Success in raising funds depends on aid's destination

Charities

August 04, 2006|By STEPHANIE DESMON | STEPHANIE DESMON,SUN REPORTER

After an earthquake rocked the Indonesian island of Java in May, donors responded. World Vision U.S., a Christian aid organization, quickly received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to help those left devastated by what nature had wrought.

To aid the more than 700,000 displaced in Lebanon during fighting that has raged between Israel and Hezbollah over the past three weeks, the call has gone out again.

This time, donors have been "lukewarm," a senior official says, offering $160,000 in donations to assist those injured and displaced by the attacks. That's just one-quarter of what they gave after the Indonesian disaster.

"We're scratching our heads trying to figure out how to crack this nut," said Randy Strash, World Vision's strategy director for emergency response.

"Normally you would expect in a major, highly publicized disaster, you'd expect income in the seven figures, at least."

By contrast, United Jewish Communities, an umbrella organization of 155 local Jewish federations, said yesterday that it had raised $84 million for its Israel Crisis Fund since launching it less than three weeks earlier and has set a goal for an Israel Emergency Campaign of "at least $300 million."

Aside from basic humanitarian supplies for Israelis in need, the money is being used to keep children who live in Northern Israel out of the line of rocket fire and to make life easier for those who have been racing in and out of bomb shelters, UJC officials said.

Ten thousand children have been sent to summer camps in central Israel to keep them away from rockets coming over the border with Lebanon. Air conditioning is being put into some bomb shelters, which were not designed for long-term use. Meals are being provided to the elderly who can't get around.

Grant and journey

Two weeks ago, Baltimore's Harry and Jeannette Weinberg Foundation announced a $5 million grant to UJC's efforts in Israel. Barry I. Schloss, treasurer and a trustee of the foundation, went on a solidarity trip to Israel to check on how the money would be spent and to see what other needs the people have. "I wouldn't be truthful if I said I wasn't scared at all," he said, describing how he was at a spot hit by a rocket just an hour and a half later.

"At times of crisis, the American Jewish community knows what's important and that is the survival of the Jewish people and the Jewish state," said Glenn Rosenkrantz, a spokesman for UJC. "I can even call it a primal reaction when Israel is under attack."

Strash said the same thinking did not apply to Lebanon. "From a fundraising point of view, people are unclear as to who are the victims, and usually when that happens they don't write the check," he said. "They wait to see what happens or they don't give at all," he said, waiting for the next "morally unambiguous" situation.

World Vision is not alone in its frustration. Despite the declarations about the gravity of the situation by such world leaders as President Bush and Pope Benedict XVI, people are not being moved to donate in the large numbers that have been seen in the past, several nonprofit groups say.

Some blame "donor fatigue" after a year that included the South Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the deadly earthquake in Pakistan. Others say donors are having a hard time separating the military and political conflicts in the Middle East from the humanitarian issues.

Reports of how difficult it has been to travel through southern Lebanon -- even for aid workers, who would typically be assured safer passage -- are also scaring away contributors, several said, because people might think their money wouldn't even get to those who need it.

"People are certainly aware of the situation, but I don't think they perceive it as a humanitarian crisis at this time," said Mark Melia, director of annual giving and support for Baltimore-based Catholic Relief Services, which has raised $355,000 so far.

"War, conflict situations are particularly challenging. It has been a challenging fundraising environment. It's been difficult to get relief supplies in there, so it's difficult to convey we are reaching the people in need."

David Snyder, a Catholic Relief Services worker who lives in Parkville, arrived in Beirut yesterday after hitching a ride on a Canadian-chartered cruise ship headed from Cyprus to Lebanon to pick up 700 Canadian nationals. He described some of the conditions he had already seen.

Makeshift shelter

He said there are 1,700 people -- men, women and children -- who have sought cover in an underground parking garage near a supermarket in Beirut. During the day, they leave, visit relatives, scrounge for food and supplies. But at night when the worst of the bombing comes, they hunker down on the concrete where cars should be parked. This is no sanctioned shelter where relief supplies are offered. "They just came there of their own accord," Snyder said by telephone.

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