Charity donations soar, with strings

Katrina: Americans again show their generosity, but most are specifying that gifts be used for hurricane relief.

September 10, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,SUN STAFF

When Eugene Temple writes his check to the American Red Cross this week, he'll do something he strongly urges others to avoid. He will designate his gift for a specific use - "for overhead"

"Someone has to pay for it," said Temple, a charity ethics specialist and the executive director for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. "But I usually tell people not to designate their gifts, to just trust that the agency will use it for what is needed."

Temple is a contrarian. These days, trust is in short supply and donors attach strings to their contributions. About 87 percent of the money collected by the Red Cross, the principal private disaster relief agency, is specifically designated for Katrina victims.

FOR THE RECORD - An article on charitable donations in Saturday's editions misspelled the last name of Eugene Tempel, executive director for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
The Sun regrets the error.

"The era of assumed virtue" is over for nonprofits, said Robert Ottenhoff, the president of Guidestar.org, a national database of financial and program information for 1.5 million American nonprofit organizations. "It's not enough to say that you do good work; you have to prove it," he frequently says.

So, the Red Cross Web site is keeping a precise tally of its Katrina relief, regularly updated - 159,000 evacuees housed in 650 shelters in 17 states; 5.4 million hot meals served, a recent posting said.

Likewise, America's Second Harvest lists 315 truckloads and 10.6 million pounds of food and groceries delivered.

"Obviously, people at this time want to give to [Katrina relief] - and we will need a lot of money," said Sarah Marchetti, a spokeswoman in the Red Cross' national headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We are absolutely going to honor donor intent."

Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, when the Red Cross' Liberty Fund for victims became so saturated with money that the agency had trouble spending it - and probably misspent some of it, critics said - the scale of the Katrina cataclysm is so immense that there seems to be no such danger.

$587 million

As of Thursday, the Red Cross said it had received $503 million, the bulk of the $587 million donated to all charities engaged in flood relief, as reported by the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

Of the money donated to the Red Cross, just $64 million was given without restrictions, though that money, too, is expected to be spent aiding victims of the storm and ensuing flooding in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, agency officials say.

"We're going to be sheltering and feeding people for upward of 90 days - and that is just the mass care," said Marchetti. "Then we'll be implementing family services, with all the casework that goes with that."

The Red Cross says it encourages donors to give to its National Disaster Relief Fund and make the money available for any emergency. Still, the lead icon for donations on its Web site attempts to tap only the rawest nerve: "Hurricane Katrina," it reads.

Charities "know that people will respond to it in a dramatic way," Temple said of Katrina. "And they know that donors today want to restrict their gifts to a specific cause. ... That has been an increasing phenomenon for the last 15 years."

Immediately after Katrina struck, America's Second Harvest, the United Way of America and other relief charities created special Katrina funds and promised to use "100 percent of your gift" for Katrina recovery.

Two days into the fundraising, Catholic Charities USA took a different tack. It changed the name of its fund from Katrina Hurricane Relief to 2005 Hurricane Relief for fear of oversubscribing to a single disaster. Last year, the Virginia-based social services charity created special funds for each of Florida's quartet of hurricanes - Charley, Frances, Ivan and Jeanne - and discovered that the giving was not sufficiently spread.

Other storms possible

Catholic Charities spokeswoman Shelley Borysiewicz said the shift with Katrina is a safeguard against additional hurricane emergencies. Sounding apologetic, she said of the $7 million the organization has raised to date on the back of Katrina: "I want donors to know that I am 99 percent sure [the money] is going to Hurricane Katrina. ... That is the only need out there right now."

While Ophelia, alternately a tropical storm and hurricane churning in the Atlantic off the coast of Florida, does not appear to pose a major immediate threat, the traditional hurricane season stretches until the end of November, and there is a possibility that other damage-dealing storms could strike the American mainland. Ivan and Jeanne developed in mid- and late September.

The Red Cross spent $130 million on relief efforts after the four Florida hurricanes last year. And, aside from the money raised for Katrina victims, it is not flush with funds to respond to more than 70,000 emergencies a year. Most are smaller incidents of families displaced by events such as house fires.

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