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BY Tim Drake
“In the beginning, Vitae was a substantial risk,” says founder Steve Thomas. “We had four children under the age of four, we were living week-to-week, and we had some credit card debt with no savings.”
Add to this the fact that Thomas was not planning to take a salary from Vitae and you have a recipe for failure, right? Wrong.
After five years of business, not only is the Culture of Life credit card and long-distance-service company on track to making $100,000 annually, but they are also giving money away. In January alone, the company donated more than $7,000 to pro-life, pro-family and natural family planning organizations such as the Couple to Couple League, Priests for Life and the Mary Foundation.
It was a combination of events that eventually led to the creation of Vitae Corporation. As natural family planning instructors in the Joliet Diocese, Steve and his wife Ginny realized pro-life efforts were constantly struggling to obtain funds.
Steve also happened to be thinking about new ways to do fundraising. His local Knights of Columbus group had asked members to dream up ideas for increasing donations. In addition, right around the same time, Ginny and Steve received reports in the mail from St. Antoninus Institute and Life Decisions International that detailed how several banks were donating money to anti-life groups. Everything started coming together.
“I woke up in the middle of the night with the idea of starting a culture of life credit card, but I had absolutely no concept of where to even start,” said Thomas. “I asked Our Lady to please help me out and, in her usual fashion, things happened almost immediately.”
The very next day Steve had a business appointment and in passing conversation he asked the person what he did for a living. Steve was dumb-founded when he heard the other man was in charge of affinity credit card programs in the Chicago area. It was at this providential meeting that Steve's ideas began to take a more definite shape.
About a year later Thomas' first attempt to set up a culture of life credit card with a small bank met with failure.
Then, in 1996, with the help of the Illinois Knights of Columbus, Thomas signed papers with MBNA of Delaware, Md., for a Culture of Life Visa credit card. “I think we were the only group to ever come to them, and get approved, and not have any members,” explained Thomas.
Today, thousands of members hold the card. Based in New Lenox, Ill., Vitae also uses PowerNet Global to provide long-distance service to nearly 1,000 customers nationwide.
The company is innovative not only in its commitment to life, but also because Thomas donates 100% of the company's profits to organizations that promote family and marital chastity. In addition to the ones mentioned above, these include One More Soul, Family of the Americas and the Billings Ovulation Method Association-USA.
One of the groups that recently benefited from such a donation was the Cincinnati, Ohio-based Couple to Couple League.
“My first contact with Vitae was at the GIFT Foundation's Pandora's Pillbox Conference last September,” explained Mark Hayden, executive director of Couple to Couple. “Steve Thomas, completely unexpected, approached me with a check. I was both shocked and thankful for his generosity.”
Father Peter West, a priest associate with Priests for Life, says he often uses the card rather than using a check so that a larger contribution will go to Vitae. “The Holy Father said recently that to build a culture of life we have to do more than just denounce the culture of death. We have to do positive things to change the culture of death. Why not let the use of your credit card go to promote life?” he said.
Thomas agrees. “As believers how can we support companies such as AT&T? The Vitae Corporation exists to not only raise money for pro-life and pro-family organizations, but also to affect corporate policy. We plan to keep money from companies that support or promote the culture of death.”
“I have heard it said that the pro-life movement will succeed only to the extent that pro-life people are willing to be inconvenienced,” recalled Thomas. “I take to heart the message from Pope John Paul II's encyclical Evangelium Vitae. The Pope wrote, ‘Together we all sense our duty to preach the gospel of life, to celebrate it in the liturgy and in our whole existence, and to serve it with various programs and structures which support and promote life.’”
All signs suggest that Vitae is poised for future growth. Thomas's next project is to develop a culture of life Internet service provider.
“Within the last year we've doubled our capacity to raise funds,” said Thomas. “Our statistics are off the chart when compared with other programs. Our members have more than a 70% approval rating. Our delinquency rate is below 1%, compared to an industry standard of 7%. Our average charge is $600. The average charge [in the industry] is $200. For most programs, it takes five years … to start making money. Vitae started making money after just two.
“I think that speaks to the kind of people we have been able to bring to the table,” said Thomas. In this era of tight margins the industry realizes that we bring a clientele that is very lucrative. The culture of life affinity is one of the strongest that exists, and the banking and telecommunications industry realize that.”