Charities fear `disaster fatigue'

Groups worry hurricanes, quake might spread giving thin


First there was Hurricane Katrina. Then Hurricane Rita. Then Hurricane Stan and the subsequent mudslides that spawned more death, destruction and homelessness this month in Central America.

Then, last weekend, a magnitude 7.6 earthquake in South Asia killed more than 35,000 people and left more than 2 million homeless.

By all accounts, relief organizers cannot recall being hit by such a succession of large-scale natural disasters, dating back 10 months to the Southeast Asia tsunami. It is, they fear, enough to spread the charity thin and play havoc with nonprofit budgets.

As the nation's robust philanthropic community approaches the annual giving season - traditionally between the end of October and the first of the year - officials of charities large and small say they worry about "disaster fatigue" and what some nonprofit analysts call "the CNN effect."

"The urgency of the news motivates people initially to give ... but then that wanes," said Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a charity watchdog group based in Chicago. "There is a saturation point where people don't want to think about disasters any longer, and they will just tune them out."

Even before Saturday's earthquake in Pakistan, donations to the American Red Cross' Katrina fund had slowed, from $409.1 million in the first week to $200.5 million the second week and $94.1 million last week. Yesterday, officials there said it was too early to tell what effect the earthquake might have on the fund.

"The local chapters are nervous, and the fundraisers are anxious about what will happen," said Lauri Rhinehart, a 14-year veteran of the Red Cross and its director of disaster fundraising. "In my time here, I've never seen the activity at this organization at this frenzied of a pace across the board."

To date, the Red Cross' effort to raise in excess of $2 billion for Katrina relief is about $900 million short. It has spent $400 million more than it has raised. Last month, it took out a loan for $150 million, Rhinehart said.

"We're going to go back and look at our fundraising strategy ... but we are not waiting to raise it before we spend it," she said. "We will pull the money from somewhere."

As if looking for reassurance, Red Cross officials recently reviewed the giving trends of Americans after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They were encouraged by the longevity of the giving, but only as it could be applied to a single emergency and a snapshot in time.

"This is unprecedented. We haven't seen this many large-scale emergencies all at once," said Sean Callahan of the Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which is responding with aid to Pakistan, India, Guatemala, El Salvador and southern Mexico, and is also providing relief in the conflict-torn Darfur region of western Sudan, where an estimated 2.4 million are homeless.

"It's just one thing after another overseas and, in addition, the U.S. gets hit with its worst-ever [natural] disaster," said Callahan, who is headed to Pakistan on Friday. "Not only are people pulled to help their brethren overseas, but they also are trying to help the people down South."

According to research conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University and published by the Giving USA Foundation, the nation's generosity swells after disasters and overall charity is on solid footing. Nearly $3 billion was given in response to the Sept. 11 attacks; last year, a record $248.5 billion was given to the nation's nonprofit organizations, including religious groups.

"People raised these same sorts of issues after 9/11 and after the tsunami: Will it pull away the giving to other philanthropic sources and causes and disasters?" said Bob Ottenhoff, president of, a database of financial and program information collected on the nation's 1.5 million nonprofits. "In those cases it did not. People not only responded generously to the requests around those two causes, but they continued to give to their traditional causes."

Still, Ottenhoff worries that the long-term needs for rebuilding in New Orleans, Pakistan and Guatemala might be forgotten. According to Catholic Relief Services' office in Guatemala, the hurricane and mudslides have killed more than 1,000 people in Central America and left hundreds of thousands homeless.

"As Americans, we like to contribute, to do something immediately when we are made aware of a crisis ... but it tends to be short-term in nature," Ottenhoff said. "The kind of long-term rebuilding of a society or a community is not always so attractive."

Catholic Charities USA has collected $53 million for Katrina victims, the most it has generated for a single disaster and about $21 million more than it collected after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

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