Katrina Compassion Drives Disaster Donations to a Record

By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006

Fueled by an outpouring for victims of Hurricane Katrina and other catastrophes around the globe, charitable giving to disaster relief rose to a record level last year, according to a survey released today.

The haunting images of rising floodwaters, desperate families and ruined homes unleashed an unprecedented $7.37 billion in donations to disaster relief groups in 2005, the annual survey found.

Although that's great news for the disaster victims getting the help, nonprofit experts say, it comes with a hitch: The disaster relief industry has become so hot with more organizations -- and even state governments -- crowding into the field and vying for donors' dollars that charities with more experience are unhappy.

Disaster contributions pushed total charitable contributions last year up 2.7 percent, when inflation is taken into account, to an estimated $260.28 billion. It was the highest total since the stock-market bubble burst in 2000.

Without the disaster contributions, charitable contributions dropped slightly when adjusted for inflation.

The amount of disaster relief is "just amazing," said Eugene Tempel, executive director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, which compiles the annual report with the Giving USA Foundation.

Contributions after large disasters have soared in recent years into territory unimagined in past decades. Before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which led to nearly $3 billion in donations for victims' families, donations because of large-scale disasters were measured in millions -- not billions.

Now, though, wall-to-wall televised images have pushed the horror of massive catastrophes into Americans' living rooms, and point-and-click giving via the Internet has made it virtually effortless to make a spur-of-the-moment donation to a cause. More than two-thirds of Americans donated money to hurricane-related causes, according to a survey by the Conference Board, and one-third gave to tsunami causes.

But the large number of U.S. households, corporations and charitable foundations that have donated to disaster causes has brought renewed scrutiny to the entire charitable sector.

Public confidence in charities fell after Sept. 11 and then stabilized, but it fell again after Hurricane Katrina when the stumbles of some of the more high-profile charities caused people to sour on them.

"If the well-known charities are perceived as failing in spending money wisely, Americans appear to believe other charities are failing, too," said Paul C. Light, a professor of public service at New York University who regularly polls public perceptions of charities.

More than 40 percent of the American public has "no confidence or not much confidence" in U.S. charities, Light said. Before Katrina, that figure was about 33 percent.

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