Correction to This Article
A Nov. 6 Sunday Business article misstated that the Red Cross has received $2.2 billion for hurricanes Katrina and Rita. That number is the total for private donations collected toward hurricane relief; the Red Cross has received $1.3 billion for the Gulf Coast hurricanes.

Some Disasters Compel Us to Give

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 6, 2005

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 last week, 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? The string of hurricanes that hit Florida last year brought in only $79 million. Last month's earthquake in Pakistan, which killed more than 70,000 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.

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