A billion-dollar drop in the bucket

Charitable giving won't do much to repair hurricane damage, but it nourishes our souls and affirms our values.


Hurricane Katrina offers dramatic proof of Americans' response to disasters. More than $1 billion has been promised to private agencies and organizations to aid the victims of Katrina, and now Rita. Everywhere you turn, there is a jar or basket or a television ad asking for dimes and dollars, and the total continues to mount.

A billion dollars.

It's impressive evidence of the remarkable generosity of the American people. But it will pay few of the bills. President Bush asked Congress for $51 billion as a down payment on the recovery. The governor of Louisiana has requested $250 billion in federal money. Then there's Mississippi, Alabama and now, after Rita, Texas.

In fact, some see danger in the highly publicized private generosity.

"I'm not trying to negate the fact that people raised $1 billion," says Mike Mitchell, executive director of Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity. "That's remarkable, in many ways miraculous. I'm sure many people made sacrifices to contribute, which is a vital part of the American character. But it is just as important not to lose sight of what the level of need is."

If Americans are giving now, what will happen once the images of the disaster have faded? It might be that many will think their generosity has taken care of the problems. But the need will linger for years, paid for not by philanthropy, but taxes.

Still, charities say the private giving will add an important dimension to the recovery.

"Remember, $1 billion is a lot of money, says Paul Schervish, director of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College. "And it is not going to be spent randomly. It is going to active charities that can leverage this money for immediate assistance in very efficient ways.

"I think that charitable dollars are spent maybe three times more efficiently than government dollars," Schervish says. "So there is no question these organizations can do a lot of good with that billion dollars."

Melissa Berman, president of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, says that the donated private money performs a different function than public funds.

"Speaking as a resident of New York, who saw what happened in the wake of 9/11, it is clear that while government funding is the only feasible way to work on the infrastructure, private donations are often the best way to help people at the community level," she says.

"These local organizations can help people very directly," Berman says. "That is very distinct from fixing Interstate 10."

Mitchell believes those needs will be there long after every donated penny has been spent. He wonders how many Americans think that the 20 or so houses renovated each year on the hit TV show Extreme Makeover have a substantial impact on the country's housing problems.

"How does that meet the needs of a million people who went into poverty last year, and their housing issues?" he asks. "Or how does that one house per episode compare to the 250,000 homes destroyed by Katrina?

"The greater the belief in the public that things like Extreme Makeover and charities take care of the need, the more critical people are going to be of the government providing resources to resolve issues like housing," Mitchell says.

Berman says that people respond to acute needs - like the destruction from a hurricane - but have a more difficult time with chronic problems.

"It easier to make a donation to a help out in a disaster and harder to make a donation to work on underlying conditions," she says.

Jeffrey Brudney, director of the Institute for Nonprofit Organizations at the University of Georgia, notes a similar problem.

"When we had the Olympics here in Georgia, or the NCAA basketball championships, which relied on volunteers, there was no shortage," he says. "They were exciting, headline-grabbing events.

"But ongoing things like mentoring, tutoring, helping with shut-ins, Meals on Wheels - those things that are out of the public view - they tend to go literally begging," Brudney says.

Still, many think that the charitable response to Katrina is more important than whatever the total of dollars involved.

"The money might be a relatively small percentage of the total needed, but this is people caring enough to donate to a cause that they think is important," says Brudney. "That is an important expression of not only their own philanthropic impulses but their sense of citizenship and connectiveness."

To some, the current outpouring demonstrates once again that charity is a part of the United States' essential character.

"I think it goes back to what Alexis de Tocqueville saw in this country, the willingness of Americans to see assisting their neighbors as a regular part of their life," Schervish says.

"This is not something for which they view themselves as particularly charitable, but rather they view themselves as people who would receive the same kind of help if they needed it," he says. "They see it as part of a network of mutual assistance that goes around."

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