Disaster Relief Eclipses Other Charities

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A firefighter holds out a boot to collect money for the New York firefighters

Canned goods are increasingly scarce at the Orlando, Fla., chapter of the Salvation Army, and in recent days the building has been forced to close at noon because it has run out of food and supplies for the needy. At this time last year, a direct mail solicitation had brought in $30,000. As of last week, a similarly timed mailing had netted only $1,000. It's not that local residents have stopped giving; they are simply giving elsewhere — in fact, the Orlando chapter has collected thousands of dollars since Sept. 11, specifically earmarked for victims of the World Trade Center. And that is where the money is dutifully sent.

While overwhelmed officials in New York City grapple with the challenge of equitably distributing the almost $700 million raised nationwide for those who suffered in the terrorist attacks, other nonprofit organizations around the country find themselves in an opposite bind. Just as the crucial pre-Holiday fundraising season is getting underway, benefit dinners are being canceled and pledge drives halted as the nation fixates on helping the victims of terrorism. Foundations, corporations and individuals have signaled that they will redirect their donations to disaster relief this year, and the quavering economy and the possibility of war has made them skittish about committing to future giving.

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Taking pains to avoid appearing unsympathetic or begrudging toward the unprecedented outpouring of support for victims in Washington and New York City, organizations ranging from arts groups to charities for the homeless are struggling to remind people that the communities they service still need help. "Programs that needed funding prior to Sept. 11 are just as important, in some cases even more so now," says Clara Miller, president of the Nonprofit Finance Fund in New York. "Needs for mental health services for example are going to grow. Therefore, we need to convince donors that we're in a both-and situation, not an either-or."

New York's neediest

The challenge is particularly acute for groups based in New York City. The local chapter of the Multiple Sclerosis Society had scheduled its annual bike-a-thon for Sept. 23 — 5,000 cyclists would have begun and ended their ride at the World Trade Center. The event, expected to raise $1.5 million of the annual $8 million budget, was rescheduled for Oct. 14 and moved to Westchester County, where fewer riders will participate and those who do are likely to attract fewer sponsors.

Counting the losses

The Children's Hope Foundation, an organization that provides goods and arranges medical services for children and teens with HIV and AIDS, saw its downtown offices rendered uninhabitable by the attack. The group had to cancel its November benefit, which usually generates a third of its annual budget, and toys donated by manufacturers for Christmas gifts have been returned because the office could not be accessed for deliveries. "We're in an awkward place right now because what we've lost pales in comparison to what so many others have lost," says executive director Carole Treston. "But a clothing manufacturer which last year at this time gave us $5,000 worth of sneakers and T-shirts for teenagers told us that this year they are donating instead to disaster relief."

The amounts raised for the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks prove that America's philanthropic instinct is alive and well; indeed, a study released last week by the Trust for Philanthropy and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University showed that charitable donations increased in the years following such crises as the assassination of John F. Kennedy and the Gulf War. Still, according to Janice Brown, who works in the corporate philanthropy office of a major financial institution, it is the "over-and-above" money that is at risk. "Most corporate foundations that have already promised grants will honor those pledges," she says. "But the extra money that is raised from a golf tournament for example, that money will go to funds for Sept. 11." Room to Grow, a charity that benefits children living in poverty in New York City, was told on Sept. 10 that a major corporation planned to donate $100,000 in lieu of a company Christmas party. After the attacks, the company decided to redirect the money, instead, to disaster relief.

Some groups are going ahead with the benefits they've planned, but directing a portion of money raised to terrorist victims. And in a few cases, fundraisers have actually been helped by the recent events. The American Oceans Campaign, an environmental group started by actor Ted Danson, held its gala last week in Los Angeles and raised $600,000. The 750 guests who turned out may have felt a renewed concern for the environment because of the global crisis. Or they may simply have been interested to hear the views on current events of the guest speaker: Bill Clinton.

— With reporting by Anne Berryman/Atlanta and Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles