Unprecedented giving by individual donors

The images are haunting, devastation compelling enough to trigger millions in donations to aid the communities in South and Southeast Asia victim to last week's earthquake and subsequent tsunamis.

Ten days later, as former Presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton lead the appeal for donations - now reaching $180 million - relief organizations say they are seeing an unprecedented response.

Catholic Relief Services reported receiving nearly $1 million a day last week. Lutheran World Relief collected a record $1.5 million over three days last week.

"We've never, ever raised this amount of money before," said Fran Troxler, manager for mission advancement at LWR. "I think this kind of opens people's hearts and minds."

The response has been so overwhelming that one group, the Australian branch of Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors without Borders, took the unusual step yesterday of asking donors to stop pledging money because otherwise it would get more than it could use.

Long-term mission

But many other aid groups say their mission is not limited to short-term relief.

"All of this won't go for immediate aid, obviously," said Troxler. "It will be for rebuilding efforts which will be in place for a long time to come."

Relief organizations recognize that catastrophes such as this one often prompt people to dig deeper into their wallets to help victims. The next step, the groups say, is encouraging donations to help places not in the headlines.

"Disasters like this sensitize people to the greater need," said Mark Hodde, director of development for International Orthodox Christian Charities in Towson. "There is certainly a short-term benefit in terms of raising people's awareness of needs overseas. However, they tend to focus more narrowly on specific disasters.

"Our challenge is to meet not only the needs of people in this disaster but also to continue to meet the needs of people in other places.

"That is certainly something that we're concerned about," Hodde said.

Even after the media saturation abates and the long-term reconstruction work begins, experts and some relief organizations expect Americans will continue giving - both for specific emergencies and to the nation's other nonprofit causes.

Generosity sustained

Studies conducted after Sept. 11 and other indicators show that though crises precipitate a spike in funding, such giving might bolster overall donations in the long run.

"Crises do not lead to lesser giving," said Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. "The research tends to show that when there's a time of war and crisis and so on, that the result is increased total giving rather than giving driving out or curtailing giving to other areas."

Some local relief organizations say their own experiences reinforce that research.

Troxler said emergencies such as the tsunami tend to attract new donors, who are then added to the donor base and will often give again.

"Most people who give to emergencies want to give to another emergency," said Troxler. "Our donor base is pretty loyal."

That philanthropic instinct struck Rita Eberling several years ago. As images of the devastation in Central America from Hurricane Mitch were splashed across television screens and newspapers, Eberling felt compelled to give.

She chose to donate money to Catholic Relief Services, an organization she continues to give to as appeal letters find their way into the 80-year-old's Arbutus mailbox.

"I gave to the tsunami," said Eberling. "I guess it's the terrible devastation these people go through and so many lives are lost, and if not lives, all their possessions. It's just heartrending."

Catholic Relief Services officials say Eberling is typical of many of their donors who give in response to a disaster and then become regular supporters. Many of the people who donated after Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the Kosovo crisis of 1999 became regular supporters.

"Our general appeals went up significantly the following years even though there were no big emergencies," said Mark Melia, CRS's director of annual giving and support.

For example, of the $78 million raised in 1999, about $39 million was dedicated solely for either Kosovo or Hurricane Mitch. A year later, the group raised $70.5 million, with only $20.2 million restricted to a particular cause.

"The amount of dollars went down only slightly but the amount of unrestricted aid for other programming went up significantly," said Melia. "And generally speaking they were" the same people.

Sept. 11 attacks

The largest outpouring of aid in the United States was sparked by the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. That attack resulted in about $2 billion in donations, said Patrick Rooney, director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Two-thirds of American households reported giving cash to the Sept. 11 victims and their families, but the donations averaged about $134, said Rooney.

"For the most part, these were relatively small gifts so we don't think that people thought, 'Well, I gave to the Red Cross ... so now I'm not going to give to my local church,'" he said.

Though Sept. 11 triggered the largest philanthropic response in the United States, it still represented only $2 billion out of the more than $200 billion in donations to charities that year, Rooney said.

The economy has a greater impact on philanthropy, especially when it comes to corporate and foundation giving, said Loren Renz, vice president for research at the Foundation Center in New York. Giving to Sept. 11 charities did not seem to cause declines in donations to other groups, Renz said, though the subsequent downturn in the world economy and stock market had an impact.

Still, corporate giving, which reached a new high after the attacks, has remained relatively steady, said Renz.

Only the beginning

Despite the past evidence, some local organizations say they still worry about how the current outpouring of support will affect other programs and how long it will last - particularly once the initial headlines fade and the rebuilding starts.

"As soon as we have buried the dead and saved those who are still alive ... then the real work begins," said Tim Ziemer, executive director of World Relief, an evangelical Christian group based in Baltimore. "That's when the interest really dies down. Our real challenge is how do we manage without a disaster."

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