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Missionary generosity at the click of a button
Modern communications technology has provided us with previously unthinkable tools for supporting the mission of Catholic organizations. Charitable organizations can securely, efficiently and conveniently receive donations from people all over the world in the blink of an eye; those devoted to evangelization or apologetics can send their messages all over the world via YouTube or social media faster than St. Paul could ink up his pen. There are a number of organizations today who are effectively utilizing modern technological tools in advancing their work.
Paul Senz writes from Oregon.
Unbound is an organization that aims to support, encourage and empower families, children and the elderly. Guided by their faith and rooted in Catholic social teaching, the founders envisioned a program that would help people out of poverty. Bob, Bud and Jim Hentzen, along with their sister Nadine Hentzen Pearce and their friend Jerry Tolle, founded Unbound in 1981 as Christian Foundation for Children. The co-founders used their personal Christmas card lists, ads in Catholic publications, and personal visits to local parishes to invite the first sponsors for their program. The revenue for the first year was $14,000 — since then, the total revenue for Unbound is over $2 billion.
Such massive growth cannot be achieved without adapting over the years, finding new opportunities to spread the work of the apostolate, and utilizing new technologies.
Unbound pairs sponsors with families, children or the elderly. Sponsors provide financial support, and Unbound facilitates the building of relationships between sponsors and the families served. This involves writing cards and letters back and forth, sending pictures and more.
Diamond Dixon is media relations and community outreach specialist for Unbound. “We often hear from both the families we serve and our sponsors that the letters and photos they receive become cherished possessions,” she said. “We encourage sponsors to write to their friends because while their financial gift is important, it’s only part of the reason that Unbound sponsorship works.”
Each year, Unbound’s headquarters processes more than 1.4 million letters, cards and photos that children and elders in the program send to their sponsored friends. “Exchanging letters helps the sponsor and their sponsored friend see each other as a real person who believes in them,” Dixon said. “Sponsored children around the world often share that they are inspired to work harder in school because they want their sponsor to be proud of them.”
As Unbound continues to grow, along with the number of people they serve, they have utilized technology to increase the efficiency and impact of the program. This is especially true of the letter writing program. In 2011 they launched eLetters, which gives sponsors the opportunity to write digital letters to their friend that Unbound will deliver on their behalf.
“We try to make it as easy as possible for sponsors to communicate with and get to know the child or elder that they are sponsoring,” said Dixon. “By using eLetters, the sponsor no longer has to purchase international postage or worry about getting their letter in the mail.” Each year, Unbound has seen a steady increase in the number of eLetters sent. In 2017, sponsors sent 42,306 eLetters, and in 2018 they sent more than 69,000.
Without question, making such aspects of the program that much easier and more convenient is going to make many people that much more likely to participate. The vast majority of people now have smartphones on them at all times; so if technology is utilized in a way that makes participation possible from a mobile device, many people will participate.
In the case of Unbound’s eLetters, it has also made the work of the apostolate more efficient. A traditional letter typically takes 8-10 weeks to be delivered to a sponsored friend or a sponsor from the other.
“Since Unbound works in 18 countries, all with drastically different postal services, eLetters can greatly reduce the delivery time of the letter,” Dixon said.
One example of a country in which this has made a big difference is Guatemala. Significant disruptions to mail delivery have resulted from the privatization of the national postal service. “Through eLetters we can ensure that messages from Unbound sponsors can reach the families who are eager to hear from them,” said Dixon. “It is remarkable to be able to click ‘send’ on a message, written from your computer or cell phone, and have it hand-delivered to a child living in a Mayan village in rural Guatemala.”
Operating in 18 countries around the world, with largely English-speaking sponsors, technology has also helped Unbound overcome language barriers. They depend on technology to translate the letters they receive from sponsored elders and children. Sponsored friends speak a variety of languages, including Spanish, Swahili, Malagasy, Hindi, and many tribal and indigenous languages. Unbound recently developed a special software program called the translation module that staff in local offices around the world use to more efficiently translate the letters into English, according to Dixon.
