By GARY ROTSTEIN
September 21, 2005
Laurie Reinhard, director of disaster relief for the American Red Cross, knows the level of generosity from watching daily donation figures that dwarf even what came in immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or last year's South Asian tsunami.
Gianna Marie Balsamico, 6, understands what's happening from watching television pictures of New Orleans' victims with her mother, which prompted "Gigi" to sell bottled water to raise money from drivers in her Ross subdivision.
"I'm very surprised, I mean excited, at the generosity of people stepping up," said her mother, Patty Balsamico, who sent $230 from her daughter's effort to the Red Cross last week. "You can never err on the side of over-contributing to something like this, because the people need help."
Total Katrina-designated donations to the Red Cross, Salvation Army and other organizations by people, businesses and others have surpassed $850 million, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy. That's well short of the record $2.2 billion U.S. charities received in the wake of 9/11, but the giving has come more rapidly after Katrina.
It's uncertain if Katrina donations will surpass those allotted for victims of the terrorist attacks, but analysts of philanthropy see several key factors in the quick outpouring of donations aimed at the Gulf Coast:
- The public has become increasingly comfortable with money transactions over the Internet. Online donations enable organizations such as the Red Cross to receive and track financial support with immediacy they lacked a few years ago.
- The volume of media coverage in Katrina's aftermath, including criticism of the inadequacy of the government's response, spurred more donations than would have been the case in previous disasters.
- Americans' familiarity with New Orleans as a tourist destination and cultural symbol has driven a lot of support, along with sobering images of countrymen from disadvantaged backgrounds who lost what little they had. If the race and income of victims was any factor in the federal government's response to Katrina - as critics have suggested and the Bush administration denied - it appears not to have slowed fund-raising.
"I think people feel good about giving, that they're doing something constructive, and that it's easy to see the results," compared to causes such as curing disease, said Russell Dynes, a retired sociology professor and co-founder of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware.
Victims' desperate need "comes into people's living rooms, and, I suppose, they can't avoid it," Dynes said. "There's also a certain amount of, not guilt, maybe, but thankfulness that 'It's not us. We still have electricity.' The giving is a little bit vicarious."
The post-Katrina pleas have become a flood of their own. Turn on the TV and there's a telethon or Red Cross public service ad. Go to a football game and someone has buckets out to receive dollar bills. Buy a carton of milk and a sign next to the cash register urges a donation tacked onto the grocery bill.
The marketing of disaster relief has reached unprecedented levels from a triple whammy of epic catastrophes in the modern communications age: the terrorist attacks, tsunami and Katrina.
Joel Gallen, a Los Angeles producer-director, recalls how pleased he was in 2001 to orchestrate a $150 million charitable success in the form of "America: A Tribute to Heroes," a two-hour concert telethon involving all of the major television networks and cable channels.
"The first time, I thought, 'OK, great, I pulled it off, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. This will never happen again because there's only one 9/11,' " Gallen said last week. "Then cut to four years later."
A collection of top television executives came to him once more, asking him to produce "Shelter from the Storm: A Concert for the Gulf Coast," which aired for an hour on about two-dozen networks Sept. 9 and raised an estimated $30 million for the Red Cross and Salvation Army. The lower figure, compared with "A Tribute to Heroes," might be explained by the show's shorter time span or the volume of donations people had already made, including through other national and local telethons.
"The quicker you strike, the more money you're going to make for that cause. It's in everyone's minds and hearts ... and there's a lot of emotion immediately that translates into donations," said NBC Universal spokeswoman Rebecca Marks, whose network held its own telethon before joining in "Shelter from the Storm."
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