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Conference Collaborations: Enhancing Our Network Of Charity

Conference Collaborations: Enhancing Our Network Of Charity 1198 1198 Julie Witzel

By Phoenix Diocesan Council President Shirley Smalley

In August of 1833, Leon Le Prevost, a member of the first Conference who later went on to establish the Religious Order of St. Vincent de Paul, wrote: In this moment there is a great movement of charity and of faith…” The same could be said of our time and our place in this world. Although we are often distracted by negative forces, influences and movements, we must never lose sight of the hearts of our non-Vincentian brothers and sisters who like us long to help others. We witness that concern and compassion flow out of the actions of individuals, families, corporations, faith-based groups and civic organizations as they respond to natural disasters and other large-scale tragedies.

From the very early days of the Society, our founders understood the need to work collaboratively with the government and other organizations in order to better assist the poor and suffering. In December of 1833, the first Conference accepted the role of “Commissioners of Charity” for the administrators of the La Bienfaisance neighborhood. While our present-day Councils often enter into collaborative agreements and relationships, our local Conferences tend to function primarily in cooperation with other Conferences and Councils, seldom reaching out to other groups in their local area.

If Conferences are isolated and do not interact and cooperate with other local faith-based groups and charitable organizations, we are overlooking resources including potential volunteers who can assist us in providing assistance to our neighbors in need.  By joining forces we not only increase our ability to help others but we also engage the community and provide others with the opportunity to be actively involved in helping those in need. Additionally, our outreach efforts help spread knowledge about the Society and our mission of charity and love.

On the Conference level, most collaborative relationships do not require a formal contract but more of a mutual understanding based on agreement in protocols and policies. Identifying groups in your area should be the starting point followed by outreach and relationship-building. Such relationships should start by sharing with the group’s leaders or members our history and mission, as well as letting them know how we currently serve those in need in our community.

The process must include a two-way conversation that provides us with an understanding of who they are and how they currently serve the community. Once that relationship is built, we can begin a conversation on how we can work together to benefit the needy, always keeping in mind that we can only function within the Rule of the Society. Just as we honor who they are and their procedures and guidelines, they must honor ours. For example, potential collaborative partners need to understand early on we cannot share funds with them or any project that our members are not involved in through person-to person contact with the poor.

When Frederic Ozanam helped to establish the Society, he envisioned a network of charity that would encompass the world. Vincentians are only part of that network. Our vocation calls us to reach out and serve beside other people of goodwill to help relieve poverty and injustice. By reaching out to them we can enhance the work of our Conferences and provide opportunities for them to join us in service to the least among us.

Such collaboration can make a huge difference. Ask yourself, “How can our Conference build relationships with other groups and churches?” With the help of others, we can do more and experience the love of Christ in those whom we serve and in those whom we serve beside.

Communications – Part Two

Communications – Part Two 1200 628 Jill Pioter

(Excerpted from Vincentian Life: Conference)

