Hurricane Katrina changes the pace and face of giving

Donna Fisher-Lewis has met many generous people during her years of working for charities. But she was still surprised when a construction worker stopped her on the street recently and handed her a $25 money order to help with relief efforts for hurricane Katrina.

"He was just a regular guy," says Ms. Fisher-Lewis, chief development officer for Associated Black Charities in Baltimore.

That "regular guy" is one of many new donors contributing to organizations like hers these days. "The hurricane has brought philanthropy up to a different level for African-Americans," Fisher-Lewis says. "It was something they could really connect with. They had family, they had friends. Everybody knew somebody."

Other charities are also observing changes in patterns of giving. They see a broader spectrum of donors digging into their pockets, among them minorities and young people. They note that the Internet is making it easier to give. And they see more donors wanting to play active, roll-up-your-sleeves roles in helping.

"People want to participate in a charity walk or hand out sandwiches at a shelter," says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. "They want to take their involvement way beyond just writing a check."

It all adds up to an outpouring of caring and generosity that has exceeded $1 billion. Money for Katrina is coming in at a faster pace than it did after 9/11 and the December tsunami, although it has not yet reached the totals collected for those disasters.

About 70 percent of Americans contribute to charities, giving a total of 2 percent of their income, on average. Older people tend to give more than younger people, and women more than men. "Single women are more likely to be donors and give higher amounts than single men" with comparable education and income levels, says Patrick Rooney, research director at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

For some donors of modest means, the magnitude of the need wrought by hurricane Katrina has brought a new realization. "They understand that it's OK to give small gifts," Fisher-Lewis says. "Every gift matters. Every dime they can give is important."

At the same time, the Internet is increasing the size of contributions. At the Salvation Army, the average gift online for hurricane relief is $185, far larger than donations that come by mail. "We get hundreds and hundreds of $20 checks and $50 checks in the mail," says Major George Hood, national community relations secretary of the Salvation Army.

About half of the donations for Katrina now come in online. "Money is getting quickly to the charities that need it," says Sandra Miniutti, spokeswoman for CharityNavigator.org, an independent charity evaluator.

Yet online giving has a downside as well. The FBI reports 4,000 bogus websites for Katrina funds, Ms. Miniutti says. That increases the probability that people will be scammed. Some scammers were registering charitable-sounding websites with "Katrina" in the title before the storm hit.

Among baby boomers and those in generations after them, philanthropic leaders see a growing desire to contribute time as well as money.

"Charities are seeing a lot of interest from young people," Ms. Palmer says. She notes that many high schools require students to perform community service. After graduation, they still want to find some way to be involved, to keep giving.

"It's amazing what's been happening," says Jennifer Hecker, organizing director for the National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness. "I see students today very motivated by community service. Whether it's organizing a campus fundraiser for the hurricane or jumping in their cars and driving down to the Gulf region, they just want to make a difference."

The hurricane struck at a time of year when the budgets of relief groups are often strained. "Charities' cash flow dips low about now," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy at www.charitywatch.org. Most charities take in half of their annual contributions between Thanksgiving and New Year's.

Charitable groups say it is too early to tell whether the outpouring of aid for Katrina will reduce contributions during the holiday season. Even now, some are emphasizing the importance of remembering those close to home who are in need.

"The message we're trying to get out to our supporters here is, 'Yes, we're all horrified by Katrina, but we must also look locally,' " says Leslie White, development director of Bread for the City in Washington, D.C.

Already the number of local people needing assistance is growing. As churches in Washington resettle hurricane evacuees in the area, they are calling Ms. White. "They say, 'We know you have a clothing room. Can we come over? Can you give them a bag of groceries?' "

Those requests will be repeated around the country. Evacuees are scattered across 33 states, says Major Hood. "Survivors of this hurricane will be walking into Salvation Army facilities all across America. The demand is going to be intense."

Charitable groups also hope that donors will continue giving to hurricane relief funds. "The worry is that once all the exciting pictures on CNN of devastation and damage go off the air, people will forget about Katrina," Mr. Borochoff says.

Despite high gasoline prices and heating bills that will leave people with less disposable income to contribute to charity, Hood remains optimistic.

"We've felt very positive over the last few years at the consistent support we've received from the American public," he says. "On the heels of four hurricanes last year, Americans gave us more money during the Christmas red-kettle program than they've ever given us in history. Then immediately after that the tsunami hit, and once again they gave. Now here we are with Katrina, and the donations are exceeding the level of donations we received following 9/11. This comes at a time when people are spending $45, $50 to fill up their gas tanks."

Borochoff also sees a potential silver lining. "When a big disaster happens, it heightens the philanthropic impulse," he says. "It brings Americans together, and they're likely to do more."

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