An ox or 10 ducks for Christmas

Catalogs: Charities put out glossy publications to encourage philanthropy during the holidays.

December 16, 2003|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

With a cover photo of a smiling girl holding a cute, woolly sheep in front of a glittering Christmas tree, the catalog could be from a fancy children's clothing store. A Web site and a 24-hour phone line make it easy to order last-minute holiday presents.

But this catalog, from the relief organization World Vision, offers "gifts of hope" instead of cashmere sweaters and funky slippers. It's part of a movement by charities to capitalize on holiday commercialism - and our guilt over it - by encouraging gifts of philanthropy.

In a catalog launched this year by Catholic Relief Services, the international relief arm of the U.S. Roman Catholic Church, $38 buys a share of an irrigation project in northeastern Brazil. World Vision's catalog offers 10 ducks to provide eggs for a hungry family for $20. Givers with more to spend can buy an ox and plow for a farmer ($600) or a one-room dwelling to shelter a Mongolian family ($1,100).

Habitat for Humanity's Web site offers a "click-and-build" catalog that allows a donor to buy a low-flow toilet, a box of nails or an entire house.

In several U.S. communities, other new catalogues are highlighting the work of small nonprofit agencies to give them a leg up at holiday time against larger competitors.

Two mailings in the Washington, D.C., area this year promote local nonprofits with profiles and pictures of their work. One, the Catalogue for Philanthropy, is modeled after similar offerings in Massachusetts and Washington state.

In both cases, groups of grant-makers chose the nonprofits for recognition after researching the way they handle donations and accomplish their missions. The Maryland Association of Nonprofits recently published a newspaper insert that showcased nonprofits that met its "standards of excellence."

"The beauty of the catalog and the high-mindedness of the writing are an effort to convey to well-educated donors that people care about these organizations," said Barbara Harman, executive director of a family foundation that published the Catalogue for Philanthropy.

"We're tooting the horn for these organizations that can't do it for themselves."

Some of the publications are as long-standing and graphically sophisticated as their commercial counterparts. Heifer International, an organization based in Little Rock, Ark., calls its gift menu "The Most Important Gift Catalog in the World."

After 10 years of catalog publishing, the group raised more than half its $56 million last year from catalog donations, mostly of animals that hungry families breed for eggs and milk.

For other groups, the catalogs are less about raising money than raising visibility in a crowded marketplace of competing charities.

At World Relief, an international relief organization of evangelical churches based in Baltimore, the "Catalog of Hope" brought in just $180,000 out of $10.6 million in gifts from individuals and churches last year.

While World Relief wants that number to grow, it also considers the catalog a helpful educational tool.

"The whole objective of the catalog now is to break down our work into pieces that donors understand," said Becky Graninger, World Relief's vice president of marketing.

Kim Klein, publisher of Grassroots Fundraising Journal, said catalogs also are becoming more popular now because they can be published online at little cost and mailed selectively to the donors most likely to make a purchase.

The catalog method helps groups distinguish themselves at a time when charities are proliferating, she said. Unlike a regular mail solicitation, the catalogs are eye-catching and hefty - less likely to be reflexively tossed away.

"People will spend time with it," Klein said.

The catalogs also come as donors are taking a more skeptical view of how charities work, said Paul C. Light, a Brookings Institution scholar who will publish a study on attitudes toward nonprofit organizations this week.

"Basically, it's a way of responding to that kind of doubt about the link between the giving and the outcome," Light said. "Actually, I think catalogs are a creative way of responding to that pressure."

Those attitudes were one reason Catholic Relief Services published its first catalog this year after a decade of debate.

"There are people in these days of accountability and transparency in the charitable world who want to see where their donation is going, make sure it gets there, and make sure the cost of getting it there is not too high," said Executive Director Kenneth F. Hackett.

So far, CRS says its decision has paid off. In the four or five days since donors first received the catalog, they've purchased 110 gifts at an average $100 each. One parish donated a $15,000 irrigation project.

But while these catalogs put vivid pictures to the work of charitable organizations, the groups admit that catalog gifts are not always spent as specifically as the images might suggest.

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