B. Person-to-Person Activities

  • Schedule Conference meetings on different days and at different hours to ensure that everyone, regardless of their work schedule, has an opportunity to attend Conference functions (for example, one meeting on a Wednesday evening, Saturday morning, or another on a Sunday after Mass).
  • Mail the agenda of upcoming meetings to members who have been missing meetings. It’s a good reminder. To encourage better attendance, publish an annual calendar showing all meeting and other activity dates so people can plan in advance to attend and participate.
  • Mail the minutes after the meeting to members who did not attend. For those who missed the meeting, that’s also a good reminder not to miss the next one.
  • Parish Ministry Fairs. Almost every parish has one, so don’t pass on this opportunity to tell your story. Print simple sign-up forms (get new folks to sign up and come to a meeting; worry about getting detailed personal data later). Also print a short list of the work your Conference does and where it needs help.
  • Parish Festival (are you a part of your parish?). Take part in the festival as a Conference. Distribute information on the work of the Society and your Conference. Provide sign-up forms.
  • Personal Talks. This gives you the opportunity to recruit by letting the workers in other parish ministries understand what the Conference really does. Talk to the Sodality, Knights of Columbus, peace and justice council, Catholic Daughters of America, Right-to-Life Committee, etc. Cooperate with these groups on joint projects – distributing Rosaries, scheduling people for Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, helping build a Habitat for Humanity home.
    You don’t have to be a great speaker. Just tell them what you and your fellow Vincentians do. How many parishioners want to answer Christ’s call to serve the poor, but have never been asked? They may be embarrassed to come forward or maybe they just don’t know where to go to become involved. You can be their gateway to the Society.
  • Recruit, recruit, recruit! The strength of a Conference is in its members, so it must constantly be recruiting new members. Recruitment can usually be accomplished in four ways:
    1) An Invitation to Serve This is a very successful program first introduced in Phoenix in the 1990’s and supported by the bishop and most pastors. After many successful recruitment campaigns, it was promoted and distributed as a nationwide program through the National Council.
    2) Word of mouth – friend asking friend
    3) Written material – passing out brochures, mailing newsletters
    4) Presentations to groups of non-members
    Ask people to join: If you don’t ask, you can’t get. The best recruiting is done by people who are currently active and enthusiastic. They give the best testimony of the benefits they receive from serving the poor.
    Ask people again and again. Many will eventually join. Some may simply change their mind. Others’ lives and interests may change and they are finally ‘ready.’ A few may just be impressed by your sincerity and persistence.
  • Address the Congregation. Many Conference presidents have been addressing the congregation at the end of all Masses once a year with their pastor’s permission. An Invitation To Serve utilizes this arrangement and your bishop may be an active supporter of this approach. It gets your message to those who won’t read what you print and distribute, and satisfies those who want to “put a face” on an organization.
  •  Use sign-up tables on special Sundays, placed outside the church doors. Have literature, photographs, newsletters, sign-up forms, and a card preprinted with the day, time and place of your next two meetings. Good days for this technique include:
    … the Sunday with the ‘Widow’s Mite’ Gospel
    … the last Sunday in April (Ozanam Sunday) – Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s birthday and the anniversary of the founding of the Society is April 23
    … the Sunday closest to Sept. 9 – Blessed Frederic Ozanam’s feast day
    … the Sunday closest to Sept. 27 – St. Vincent de Paul’s feast day
  • Have a special Mass to celebrate these feast days. If there are Conferences in neighboring parishes consider joining together for the Mass. Schedule it at a time convenient for Father, and follow the Mass with coffee and refreshments or a simple pot luck supper afterwards. Invite all the clergy from the parishes involved to join the Conferences members for a short time afterwards.

C. Communicating Through Attitude
(Making people feel welcome)

We have all heard that “actions speak louder than words.” Truer words were never said. If you want your Conference to grow, your actions must match your words.

  • Be a totally open organization. Exclude no one. Invite everyone. There are no closed meetings. There are no subcommittees that make all the decisions; however, only Active Members participate in the decision-making. We are totally democratic.
  • Tell the parish what you want. The parish must know that you want new members. Say it verbally and in posters, fliers, newsletters and brochures. Too many groups (including church groups) are viewed as cliques or closed societies.
  • Publicize your meetings well in advance. People live busy lives and have full calendars. Then provide last-minute reminder calls.
  • Make it easy to join. Don’t make it complex – no applications, no forms – just a willingness to serve.
  • Make people feel welcome at any meeting. When someone new shows up, welcome the person. Introduce all new people at each meeting and continue to introduce them for two or three meetings thereafter.

D. Focus Your Communications
(Protecting the future of your Conference)

Often your communications will focus on a specific target audience. You must modify your language, tactics and even media to appeal to different groups. One example is communicating with youth groups.                                                                                                                             

  • The Society has no future if you do not bring in young people. Problem Conferences are usually those which have made no effort to bring in new members. Old members resist change. They don’t trust the judgment of newcomers, claiming they have no experience. Yet without a continuing flow of new blood, a Conference will become stagnant and die (or become ineffective).
  • Expand your efforts through contacts with:
    * Boy and Girl Scouts and similar youth organizations. Talk with their adult leaders about talking to the troops and packs. Devise activities where young people can be involved and make a contribution. One Conference even offers the St. Vincent Youth Service medal, borrowed from the New Orleans Diocesan Council.
    * Teen, college, young adult and RCIA groups in the parish. Again, talk to the heads of these parish ministries. Talk to the groups separately, adjusting your talk to the interests, resources and age of each group.
    * Teachers, nurses and counselors at your parish grammar school and regional Catholic high school. Ask to visit the classroom to give a 15-minute talk about St. Vincent or Blessed Frederic. Get the kids to take on a project, designing posters and fliers in their own graphics showing how Jesus expects us to treat the poor. Publicize the best in each age group. When the project is over, write thank you letters to the kids (not the teacher) in their own language. Consider, for example, sending first graders a letter from a poor child written with crayon.         