Today, many Unbound staff at offices around the world are former sponsored children and scholarship students, Dixon said. “It is inspiring to see the young people who have overcome extreme challenges to get their education, reach their goals and turn right around and offer the same opportunities to the next generation.”
Unbound alumni serve as accountants, social workers, coordinators and other leaders in designing programs for the children and families served by Unbound. “It is hard to imagine a set of people more qualified for the job,” said Dixon.
Joy to those in need
Cross Catholic Outreach is another organization that enthusiastically utilizes the tools of modern technology to advance their work. Their vision is one of all Catholics around the world united in overcoming material and spiritual poverty, transforming the poor and their communities materially and spiritually for the glory of Jesus Christ. They provide food, shelter, medical care, water, education, self-help programs, care for orphans and emergency relief to the poorest of the poor in dioceses around the world.
According to their website, Cross Catholic Outreach collaborates with aid partners who employ a community-oriented aid strategy and who strive to increase the self-sufficiency of the poor. For such partners who are larger and more advanced, Cross Catholic can provide not only financial and material resources, but also monitoring, reporting and financial accountability; in the case of smaller partners — such as needy, church-based ministries — they provide support through existing programs. They aim to supply help where it is needed most, as the local partners have the necessary community outreach to be able to effectively serve the poor in that area.
This is not charity simply for charity’s sake, however. The focus remains always “on the Lord, serving with humility, fervor, and love, and advancing Catholic evangelization.”
The internet and other technological tools are important to Cross Catholic’s ministry, and ensuring effectiveness in their work. Paola Diaz, online marketing manager and digital designer for Cross Catholic Outreach, feels it is important to encourage the online element to their programs.
“Considering most people are on the move these days, it is very important to offer platforms they can use wherever they go,” she said. “In the digital era, that’s how most people learn what’s happening, process information, interact, and follow their friends and interests.”
Giving online is also convenient and easy, she said. “Life gets very busy and everybody is running, but people definitely want to get involved in social causes. They hurt for all those suffering in the world and want to participate. They know they can help victims of disasters, support the sick, feed the hungry, and bless children in need.”
Cross Catholic can make a huge difference just being a conduit, an opportunity for people to be giving of themselves. “Millions of kind, caring humans know they don’t have to go on mission trips or start their own foundation to make a difference,” Diaz said. “And being able to contribute to a good cause with just a click empowers them even more.”
One of Cross Catholic’s signature ministries is known as Box of Joy. “At Christmas, we experience the joy of our Lord Jesus Christ,” Diaz said. “Gift giving is a wonderful, meaningful part of that experience. Unfortunately, severe poverty deprives many children in developing countries of this joy.” Their parents may be too poor to provide even one simple Christmas present, in many cases.
Cross Catholic Outreach’s Box of Joy is a Christmas ministry inviting people all over the United States to “pack hope and happiness for thousands of children in dire poverty around the world,” she said. Parishes, schools, churches, groups and families may pack gift boxes with presents like small toys, bar soap, pencils, toothbrushes, toothpaste, hard candy, crayons, coloring books or T-shirts.
People can also create a Box of Joy online on the Cross Catholic website. This is designed for a “family on the run,” according to the website, who wants to participate but is unable to shop and pack boxes themselves. The “packing” and paying can all be done online. The team at Cross Catholic then packs a Box of Joy and ships it on the donor’s behalf.
They also offer other online tools, such as a secure system for submitting donations online; email blasts to stay connected; social media; and mobile giving, among others.
Technological tools help Cross Catholic to fulfill their mission. “Technology allows us to communicate better, offer more information about relevant causes, helps us understand better the needs of the poor and the best ways to help them,” Diaz said. “It lets us react faster and be closer to the communities God is calling us to transform, have a better interaction with our donors, and connect both worlds with our projects and messages.”
In the last few years, the use of digital tools has proven to increase the participation and engagement of supporters. The donations are only part of the interaction.
