Tsunami relief could hurt fund raising at home: Local agencies hope charitable response doesn’t come at their expense

Philanthropic response to last month’s tsunami has mounted along with the death toll, as citizens worldwide open their hearts and their checkbooks to help southeast Asia recover.

In the United States alone, international relief organizations have raised more than $400 million, observers estimate, and pledges are still flowing in.

But the impressive charitable effort-perhaps second only to the outpouring of support that followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks-has some fund-raisers worried that causes closer to home will suffer.

“Sept. 11 taught us that people make choices,” said Mark Branch, executive director of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Indianapolis. “So many people sent money to the [tsunami] relief efforts … We have to think about the impact.”

Still, that impact may not be clear for some time. Although the Dec. 26 tidal wave occurred during prime fund-raising season, it was late enough in the year that many donors’ checks to local charities were already in the mail.

And another factor has yet to be computed-a newly passed measure that allows donors to claim disaster-related gifts made by Jan. 31 on their 2004 tax returns.

“That will be interesting to watch, to see if it impacts giving,” said Eugene Tempel, executive director of Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy. “It’s a special incentive to give, and that is probably more significant than anything else in terms of [tsunami relief] competing with other causes.”

President Bush has acknowledged the potential conflict and urged Americans in a Jan. 10 address to continue to support charities at home.

“It is essential that your contribution not replace the ongoing contributions you’re making,” he said. “You should view the tsunami relief effort as extra help.”

Whether donors are willing-or able-to do that remains to be seen. But Tempel said any setback to local fund-raising is likely to be temporary.

“Most organizations should not feel any long-term impact,” he said. “Giving may be diverted as people focus their attention on the crisis, but they will get over that.”

Indeed, studies conducted in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy showed that most donors continued to support other causes, too. In fact, a report published last month by The Foundation Center, a New York-based organization that supports philanthropy, concluded that donations tied to that tragedy helped to bolster overall giving in 2001 and 2002.

And although 58 percent of fund-raisers surveyed by the Center on Philanthropy immediately after the terrorist attacks said 9/11-related giving was having a negative effect on them, only 18 percent said that was still true six months later.

“It dropped down quickly,” Tempel said.

There’s little doubt of the link between media attention and public support, he said. When the furor dies down, contributions motivated by it usually do, too.

Ironically, the attention being given to tsunami relief may well be diverting attention from disasters in donors’ own back yards-such as the winter storms and flooding that hit Indiana as Hoosiers were still coming to grips with the devastation half a world away.

“When these emergencies occurred, resources were already being diverted elsewhere,” Tempel said.

That hasn’t escaped the attention of the local Red Cross chapter. Staff here has been processing donations for the international relief effort even as they work to find $300,000 to help flooding victims in Indiana and Ohio.

“At this point, we have received far more gifts for tsunami relief than for local disaster relief,” said Dorsey Hart, chief development officer for the American Red Cross of Greater Indianapolis. But she hasn’t lost hope. “I’m sure our community, being the caring community it is, will find a way to support both.”

Ellen Annala sure hopes so. The United Way of Central Indiana CEO has been making calls for weeks in a last-ditch effort to reach the agency’s $36.6 million fund-raising goal for 2004.

A week into 2005-and just as the tsunami relief was really gearing up-the campaign was $1.3 million short.

“I would speculate that, just as with 9/11, there is some impact,” Annala said. “It’s a matter of timing. We’re trying to finish up our campaign and there is this huge, unprecedented disaster.”

Two local businesses are doing what they can to help both efforts.

Eli Lilly and Co. and WellPoint Inc. have pledged a total of $400,000 in matching grants to encourage donations to the United Way campaign. Lilly also is sending up to $3 million in cash and donated medicine to southeast Asia; Well-Point’s corporate foundations have pledged $500,000.

“It was the right thing to do. The tsunami is creating an international health crisis and it is our responsibility as good corporate citizens to help,” said Vicki Perkins, executive director of WellPoint’s Anthem Blue Cross and Blue Shield Foundation. “It also highlighted the need to make sure our communities are prepared. … This wasn’t an either/or situation. We want to do what we can to do both.”

And local fund-raisers, despite concerns about their own development efforts, certainly don’t begrudge the attention-or funding-tsunami relief is getting.

“We’re blessed,” said Pamela Altmeyer, CEO of Gleaners Food Bank in Indianapolis. “We do what we can with what we have to the best of our ability, and we’re grateful.

“I sent money to World Food Programme. It’s a very common reaction. People do what they’re moved to do.”

Heaven Blake, 6, donates pennies to support tsunami relief at the Keenan-Stahl Boys and Girls Club. Local clubs are part of a national effort to help children recover from the tragedy.

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