It’s been six weeks since the images of death and destruction, unlike anything we’d seen before, washed across our television screens. The massive undersea earthquake off the coast of Sri Lanka on Dec. 26 unleashed tidal waves that killed as many as 178,000 people in 11 countries and caused an estimated $7 billion in damages.
The staggering loss of life and property was quick to capture the attention of the world community. International relief organizations are still trying to address needs as immediate as food, water, shelter and medical care. Long-term reconstruction is only beginning.
Tsunami relief donations are already being measured in the billions.
The Red Cross, as usual, is playing a leading role.
At the end of January, the American Red Cross had tallied more than $236 million in pledges and donations.
Residents of mid-Missouri are doing their part.
The Red Cross chapter in Boone County reported $75,000 in donations by Jan. 28 that ranged from $2 to $1,000. And that doesn’t count online donations made by area residents to the national organization.
“The people in this community have just been phenomenal,” said Jutta Hopkins, executive director of the local chapter. “It makes people think, ‘We’re part of this world, and we need to take care of each other.’”
Donations raised by the local chapter are more than 11 times the amount collected for hurricane relief in Florida last year. Unlike the hurricane outreach, the local chapter hasn’t set a goal for tsunami relief. The response has been so overwhelming that it hasn’t been necessary.
“We haven’t had this kind of money coming through this chapter since Sept. 11,” Hopkins said. “The tsunami might equal Sept. 11 in terms of generosity.”
The faith community is also making a major impact. Eighteen local congregations sampled by the Missourian — a fraction of the churches in this area -— had raised more than $78,000 in the weeks following the disaster.
Lois Anderson, financial secretary of Missouri United Methodist Church, said her church collected more than $32,000 in one month at worship services.
In addition to collecting several thousand dollars, both First Presbyterian Church of Columbia and Olivet Christian Church are assembling health kits with basic first aid and toiletry items.
Nearly everywhere you go, it seems, there are opportunities to help. Schools and businesses have taken up collections. Students have organized dances. Community calendars advertise bake sales, petting zoos and concerts. Containers placed inside the doors of stores gather spare change.
Small or large, it all adds up.
To accommodate contributions to victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the American Red Cross established its Liberty Disaster Relief Fund. Three years later, the fund had taken in more than $1 billion.
As the agency learned, that kind of money brings increased scrutiny.
The Red Cross faced criticism following Sept. 11 when it planned to use some of the Liberty Fund for causes not directly related to the terrorist attacks. The outcry was loud enough to pressure the organization’s president into early retirement and prompt changes in policies.
Because some people were confused about where their donations were going after Sept. 11, the Red Cross has changed the language in ads and solicitations to make it clearer that, unless specified, a donation to the Red Cross could go to any disaster around the world.
There are also procedures in place to confirm that donors understand where their money is going. After contributions are received, donors get an acknowledgment asking them to re-confirm that their donation is being used as they intended.
The changes are not lost on Hopkins, head of the Boone County chapter.
“When someone contributes, we do ascertain how they want the money to be used,” Hopkins said. “We’re very careful to honor donor intentions.”
The American Institute of Philanthropy, one of several groups that keep watch on charities and their spending practices, gives the American Red Cross a grade of A-.
The institute calculates its grades based on factors that include the percentage of spending for programs as opposed to administrative costs.
Karen Ogden, a spokeswoman at the national office of the Red Cross, said administrative costs for tsunami relief will amount to 4 to 6 percent for receiving and distributing supplies, thanking donors, processing credit cards and mail.
Overall in 2003, the Red Cross spent 9 percent of its total revenues on administrative costs and the remaining 91 percent on programs, according to Daniel Borochoff of the American Institute of Philanthropy.
“Charity organizations look a lot better in a crisis situation because they get flooded with money,” he said.
While the Red Cross is not inucrring any fund-raising expenses in its tsunami relief efforts, the agency does have to spend money to fundraise for other causes.
In 2003, Red Cross fund-raising costs were about 23 percent — or $23 for every $100 dollar raised, Borochoff said.
The watchdog group believes charities should spend $35 or less of every $100 collected for fund-raising, “so the Red Cross figure isn’t bad,” Borochoff said. “Overall, they’re financially efficient.”
Borochoff did question the merits of Red Cross plans to provide psychosocial help to some tsunami victims.
“I would be curious to see if trauma counseling even works over there because some feel it was ineffective in the U.S. after Sept. 11,” he said.
Jake Saylor of the American Red Cross said the agency intends to counsel victims in the Maldives, specifically, but might send volunteers to other areas. “People could be dealing with loss of loved ones or loss of everything they own,” he said. “If a fisherman’s livelihood has now been swept away, there are mental implications of that.”
The scope of the tsunami relief will no doubt present new fundraising challenges.
“There are always changes, and there are always things to learn,” Hopkins said. “This is one of the largest disasters we’ve faced, so I’m sure there’s been tremendous learning.”
