Traditional charities hope bump in giving will persist

Some fear outpouring might hurt them later

October 05, 2001|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

For charities that depend on end-of-the-year generosity, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and a souring economy have turned this fall into a season of uncertainty.

The tremendous outpouring of donations to families affected by the attacks three weeks ago - more than $700 million, at least $8 million of it from Maryland - has broken the mold for fund raising. Using a speedy review process, the Internal Revenue Service already has granted tax-exempt status to 22 new organizations providing disaster relief.

That level of giving is so unprecedented that the nonprofit world isn't sure whether it means good news or bad for the rest of them.

Some traditional charities, which have long depended on the fall giving season, are feeling negative effects.

Contributions to local American Heart Association walks, now advertised as "marches" in an effort to capture patriotic sentiment, are down. The Salvation Army of Greater Baltimore reports that less money and fewer donations of food, toys and clothing are coming in for its Christmas appeal, which is just beginning.

Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank, hopes the outpouring for victims of the disaster demonstrates a new spirit of giving, a reordering of priorities that will lead people to dig deeper for all good causes.

But he fears that the attacks spurred millions of dollars in donations from people who will have less for organizations such as his.

At this time of year, the food bank, which serves about 900 pantries and soup kitchens across the state, is beginning its major Harvest for the Hungry drive for canned goods and is asking for cash to help it stock its warehouse for cold weather.

"All across the board, there will be a period of uncertainty that will depend on individuals more than ever," Ewing says.

In this case, history is not a clear guide.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University studied how American giving patterns changed in the years surrounding 13 watershed events of terrorism, war or political instability, including Pearl Harbor and the 1987 stock market crash. For the past 40 years, the center found, giving has increased in every year but 1987.

Giving grew faster in the year after most watershed events than it had during the year before an event. But after the 1987 stock market crash and the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, the growth of giving slowed.

"What we know about the past is that in these times people do give more," says Sara Melendez, president of Independent Sector, a coalition of nonprofit groups. "We hope this will be a bump in giving but that people will continue to support the causes in their communities that make a difference."

Betsy S. Nelson, executive director of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers, says local corporations, many of which made large donations for disaster relief, seem to be committed to honoring their obligations to other charities.

A group of about a dozen corporate representatives who are members of the association met shortly after the disaster, she says, and "it was universal in that room that this was above and beyond" normal giving.

Thomas E. Wilcox, president of the Baltimore Community Foundation, which manages philanthropic funds, says their donors said they will not only replenish money they took out for the Sept. 11 effort but may also put more in for local needs.

And several donors interviewed this week said giving to disaster funds won't change their usual charitable giving patterns.

Christine Walters of Perry Hall, a claims adjuster for HMS Insurance Associates Inc., gave $25 in an office drive for the Red Cross disaster effort. She also plans to give to United Way and to a group of local charities and might even give a little more, she says. "It makes you stop and think. We know there are still people here who need," Walters says.

On Web sites and in mailed appeals, organizations are trying to help with or at least acknowledge the terrorist attacks while carefully reinforcing their messages. They have had a hard time inspiring interest in their causes.

The American Heart Association has posted an advisory urging Americans to pay special attention to their cardiovascular health at a time of stress. It also has donated $250,000 from its walk funds to a relief fund for the families of firefighters involved in the disaster.

The association also announced that it was resuming its American Heart Walks as a way of honoring emergency personnel who often minister to heart attack victims. Those walks have been billed as "marches" and have patriotic themes to pay tribute to those lost in the attacks.

In some parts of the country, that approach has increased attendance and contributions, says Kevin McCoy, vice president of corporate relations for the Maryland council of the heart association. But along the East Coast, where the attacks hit closer to home, some walks have not done well, he says.

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