless in the run-up to Pope Francis’ visit.
In addition to closing out the fundraising for the Francis House of Peace, she and her team had raised $1.3 million for the Francis Fund by Monday. The Catholic nun, famous in Philadelphia for chatting up donors during runs and deftly navigating city and church politics, launched the fund in June with a $1.4-million goal in anticipation of Pope Francis’s visit to Philadelphia. He arrives Saturday to attend the World Meeting of Families, and she is confident the target will be hit.

The musical artist Jon Bon Jovi said Tuesday he would match contributions up to $100,000.

"It is certainly about being more generous to those in need, but it is also about getting involved in our civic life and the political process to bring about systemic change," Sister Mary said.

Taking to the Streets

As part of the effort, Sister Mary and Project HOME staff and volunteers have taken to the streets — bearing banners, life-size cutouts, and other props — to drum up support in recent months.

Francis Fund donations will not go to Project HOME. Instead, grants ranging from $5,000 to $100,000 will be dispersed to about 50 groups to combat hunger and homelessness in Philadelphia and Camden, N.J. Many are longtime partners of Project HOME and were invited to request specific amounts based on their needs.

The fundraising in Philadelphia has been more visible in the run-up to Pope Francis’s three-city visit than in Washington or New York. That is in part because the Archdiocese of Philadelphia was charged with raising $45 million and arranging for thousands of volunteers as the host of the World Meeting of Families, a major international conference that is what drew the pope to the United States in the first place. In June, the archdiocese said it had raised more than $30 million. Director of Communications Kenneth Gavin said Tuesday he was unable to provide an updated figure.

In Washington, the archdiocese has focused efforts on a campaign called Walk With Francis, in which participants are asked to take some an action, such as praying or volunteering. Officials at Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Washington, which will receive Pope Francis for a one-hour visit on Thursday, said they regard the visit more as pastoral than a fundraising opportunity.

Getting a Jump-start

The establishment of the Francis Fund in Philadelphia anticipated donors’ desires to make gifts tied to the big event, said Tom Riley, a board member and vice president for strategy at the Connelly Foundation. It was structured in such a way that philanthropists could be confident their money would go directly to trustworthy groups and their clients "without intermediaries or oblique angles," Mr. Riley said. Sister Mary’s reputation in Philadelphia is unimpeachable, he added, creating instant credibility.

The Connelly Foundation, a local family foundation, contributed $250,000 to jump-start the fund. Many Francis Fund contributors are non-Catholics who would never write a check to a group like Catholic Charities, Mr. Riley said, but who want to be involved in eradicating homelessness.

"The Francis Fund is a great way to make this message more salient to people and to give them a place to go with their giving that they might not have otherwise," said Mr. Riley, whose maternal grandfather, John Connelly, helped underwrite the cost of Pope John Paul II’s visit to Philadelphia in 1979.

The Francis Fund benefited from some cross-pollination with the fundraising work of the archdiocese, said Sister Mary, with some corporations and others opting to give both to the cost of putting on the World Meeting of Families and to her cohort of homeless service providers.

"They were happy there was a Francis Fund," she said. "We actually got some gifts from some unexpected places that we did not solicit."

No Complaints

Sister Mary said she has heard no complaints about the fundraising work tagged to the pope’s visit. It would be "tacky," she said, for leaders there to raise $45 million to cover the costs of hosting the pontiff and not do anything to meet the concrete needs of the poor.

"People here are excited about his vision and love getting more involved in making that vision a reality," she said.

She is looking forward to seeing how many new donors the fund attracted.

"We have certainly had people who are passionate about the issue of hunger and homelessness once again take a leadership role, like the Connelly Foundation," Sister Mary said. "But we have also seen new people from various faiths get involved."

Looking beyond the pope’s time in the United States, she hopes the momentum continues. Sister Mary expects to see conversations about poverty and homelessness make their way into the 2016 presidential election in ways not seen before.

"It gives us new energy and new ideas and new ways of working together," she said of the stage created by the pope’s visit and his message on caring for the poor." We are much stronger working together than apart."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.