E. Adapt to Changing Circumstances

  • Prospects for membership are always changing. People die or move out of your parish while others move in; kids grow up and become adult members of the parish; parents finally get their kids out of the house or retire and now have time to volunteer; after a period of grieving, widows and widowers have time on their hands, a need for social interaction, and a desire to contribute and be involved.
    This requires constant repetition of your message, often to people you might feel have heard it before. But at earlier times in their lives, their minds weren’t receptive and they failed to hear. For many, it’s a new message: working in the Conference provides an outlet for one’s energy, stability in one’s life, new friendships, and involvement with people who share their values and faith.
  • Recognize that lifestyles have changed. You can no longer expect to find members who fit the membership mold of 50 years ago. People’s lives and jobs have changed, their time and family are more fragmented. You must accept what people can contribute, even if it is less than what the Conference used to request or expect. There are no longer any “minimums” attached to membership.
    If you want young mothers as members, you must accept less from them (in terms of time commitments) than from the retired individuals the Society traditionally recruited. Many people can’t give you two hours a week; they are lucky to give you two hours a month.
  • Don’t give up on former members. Send out a “come home” letter to every past member. You don’t know why they left, what or who offended them, what has changed in their lives. Now may be the moment when they are ready to come back. They may be just waiting to be asked.

F. Understand Efficacy
(Accomplishing your objective)

Efficacy is neither efficiency nor economy. Efficacy is attaining a desired result. Money is only a minor consideration in our ministry. You want people to do what’s right, not what’s the most economic or efficient. People are happier when they can ‘feel’ the result of their work – relate to the poor and their condition. Then you are more likely to accomplish your objective – gaining and keeping new members.

A mother who spends $3.79 to buy and donate a 32-oz. jar of peanut butter knows kids like peanut butter. She knows it’s a healthy, high-protein food. She knows that jar will make 17 sandwiches for hungry kids. She can now relate to how the mother of several poor children will feel when she receives it – even though she will never meet that poor mother or see her children. Even though you may be able to get a whole case of peanut butter from a food bank for just $3.50, don’t even think about asking her to give you the $3.79 instead. It would take the joy out of her gift. It would “de-personalize” her act. It would steal away her connection with that poor mother. Her gift of peanut butter enables her to “identify” with the needs of another woman. That’s efficacy.

Substituting the writing of a check for the personal service shown above would be efficient, cold and impersonal. The Society leans toward efficacious service.


Our church, our Society and undoubtedly our own Conferences are full of liberals, conservatives, radicals and Neanderthals. If we are to successfully work together to serve the poor, we must focus on what unites us rather than on what divides us.

You don’t have to change your party registration to join the Society, and no one can make you vote for someone or something you disagree with. You probably already have friends you disagree with on major topics, yet you go out to eat or drink together.

Love, respect, and tolerate each other. Rejoice in the fact that, despite our seeming differences, we are united in service to the poor.

Despite our own personal preferences, we must acknowledge that we never know what act or prayer or touch or liturgy helps turn a soul back to God. Bishop Fulton Sheen said there is a light bulb in every human being, waiting for the moment when Christ provides the energy, however small at first, to light the filament.

Do the work of the Society. Help light those filaments.

Communications – Part One

Communications – Part One 1200 628 Jill Pioter

(Excerpted from Vincentian Life: Conference)

Successful recruiting of new members is easier when an organization has a positive image from using good communications. Successful fundraising results when good communication techniques are applied in telling the story of existing needs that are met by the organization. Successful refocusing of the lives of those we serve can occur when information, opportunities and encouragement are communicated in a sensitive and useful way.

“Poor communications” usually ranks near the top in any appraisal of why something failed — be it a business, a church or a marriage. So let’s dedicate ourselves to having good communications. This is not really hard to do, unless you try to do it alone. Get each of your Conference members to work on it, and it’s easy!

