Profound shift in US culture of giving

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

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.

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.

For Julie Putterman in Chicago, giving to the relief effort was a first - not in terms of donating to charity, which she tries to do regularly, but for this type of cause. Usually, she supports efforts and organizations she's familiar with, where she feels that she has some control over the money, something seldom possible with global disasters.

But this time was different. It wasn't just the scale of the disaster, or the onslaught of images on the evening news. Ms. Putterman felt that it was a way to reach out to international neighbors at a time when the rest of the world doesn't hold the highest opinion of the US.

"I feel like our country has been such a bad citizen of the world in the recent past," Putterman says. "For a few minutes there, it looked like the administration was going to be pretty stingy, and I just felt like it was important for everyone to rally."

Josie-Dee Seagren, a seventh-grader in Barrington, Ill., decided with her brother to give $50 - all the money they had in a "charity jar" where they put a portion of their allowance - when they saw's appeal to raise money for the American Red Cross.

"As I realized how many people died, I started thinking about [the tsunami] more and how really sad it was and how many people were affected by it," says Josie-Dee.

The Internet has been a particularly effective fundraising tool in recent days. It's easy to use - just a few clicks, and a small donation flows through. And the level of use in much of the world appears to have reached a turning point. There's much less reluctance to complete financial transactions on the Web.

The Internet allows people to react emotionally to the images they are seeing, says Mr. Melio, and it allows them to react to the urgency of the need.

"I think it speaks to the social acceptance of the Web," he says.

The proliferation of venues for donations may not be all good, however. The US, for its part, already suffers from what one expert calls the "anarchy of altruism" - a confusing array of charities competing for dollars.

That's not the case in Britain, where there is a national Disasters Emergency Committee that channels funds in times of crisis. "The tsunami response so far demonstrates the US culture of giving in all of its profusion and confusion," says Larry Minear, coauthor of the book, "Charity of Nations," and an expert at the Feinstein International Famine Center at Tufts University.

Some of the charity appeals have come from unexpected places. Take the example of, a free guide to fashion, beauty services, and entertainment in a number of US cities.

On Monday, the website replaced its usual choice of a trendy boutique or fun new restaurant with a list of organizations that were providing tsunami relief. "Readers like to be reminded that life is more than bags and jeans," says executive editor Pavia Rosati.

US corporations, for their part, have been donating millions of dollars in cash and supplies. Within days of the disaster, everything from diapers to antibiotics were on the way to the region.

By New Year's Day, the biggest corporate givers included pharmaceutical and healthcare products companies such as Pfizer Inc. (donating $10 million in cash and $25 million worth of drugs to relief agencies).

The Coca-Cola Co. ($10 million), Exxon Mobil Corp. ($5 million), and Citigroup Inc. ($3 million) were also big donors. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $3 million.

Google Inc. put a link on its home page to relief groups, and America Online encouraged members to donate to Network for Good, an online charity the Internet-service provider founded along with Cisco Systems Inc. and Yahoo! Inc. Yahoo also added links to five charities on its home page.

Wire service material was used in this report.

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