NEW YORK — Charities face the difficult task of distributing funds fast and equitably.
Never have Americans reached for their wallets, their piggybanks, and their corporate accounts so quickly or so generously.
At least $840 million has been given or pledged in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks - a conservative figure, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which doesn't include many of the tiny ways people have contributed.
Now, though, raising the money looks like the easy part. The questions that have since arisen are mind-boggling in their number and complexity: Who should benefit from the funds? How should private donations mesh with federal compensation? How will the more than 140 charities addressing the crisis avoid duplication and fraud?
Many of these questions won't be answered for months, as the charities spearheading the relief efforts work with each other and with the government in a situation for which they have no road map. Already, disagreements have surfaced that show how political the process can become.
"We're going to have to be working [the rules] out as we go," says Paul Schervish, director of the Social Welfare Research Institute at Boston College. "We haven't had to do this on such a scale in the past."
Some of the priorities are fairly straightforward. The attacks on the World Trade Center left thousands of families without housing or unable to meet immediate needs such as rent, food, or mortgage payments.
Beginning the day after attack, the victim-assistance organization Safe Horizon began providing counseling services, and quickly teamed up with the governor's office to start distributing funds from the state's Crime Victims Board.
In addition, it received a grant from the September 11th Fund, which has allowed it to help the thousands of families who don't meet the government's criteria for receiving aid. Those who go to the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in Manhattan can get a check that same day to cover short-term needs. In the first two weeks since it received the grant, the group distributed $3.6 million to some 4,000 families.
Safe Horizon has also worked to make the process less daunting for those applying for help, creating a resource manual of the support available and the documentation needed. "It can be very overwhelming," says Chief Executive Gordon Campbell. "You need to go here, you need to go there. That's the beauty of the Family Assistance Center - it's one-stop shopping." The American Red Cross has also laid out plans for immediate cash assistance, in the form of one-time $30,000 payments to the families of victims.
But it's the long-term decisions that are the thorniest - and may have significant implications for the nonprofits themselves.
Last week, the world got a taste of the politics that can taint the nonprofit world, as a tussle among the state attorney general's office, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, and the Red Cross played out across headlines.
Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, whose office regulates state charities, announced a plan to create databases of the nonprofits involved and those they help. The Red Cross instantly objected, citing concern for victims' privacy, while Mr. Giuliani said that he, not the attorney general, should oversee the process. The two officials have since said they will work together - though the privacy issue remains unresolved.
Many experts say the need for a database is paramount, since knowing how other charities have distributed their funds can help determine what needs have not been met. "Information is starting to filter out" about where there are gaps in distribution, says Ani Hurwitz, senior consultant at the New York Community Trust, which operates the September 11th Fund with the United Way.
As examples, Ms. Hurwitz cites two groups that may have trouble getting public funds: welfare recipients now unable to get jobs but who are due to be taken off the welfare rolls, and immigrants afraid to come forward because some family members are undocumented.
Even among the most direct victims of the attack, discrepancies in provisions can be stark. Fire departments and police departments, for instance, have many safety nets in place. Families of officers killed will receive $25,000 from the mayor's office, $150,000 from the Justice Department, and a lifetime tax-free pension equal to the officer's salary.
But kitchen workers at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center, may only receive $15,000 in life insurance policies. Undocumented workers are entitled to nothing from the government. Because of these differences, the most important private funds, say experts, may be those with the fewest restrictions.
After ensuring that immediate needs are met, charities may move slowly in allocating the bulk of their money. "It's a good idea for them not to rush," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a watchdog group in Bethesda, Md. Mr. Borochoff adds that the public might also do well to stop and think before giving more. "What I'm directing people to do right now is to catch their breath and see where the needs are."