Skip to main content

Passing the Plate and the Peter-Paul Problem

Data from one Catholic parish suggest donations to the general operating funds dip on Sundays when a second collection is held.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

During Sunday services at Catholic churches, the basket is passed through the pews in the middle of the mass, with parishioners expected to drop in donations to help keep the parish running.

But on certain weeks, especially during the Easter and Christmas seasons, the basket gets passed around a second time toward the end of the ceremony. This second donation is for a specific cause: Hurricane relief, say, or in support of missionary work.

To use an analogy that seems particularly apt in this context: Are churches robbing Peter to pay Paul? Are people putting less in the first basket so they can put something into the second?

Newly published research suggests they are, to an extent. In the journal Economic Letters, Jason Cairns of Northwestern University and Robert Slonim of the University of Sydney in Australia report that while total donations rise significantly during two-collection masses, the amount given in the first, operating-fund collection is lower on those days.

Cairns and Slonim collected data from a large Catholic church in a major Midwestern city. Their data covered 233 weeks between mid-2003 to the end of 2007. A second collection was taken on 54 of those weeks, or nearly one-quarter of the time.

“Second collections significantly increased the total amount collected by almost $7,700, an increase of 17.8 percent beyond what was collected during masses with only a first collection,” they write.

However, on second-collection Sundays, parishioners gave an average of $1,708 — or 4.3 percent — less during the first go-round, “indicating that second collections diverted funds away from church operations.”

Fortunately for parish officials, this impact was confined to the specific service. “We found no significant lagged effect of second collections on first-collection donations during the following one to three weeks,” they report.

Nevertheless, the results have implications for organizations beyond churches. If a homeless shelter or theater company is raising money to renovate its facility (or build a new one), this research suggests it might be wise to budget for a drop in donations to its operating budget. Spacing out solicitations as widely as possible also seems prudent, so that the two appeals can be considered independent of one another.

While people can be very generous in support of meaningful causes, it appears that asking them to give above and beyond their regular donation can produce a small but significant backlash.

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.