Charity confusion

World Trade Center: Run-arounds, duplications require efficient service and common data base.

November 03, 2001

THE SEPT. 11 atrocity at the New York World Trade Center brought this nation together as few events have. One result was the outpouring of donations to some 140 charities soliciting in the victims' behalf, now totaling more than $1.2 billion. The Sun's Disaster Relief Fund contributed to this total.

That puts a special responsibility on the stewards to see that the philanthropy is spent as intended, effectively, swiftly and honestly, to relieve the suffering and meet the needs of victims' families.

The number of victims, scale of damage and multiplicity of government and voluntary agencies created daunting difficulties. The voluntary coordination of agencies in Oklahoma City after the 1995 bombing is held out as the model, but the task there was simpler.

Many victims in New York complained of run-around, a full-time job filling out forms and shuttling between agencies. Others, suddenly destitute, were made to feel like beggars in seeking emergency aid to pay mortgages, living expenses, medical bills and tuition.

The American Red Cross raised some $547 million after setting up a Liberty Fund, and is no longer asking for more. Its volunteers were swamped by paperwork. Checks did not always materialize as promised. New York City did not share its victims list with the Red Cross, which at first refused to join a common database.

The second biggest pot is the Sept. 11 Fund, established by the United Way of New York City and the New York Community Trust, which totaled $320 million by mid-October. Somewhat belatedly, it established a board headed by Franklin A. Thomas, a former Ford Foundation president, and made Joshua Gotbaum, a former federal budget official, its chief executive.

Initially, New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and New York State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer competitively claimed the role of coordinating charity. Even after they agreed to cooperate, charity was not coordinated. First Mr. Thomas and then the Red Cross agreed to join Mr. Spitzer's proposed common database.

The original run-around that victims' families encountered was supplanted by a one-stop service center on a Hudson River pier. The Immigration and Naturalization Service encouraged the families of illegal immigrants to apply for aid without fear of being turned in.

The needs to avoid duplication, impostors, delays and confusing red tape are not easily reconciled.

The Red Cross, which generally gets high marks from watchdogs, was criticized for earmarking part of its Liberty Fund for other purposes, which it disclosed. Criticism and internal board conflict contributed to the forced resignation of Dr. Bernadine Healy as president, amid confusion and recrimination.

The intentions of probably all organizations concerned are good. The transparency sought by Mr. Spitzer is common sense. All should cooperate with it.

The need to help the desperate without victimizing them further, while screening out fakes, is obvious. The reputation and integrity of philanthropy must be kept high to inspire generosity for the next disaster. There will be one.

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