The American Red Cross set an initial goal of $400 million — more than the $350 million pledged by the U.S. government. But the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Society collected so much for tsunami victims that the American Red Cross decided to no longer actively solicit donations for that effort after Jan. 26. While the American Red Cross continues to accept money that donors designate for tsunami relief, the agency is asking that additional contributions be directed to its general relief fund.
The local chapter has seen a decline in donations used to help victims of fires or other local disasters, Shari Wooldridge of the local chapter said. “But we still provide the same services to people in need.”
Red Cross officials hope that general donations will increase once the immediate needs of tsunami victims are met. The Boone County chapter has helped victims of more than a dozen local fires since Thanksgiving by providing food and clothing vouchers as well as temporary lodging. The chapter, which extended its reach when an office in Moberly closed, has also helped with a fatal plane crash in Kirksville as well as tornadoes in north-central Missouri.
In the big scheme of things, donations in response to Sept. 11 and the tsunami are a surprisingly small portion of overall charitable giving in the United States.
Giving USA, part of the American Association of Fundraising Counsel, put nationwide philanthropic giving from individuals, corporations, foundations and bequests at a staggering $240.72 billion for 2003. Of that total, the group reports, 75 percent came from individuals – not including bequests.
For perspective, the estimated $1.88 billion in relief collected through Dec. 31, 2001 for the terrorist attacks was 0.9 percent of total giving for that year, according to Giving USA.
Robin Adkison, director of marketing for the Columbia Area United Way, said the local United Way raised more money for 2005 programs than it has in any previous year, and she doesn’t expect tsunami relief to affect the next round of fund-raising. “We seem to have a modest increase almost every year.”
She said the local United Way wasn’t left short after Sept. 11. “When the Columbia community rallied and was so generous to that cause, it did not affect local charities,” Adkison said. “We’re using that as our measuring stick.”
Checking on charities
Becoming an educated donor takes only minutes thanks to a variety of nonprofit charity watchdogs and their Web sites. Here’s where to start:
- The Better Business Bureau publishes a quarterly charity guide through its Wise Giving Alliance. A $45 donation entitles you to a year’s subscription in addition to charity ratings. Detailed reports are free at the alliance’s Web site: give.org.
- The American Institute of Philanthropy produces its “Charity Rating Guide and Watchdog Report” three times a year with general information, financial numbers and overall grades for about 500 major charities. The institute’s Web site explains that the grades are based on the percentage of total expenses spent on charitable purposes and the money spent to raise $100. The Web site itself only lists charities that received A and B grades. For complete reports, plus details on C, D, and F-rated charities, you must order the complete guide, available for a tax-deductible donation of $35. The guide features 100 F-rated charities, including both organizations that score poorly using the institute’s typical measures as well as any charity with five or more years of assets in reserve, since they are not deemed needy.
- Charity Navigator at Charitynavigator.org evaluates the financial health of more than 3,500 charities. Unlike the Better Business Bureau or the American Institute of Philanthropy, Charity Navigator measures only financial indicators designed to highlight responsible organizations free of financial problems. It rates charities on a zero-to-four-star scale based on various measurements of organizational efficiency, such as how much it takes to raise $1. Its evaluations are limited to nonprofits that file the IRS Form 990, and many religious groups are exempt.
- GuideStar, on the Web at guidestar.org, provides information on nonprofits to those who sign up for its free service, including an organization’s Form 990 as well as information on its mission, programs, goals, results, financials and board of directors. More detailed information is available for a fee.
— Compiled by Michael Davin
Red Cross Facts
TOP RED CROSS RELIEF EFFORTS
Internationally, the Red Cross at the end of January was reporting $1.2 billion in donations and pledges for tsunami relief as of Jan. 27 (including nearly $236.2 million to the American Red Cross) — far more than any previous disaster response by the agency. That compares to $1.07 billion the American agency reported raising for the Liberty Relief Fund after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Here are the amounts raised by the American Red Cross in response to previous international disasters.
- $51 million, Hurricane Mitch, October 1998
- $39 million, Balkans conflict crisis, March 1999
- $24.5 million, African famine, 1985
- $19.7 million, Mexico City earthquake, September 1985
- $14.5 million, India earthquake, January 2001
For more information on the American Red Cross, go to redcross.org.
ABOUT THE RED CROSS
- Henry Dunant, a native of Switzerland, is considered the founder of the Red Cross. In 1859, after seeing a bloody battlefield in Italy during a business trip, Dunant returned home and wrote the book that inspired the Red Cross.
- Clara Barton organized the American Association of the Red Cross in Washington, D.C., on May 21, 1881. Barton served as volunteer president until 1904
- The Boone County chapter of the American Red Cross dates to 1917, and has been in its present location at 1805 W. Worley St. since 1974.
- A red crescent is used in place of a cross in most Islamic countries. The Red Shield of David is used in Israel.
- World Red Cross Day is celebrated on May 8, Dunant’s birthday.