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Profound shift in US culture of giving

Deluge of private donations hits $163 million. Media coverage, Web fuel unprecedented aid.

By Peter Grier, Faye Bowers,Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / January 5, 2005



WASHINGTON

The unprecedented level of individual donations in response to the South Asian tsunami may reflect fundamental changes in the culture of giving, both in the US and worldwide.

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By now signs of benevolence are ubiquitous in the developed world, from the donations jar at the local coffee spot to the proliferation of children eager to send their allowance to people in need. Big charities can hardly answer their phones, with some reaping in minutes the donations they used to get in a month.

In part this is a simple response to the scale of the tragedy. The number of people and countries affected seems to demand a universal answer of help. But some donors say they want the United States to be seen as compassionate, not just well-armed. And underlying it all is video and the Internet - an electronic grid, which, for all its pop-culture excess, may prove to be a transformative tool for organizing compassion.

"I just think all of these things have conspired in a positive way to really bring out that sort of giving capacity that we all have," says Courtland Robinson, an assistant professor of international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

Totals for private donations are difficult to establish, given that the money is continuing to come in. In addition, the breadth of the fundraising makes calculation difficult. The tsunami relief effort has spawned ad hoc Internet charities - often centered on shared interests, such as surfing - that have become feeder fundraisers for the big established relief groups.

As of Monday night, the total was about $163 million, estimated the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But the number seemed set to soar far higher. Spokesmen for individual charities contacted by the Monitor universally said they had given up on addition, and were using all available personnel to handle incoming donations. [Editor's note: Editor's note: The original version misidentified the Chronicle.]

Experts say it is almost certain that the US charitable response will set a national record for donations in the wake of an international disaster. The only comparable response might have been in 1984, when Ethiopia was suffering a terrible famine.

Back then, "there was a tremendous outpouring with US Aid ... and the live "Band aid" concerts," says John Hammock associate professor of humanitarian assistance at Tufts University's Fletcher School in Medford, Mass.

The total for US donations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was more than $2 billion. That was a domestic disaster, however - and if the pace keeps up, US donations to tsunami relief could approach that number.

In a normal year, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) collects about $700,000 in disaster aid. Over the last week, the group has brought in more than $9.1 million.

During daylight hours, donations have been peaking at $100,000 an hour, says Mark Melia, director of annual giving for CRS. At one point a donor called in to give the money he had set aside to pay for new hearing aids. "He said 'those people need it much more than I do, and I can make do with my old hearing aid for a while,' " says Mr. Melia.

The spate of generosity results from a mix of numerous factors, say some who study patterns of charitable giving. For one, the tsunami itself is a once-in-a-century disaster. There are an overwhelming number of victims, and no villains.

In addition, the tsunami affected far more countries than most natural disasters - and Western tourists as well. Rightly or not, the feeling that the disaster affected Europeans and Americans, not just people in a far-off corner of the world, may be behind some of the giving. "It feels like a universal tragedy ... and that really is unprecedented," says Mr. Robinson.

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