Easier to give lots than allot

Charity: Public and corporate generosity creates the challenge of setting priorities.

Terrorism Strikes America

The Response

September 21, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Like so many others, Sylvan Learning Systems Chief Executive Douglas Becker wanted to help the victims of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. So just days after the disaster, he announced a fund to pay for college for children of the victims.

But in Indianapolis, the Lumina Foundation for Education has set up its own fund for the same purpose. Kaplan Inc., another national tutoring company, has started one, too.

And New York Gov. George E. Pataki has pledged free college educations - including room and board - for family members of those killed at the World Trade Center if they attend school in his state.

Sylvan officials, based in Baltimore, are not deterred by this overlap of fund-raising efforts. But such outpouring of generosity in the wake of this disaster - and the lack of a blueprint for how to manage it - has put charities in a new territory. Apart from the well-intentioned duplications, the sheer magnitude of the fund-raising is unprecedented.

As of yesterday, the September 11th Fund, set up by the United Way of New York City and the New York Community Trust, had raised $106 million. EBay, the Internet auction Web site, is trying to raise $100 million in 100 days. The American Red Cross had taken in an unprecedented $140 million - $51 million of it over the Internet.

Those sums don't include funds to be raised via a star-studded telethon to be widely broadcast tonight; government aid; firefighters' funds; or countless church offerings, yard sales and penny drives across the country - many of them simply offering "to help the families of the victims."

Learning from the past

The money begs big questions, so far unanswered.

Right now, is it too little or too much?

Should much of the money go straight to the victims' families, a tiny balm for overwhelming pain? Should some of it go to help the less obvious victims - rescue workers and others forever changed by what they heard and saw?

Such questions have been faced before.

So much money arrived after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 - an estimated $35 million - that fund-raisers formed an "unmet needs" committee to sort through requests for help after funeral expenses and college scholarships had been paid.

After the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999, Denver's Mile High United Way was criticized by some families who were angry that part of the money in a "Healing Fund" had gone not to help them, but to provide community services related to the tragedy.

Faced with a much larger disaster, the Red Cross has no idea whether the amount it has raised will fall short of the need or far exceed it, says spokeswoman Heather Overstreet. Nor has the organization decided precisely how all those dollars will be spent.

Long-range needs

Beyond the immediate provision of food and shelter for those displaced by the attacks, the Red Cross will provide grief counseling to family members across the nation. It also plans to put aside money in case of future attacks.

"We're not going to go away any time soon," Overstreet says. "We're going to be with these people for years to come."

Those who are running the September 11th Fund are construing their mission broadly - to include help not just for families, but for the economic rebuilding of Lower Manhattan, to increase the capacity of nonprofit organizations to respond to crises and to "promote respect and tolerance," says Charlotte Tomic, a spokeswoman for the United Way of New York City.

`Meet the immediate needs'

Deciding how to spend so much money will be far from easy, says Karen Britton, chief financial officer of the United Way of Metro Oklahoma City, which helped coordinate contributions after the bombing there.

"It's a long, drawn-out process," Britton says. "My advice is to take their time, assess all of the situation and meet the immediate needs. The coordination of the agencies will be the hardest thing they have to do."

In Oklahoma City, nonprofit agencies banded together to develop a database of family members and survivors to keep track of needs and petitions, then used case managers to present each request to a committee created for that purpose.

Even after all those approved needs were met, there was still money left, which the United Way reserved for future emergencies. It came in handy when a devastating tornado hit in 1999 - causing much more physical damage than the bombing, while attracting much less in donations.

Colorado disagreement

After the Columbine shooting, some large donors to the United Way's Healing Fund wanted their money to go to anti-violence and community programs, not individuals.

Though 65 percent of the $4.4 million raised by the fund went to victims and survivors - including $50,000 to the families of each of the 13 people who died - some thought it was not enough. The family of Isaiah Shoels, one of the slain students, accused the United Way of mismanaging the fund because it refused to give the family money for a down payment on a new home.

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