Most post-9/11 donations are gone

Question: Three years after $3 billion was raised for families of victims, some wonder if it was spent in the best way.

September 12, 2004|By Lydia Polgreen | Lydia Polgreen,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK - An astonishing $3 billion was raised to help the victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and nearly all that money has been spent, the bulk of it handed over in cash grants, some without regard to financial need.

The practice of giving victims direct cash assistance was in part driven by pressure from donors and scrutiny from the news media over whether charities were spending the money quickly enough and putting it in the hands of grieving families, unemployed workers and people left homeless by destruction, ash and debris.

But three years later, some wonder whether this was the best way to make use of an unprecedented charitable windfall.

"It just wasn't the best use of all that money," said Nancy Anthony, executive director of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation, who advised several charities on what to expect in the years after the disaster. "There was so much pressure to spend the money right away, and charities heeded it. Now programs that might have lasted five or seven years to cope with long-term needs that are just emerging have been shut down."

As the longer-term effects of the attack begin to show themselves, the safety net that would see Sept. 11 victims through tough years ahead may have begun to fray.

"I gave money for that exact purpose, to create a permanent safety net," said Chris Burke, president of Tuesday's Children, a group that works with children of victims of the attack. "But that hasn't happened, and now they have spent all the money."

Of the $2.2 billion doled out by the 40 largest Sept. 11 funds, 72 percent was given in direct cash assistance to victims in the two years after the disaster, according to an analysis by the Foundation Center, a research group, completed late last year.

Some were small cash grants to help people with basics like rent, food and health care in the days and weeks after the attacks. But other grants totaled hundreds of thousands of dollars and went to pay for decidedly nonessential things, such as luxury car payments and vacations. Less than 30 percent was left for things like long-term services, rebuilding and aid to businesses. And the survey found that 97.5 percent of the funds planned to give away all their money by June 2004.

"The charities got a lot of bad press asking why hadn't money gone out sooner and faster," said Loren Renz, vice president for research at the Foundation Center. "What the public doesn't understand is that after the catastrophe there is a need for imme- diate funds but also long-term needs that need to be met."

Several charities were criticized in the months after the disaster for moving too slowly or planning to use the money they received for non-9/11-related purposes. The Red Cross, which received more than $1 billion in donations, tried to set aside money for future attacks and $200 million for new telephone equipment. This brought such public fury that the agency's director stepped down.

Today, the biggest needs remaining for victims and their families, charities that work with them say, are human services, things like mental health care and counseling in practical matters, like career development and financial management. While many programs are operating, money for these kinds of services will dry up in the next few years.

"We have approximately $3 million remaining, which will take us through September 2005," said Debra Shime, senior vice president at Safe Horizon.

The charity has provided services including small emergency cash assistance grants and counseling to 200,000 people affected by the trade center attack, distributing nearly $250 million. As that money runs out, Safe Horizon is beginning to look for donations to continue its counseling program.

Advice from officials in Oklahoma City, where 168 people were killed when Timothy McVeigh blew up a federal building in 1995, led Safe Horizon to conclude that victims of Sept. 11 would need help long after the attack.

"Even after nine years in Oklahoma City, the need persists," said Dr. Jane Zimmerman, a senior vice president at Safe Horizon. "We have actually less money than we would like at this point."

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