Charities plan to distribute $2 million in aid for Colorado shooting victims

More than 2,500 individuals have donated to help victims and their families in the aftermath of a shooting spree in a Colorado theater. At GivingFirst.org donors can choose from a list of 10 organizations to contribute to.

By , The Chronicle of Philanthropy

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    A woman and her daughters pray July 25 at a memorial for the victims of the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo. The Community First Foundation and its website, GivingFirst.org, have raised more than $2 million for victims of the shooting spree, which left a dozen people dead and 58 injured.
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With more than $2 million raised for the victims of Friday morning’s shooting rampage at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., the Community First Foundation, the main local organization collecting donations, plans to give the first $100,000 raised, plus an additional $100,000 from the foundation, to local charities by the end of this week.

The $2 million total includes contributions from Warner Bros., the studio behind the new Batman movie “The Dark Knight Rises,” whose midnight screening was interrupted when the alleged gunman, James Holmes, opened fire. Twelve people were killed and 58 were injured. Mr. Holmes was subsequently arrested but has not yet been charged.

In the aftermath of the shooting, more than 2,500 individuals have donated through GivingFirst.org, the Community First Foundation’s online fundraising Web site, bringing in a total of $251,000 so far, says Cheryl Haggstrom, executive vice president. Others mailed in checks or wired their donations.

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At GivingFirst.org, donors can choose from a list of 10 organizations to contribute to, or they can give to the Community First Foundation’s Aurora Victim Relief Fund. Thus far, the 10 groups have received $105,000 in total, and the fund has garnered $146,000.

The foundation says it has waived all fees used to administer the fund, which was established in partnership with Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Many local organizations say they have been inundated by calls from people around the country wanting to donate. But rather than collecting those contributions on their own, some charities, such as the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance, have pointed donors to the GivingFirst.org Web site, the portal through which it has long accepted donations. So far, the nonprofit, which provides support for crime victims, has received $45,000 through GivingFirst, says Nancy Lewis, the victim group's executive director.

“It’s been overwhelming,” she says. “People have really opened up across the country to help the victims in any way they can.”

Her organization is setting up a committee to help disburse the donations to the shooting victims and their families. Apart from honoring requests from donors to give directly to specific victims, the group says it will use families’ financial needs as a criterion for distributing the money. Ms. Lewis estimates the process to take a full year. The timeframe and approach are similar to the organization’s response after the Columbine High School killings in 1999.

Other organizations that have faced similar floods of donations after a tragedy took a more cautious approach. The Denver Foundation initially told the public through its Web site that it was “currently examining opportunities to provide relief” and “will offer more information in the near future.” The organization then took action Tuesday night by urging donors to give to a “Critical Needs Fund” it has set up.

So far, a few thousand dollars have trickled in, says David Miller, the foundation’s president. There’s a possibility his organization will end up giving the money to the Community First Foundation. Mr. Miller, though, prefers to give the money to needs that aren’t particularly attractive to donors, such as paying utility bills or the salary of a receptionist for a local group like the Aurora Mental Health Center, whose counseling services have been in demand.

Some charities have had to tell their donors they aren’t collecting donations. Denver affiliates of both the American Red Cross and the United Way are directing supporters to Community First Foundation’s fundraising efforts since they are not principally involved in providing services to those in need.

Those charities have given support, though. For example, the United Way set up a number that victims’ families could call to find out which hospital their relatives were in, and the Red Cross provided immediate shelter and food for those displaced by the incident, such as the residents of Mr. Holmes’s apartment building, which was evacuated
after police found explosives there.

In the immediate aftermath of the shooting, as social networks lit up with news of what had transpired, some individuals urged others to give to the Red Cross to help the victims. Red Cross officials quickly responded on Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere that the charity was not currently raising money to help the shooting victims.

Clear messages to potential donors are important at a time like this, says Robert Thompson, a spokesman for Mile High United Way. “We don’t want to muddy the waters. We didn’t want to make things confusing.”

This article originally appeared at The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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