The Principles of Communication

Communications is like a chair with four legs. You must have all four or it will fail to perform its function and fall over. And if each leg of the chair does not get the same attention (if all the legs are not the same length), you may not fall over, but the wobble will distract and keep you from your goal (building the membership of your Conference, for example).

There are four elements (legs) of a good communications program (your chair): Simplicity, Persistency, Diversity and Visibility.


If your message is important and you desire understanding without confusion, then “keep it short and simple” (KISS). The billboard industry knows to limit its messages to no more than seven words (four is the ideal, if you can do it). Research has shown that most people will listen to, understand and remember three points in a message, no more. For those of us in SVdP, serving the poor, our message is important and can be expressed simply:

  1. There are lots of people in need in our community. Every community has individuals and families who are unemployed, under-employed, ill, poor, shut-in, afraid or abused. Even “wealthy” communities have poor: the emotionally poor in spirit — lonely, withdrawn, bereaved or anxious. You must find these people if you are to serve them.
  2. We are doing lots of good things.Most people have no idea how your Conference helps. When informed, they approve and are supportive. You must not be afraid to talk about the many and varied good works of the Society and your Conference.
  3. We could use lots more help.People want to be needed. Their time is valuable and they do not want it wasted. And they are more likely to volunteer to help if they can be a part of a vibrant organization that is doing good works in their own community but acknowledges it needs more help to continue.


Subway (or Macy’s or Ford) doesn’t run one commercial a year, or a month, or a week, or even a day. The average person requires up to 16 exposures to a message before there is both real mental awareness, understanding, retention and a commitment to some action – buy a burger, an appliance or a car.

After all, communication is successful only when it produces a desired action — when someone volunteers or contributes or makes the commitment to change their life. However, action must be preceded by three other stages: awareness, understanding and empathy (a sense of duty). Progressing through each stage takes work, time and patience. You must master one before going on to the next.

There is no “magic brochure” that will so attract and motivate people that they’ll sign up in droves. Communication is a long, slow, process which must be undertaken patiently. You will see results over time — usually measured in months and years, not days and weeks. But every trip starts with a single step.


People join an organization because it offers them the opportunity to do things that warm their hearts and enrich their souls.

If your Conference is perceived as an organization that only distributes food, it will only attract people who are interested in distributing food. If its ministry is a broad-based one, serving many different guests with many different needs — hungry, ill, ragged, lonely, abused, homeless, etc. — it will attract people interested in each of those situations.

Your programming must provide for and your communications must focus on the diversity of the work of the Society and your Conference.


The best message in the world is useless if you don’t get it out or if those who hear can’t understand. The communicator has the obligation to ensure that understanding results … NOT the listener. This is perhaps the hardest rule for a communicator to understand and accept.

Not everyone reads the church bulletin, so you must also use the parish website and social media, bulletin boards and newsletters and fliers in the pews. Not everyone likes to read, so you may also have to make a verbal presentation at the end of Mass, to other parish ministries, and at tables set up outside the church. Not even everyone can read, so you may have to use movies, photographs and the example of others actually doing the work.

In some communities, this also means you must recognize the need for bilingual written and spoken communications wherever possible, and for an understanding of the culture of the people with whom you are trying to communicate. In some communities, this may require communications in several languages.

Array of Tools

You have many opportunities to tell your story and many media to utilize. You should take advantage of as many of them as possible.

