Some Disasters Compel Us to Give

Disaster strikes -- a hurricane, a flood, a tsunami, a terrorist attack. People die. Buildings are destroyed. Communities are devastated. What do you do? If you're like millions of Americans, you reach for your wallet. And you give. And give. And give.

More than $2 billion in private donations for victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. More than $1.5 billion for those affected by the devastating tsunami that swept through Southeast Asia at the end of last year. And donations to the victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit $2.2 billion.
But what is it that triggers that "must-give" button in our heads? And why do some disasters push that button when others don't?

Last month's earthquake in Pakistan, which killed more than 80,000 people -- many times the number who perished in Hurricane Katrina -- has brought in a mere $45 million in donations from Americans.

International and domestic relief groups that deal with disasters say they sense that certain circumstances can trigger an outpouring of donations. Although they emphasize that they are constantly surprised by what galvanizes Americans (the massive giving to the tsunami in far-off Southeast Asia, for example), here's what they generally find:

"Natural" disasters beat manmade disasters. In other words, victims of hurricanes and tsunamis generally attract more donations than victims of war and other politically caused crises.

Oxfam America, for example, a relief group that works in 26 countries, received $250 million in donations for tsunami victims -- more than enough for that effort, said Nathaniel A. Raymond, spokesman for the relief organization.

But it is struggling to raise funds to help the millions of victims of the civil strife in the Darfur region of Sudan, where some 2 million people have been forced from their homes and into camps, and for the civil war in northern Uganda that has killed tens of thousands and driven more than 1.6 million people off their farms.

Sudden disasters beat slow-moving crises. Who among us didn't feel spurred to take action while watching people beg for help outside the Superdome and on the overpasses in New Orleans after Katrina?

A sense of urgency mobilizes donors.

"People's lives are clearly at stake, and it creates a strong impulse to give," said Bill Strathmann, chief executive of Network for Good, a charitable Web site that allows people to donate and volunteer to more than 1 million charities. "Americans want to help, not stand by feeling helpless."

But plodding disasters, such as the decades-long devastation of the AIDS crisis or the methodical lethality of a famine, often don't trigger such an outpouring.

"With famines, that's so slow and gradual," said Patrick M. Rooney, director of research for the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which has studied patterns of charitable giving over the past 50 years.

"It's horrific, but it happens very slowly. If you were there one day and back the next day, there wouldn't be much difference."

The United Nations says hunger has killed 6 million people worldwide this year -- almost 25 times as many as died in the tsunami.

But relief groups labor to raise money for efforts to resolve problems like that -- such as for the victims of the widespread famine and drought in the West African nation of Niger, where 2.5 million people face food shortages after their crops were ravaged by drought and locusts.

TV counts. Spectacular videos that allow viewers to imagine themselves at the scene make a huge difference. Those scenes of the World Trade Center as the planes struck, footage of the giant waves washing away people and buildings in Southeast Asia, and the fury of Katrina and its aftermath in New Orleans all galvanized donors.

With these three events, "you had videographic evidence of what the locality looked like before the incident, during the incident and after the incident," said Rooney.

Timing counts. Tsunamis roared through Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004, right when U.S. families were watching television, many of them surrounded by holiday presents. "When you see the juxtaposition of that affluence and abundance versus those children who had been orphaned by the tsunami and whole communities destroyed . . . that certainly pulled on our hearts and philanthropic impulses," said Rooney.

Personal experience helps. As the United States becomes increasingly multicultural, so is the response to large-scale tragedies. Indian and Sri Lankan communities in the United States raised tens of millions of dollars for tsunami relief, while Muslims are mustering the same kind of effort for victims of last month's earthquake in Pakistan.

"I think it's difficult for people to imagine themselves in a remote village in Pakistan," said Rhinehart. However, she adds: "It doesn't make the need any less."

Simple beats complex. Relief groups try to communicate to donors that the world is complicated and that positive change to crises such as poverty and religious and ethnic strife doesn't come quickly, easily or cheaply.

Indeed, while people like to feel they have made an immediate difference in the lives of the desperate, relief groups urge Americans not to forget that some solutions take years, not days.
Disaster giving doesn't supplant donations to other causes. Contrary to popular belief, Americans generally don't reduce giving to their regular charities when they send off some change to an unexpected disaster here or abroad, researchers said.

That's because individual giving to disasters tends to be small -- three-quarters of the people who donated to a Sept. 11 charity gave $100 or less -- so people can comfortably keep up their other giving, said Rooney.

[Excerpted from an article by Jacqueline L. Salmon, Washington Post]

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