“We want to establish digital relationships with them, pray for them, send them updates about causes they support, and motivate them, too, as we know they face daily challenges and fight spiritual battles as all humans do,” Diaz said. The internet and other technologies allow for the building of such relationships in a much more efficient way.
Food for the Poor is another Catholic charitable organization that has increasingly and effectively utilized technology in their mission. As one of the largest international relief and development organizations in the United States, increasing use of technology has become necessary to adequately and efficiently do the work of their apostolate.
The work of Food for the Poor is motivated by faith in God, and the desire to fulfill the call to spread “his unconditional love, regardless of race, wealth, or creed as we minister to the poorest of the poor in 17 countries throughout the Caribbean and Latin America,” according to their website.
Their mission is to link the Church in first world countries to the Church in third world counties in ways that help the materially poor and those poor in spirit. “Ultimately, we seek to bring both benefactors and recipients to a closer union with our Lord,” says their mission statement.
Angel Aloma is the executive director of Food for the Poor. He sees the use of technology in their work as vitally important, because it allows them to better fulfill their mission.
“It is imperative for us to use all external advantages in order to supersede the many external challenges we face that are beyond our control,” Aloma said. “Because this is the only way in which we can continue to grow and better fulfill our mission.”
Food for the Poor utilizes online tools for fundraising and engagement that have a helpful and user-friendly interface and high security. But there are many ways they engage with donors and supporters beyond simply fundraising. They offer Verse of the Day and Prayer of the Week emails that are sent out to people who have signed up for them; donors and supporters can submit prayer requests through the website — all of which are responded to. Food for the Poor utilizes Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to communicate with users and share photos and other information for donors; requests for assistance can be submitted through the website; and much more.
Pragmatically, Aloma points out that the growth of the mission of Food for the Poor, and their ability to continue their work, depends on increased net revenue. Utilizing technology in this way allows for decreased expenses and increased revenue, which allows them to serve more people even more effectively.
In fact, about 20 percent of cash fundraising comes through their online channel. There are thousands of people signed up to receive emails from Food for the Poor, and they have many thousand more followers on social media accounts. Their Facebook page alone has 380,000 followers. The online avenue has also proven to be the most effective way to reach monthly donors.
For Aloma, the most important thing that the technology allows for is the building of personal relationships with donors. “Our most valuable tool for fundraisers is personal relationships where you are expressing appreciation and gratitude to our donors,” Aloma said.
The use of modern technologies in advancing the mission of Catholic organizations is nothing new. New technologies have played pivotal roles throughout the history of the Church. This includes everything from the printing press making religious books widely available to the Vatican releasing apps for following the pope’s every public move. Here are three holy men who have embraced communications technology and could be considered special patrons of organizations that utilize technology in their mission.One would certainly be Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen. Known throughout the country and around the world for his brilliant and readable writings, but more prominently for his remarkable work in radio and television, Archbishop Sheen even beat Milton Berle in the ratings and won an Emmy. (He famously thanked his show’s “writers”: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.) Sheen powerfully showed just how effective radio and television could be. They have been utilized to great effect by countless ministries since, including EWTN, Catholic TV, Relevant Radio and many more.
Many people know St. Maximillian Kolbe as the Franciscan priest who sacrificed his own life to save another man in the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz. What people may not know is that he was also an amateur ham radio operator. While in the Far East in 1930, he became acquainted with the medium and decided to start a radio station when he returned to Poland. This was to supplement the periodicals he was also publishing at the time. Due to the outbreak of World War II, he was not able to do much work in radio, but he set a great example for how to utilize technology in mission.
And perhaps the most explicitly appropriate: St. Isidore of Seville, who was declared patron saint of the internet in 1997 by St. John Paul II. St. Isidore died in 636; he spent much of his life trying to write an encyclopedia of all human knowledge — which, in many ways (and on its best days), could be a generous description of the internet today.
May these holy men serve as examples to ministries and apostolates today, that they utilize the opportunities presented by modern technology, and use them to further their mission for the glory of God.