Printed Materials

  • Church bulletins. First, ask your pastor to include “St. Vincent de Paul” among the list of parish functions and ministries printed on the cover of the church bulletin (are you part of your parish?). This increases the visibility of the Conference with parishioners, with the poor whom you want to serve, and with potential contributors.
    An example can best explain one result of this.
    A woman traveled from out of state to a local church for the purpose of fulfilling her grandmother’s wishes regarding the distribution of her estate after her death. She brought with her a check for $35,000, which her grandmother wanted the parish to use for scholarships for local youngsters. Her grandmother had visited the community years before and remembered the poverty she had seen there.
    While talking with the parish secretary about her grandmother’s wishes, she noticed the parish bulletin which listed St. Vincent de Paul. “Does the parish have a St. Vincent de Paul Society,” she asked. “Yes,” said the parish secretary. “Well, grandmother would certainly want to help them too,” she said, taking out her checkbook and writing out a check on the spot for $15,000 to the parish Conference!
    Edison once said that genius was “ninety-nine percent perspiration and one percent inspiration.” That Conference undoubtedly would attribute ninety-nine percent of their good fortune to the Holy Spirit and only one percent to their communication skills. But remember another axiom: the Lord helps those who help themselves.
  • A weekly news item inside your church bulletin should be your goal. In the crowded bulletin of a busy parish, you may have to settle for occasional news items — but try for at least one item every three weeks. Use the SVdP logo whenever possible (it promotes the visibility of the Society), putting it by the news item. Learn the deadlines to submit your material to the parish secretary and length rules, and faithfully observe them. Style, grammar and punctuation are less important than the simple facts, presented briefly. Avoid using the identical message several times in succession. Try to approach the same subject matter with different words each time.
    The National Council provides bulletin announcements that can be used every week during the year. These are located on the National Council website.
  • Fliers inserted into the church bulletin are an excellent communications tool. Yet some Vincentians reported a “problem” with this communications method in their parish. It seems they were printing and dropping off their fliers, expecting someone else (usually parish staff) to insert them. When you ask your pastor for permission to include a flier in the church bulletin, assure him that Vincentians will stuff it. Then honor that commitment.
  • Reports to the Parish. Provide your parish with a summary of your Conference activity and works at least semi-annually. Look at the type of information in your annual report to the Society as a guide. Some Conferences meet it by providing a report to the pastor and parish council, but there is much to be gained by giving it out to the entire parish. Provide the number of calls for help received, number of families helped, and hours spent in service to those in need, amount of money received from donations and amount spent. Consider using a flier (one page report) as the vehicle for your annual report.
    Of course, thank parishioners for their support (monthly financial and supply donations) and perhaps set out your goals for the coming year. The more parishioners know about the work the Conference does, the more they will support those efforts with their time and money.
    Experience has shown that Conferences that issue this type of bulletin announcement (after not reporting regularly in prior years) notice a marked increase in both new members and financial contributions. Besides, it is simply a good stewardship practice.
    The best time for your annual report is shortly after you complete your fiscal year (Sept 30).
  • Brochures.Place brochures and pamphlets around the church explaining what the Society is, what your Conference does, and what kind of help you need. These can be ordered from National for a nominal fee. Put copies of the free National Vehicle Donation Program brochures in the church lobby.
  • Bulletin boards. 11″ x 17″ posters and notices about upcoming events should be placed on all church bulletin boards. Keep the information current and change the material constantly. After about four weeks, if it hasn’t been read, it won’t be. Laminate an index card with the SVdP logo and phone number. Staple it permanently in the lower corner of every bulletin board.
    Ask if you can put up a full display on the bulletin boards a couple times a year. Include 8×10 photos of Vincentians at work: packing food boxes, conducting the annual food drive, attending a day of reflection, volunteering at the food reclamation center or a thrift store, visiting a home visit family (get their written permission before you take pictures in their home).
  • THANK YOUs. Send these out at every possible opportunity to anyone who helps the Conference. You can never say “thank you too often. At the end of each year, one big “thank you” to the entire parish should be a ‘must’ — and will reap the Conference dividends the next year.
  • Newsletters. (Combines communications with fundraising!) Half of all American families now have computers and the group acquiring them fastest today is retirees. Many people fancy themselves as writers. Cheap and simple software programs are available to help put together a newsletter. Find a member or two who are willing to do this. Start with an issue quarterly then work to six issues a year. Mail (or email it at lower cost) to your Active Members, Associate Members, regular donors, community and parish leaders, clergy, etc.
  • Electronic Material. Remember electronic media. Increasingly, people think organizations don’t exist in real life if they don’t exist online. Many parishes have websites that list ministries and organizations. The parish may have an email newsletter. When submitting items for your church bulletin, send the material also for inclusion in the parish website or online newsletter.
    Your city or township may have a website or email newsletter. Local television and radio stations and newspapers usually have online community calendars. These can be good places to promote your upcoming meetings and events. It is free to list events and it takes only a few minutes.
    If your Conference doesn’t have a website, consider a Facebook or Twitter page. This can be a good way to reach out to the world. The National Council has “how-to” documents for creating a social media page for your Conference.
    It can be helpful to prepare an electronic one-page summary/overview of your Conference’s work and contact information to quickly and easily send to prospective members or supporters.


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