What’s the catastrophe today?

Over at the Stanford Social Innovation Review there’s a new piece about the disproportionately small gifts made by the wealthy.  But the most interesting thing about the article is its observation–familiar, but infrequently highlighted–that Americans do charity on an ad-hoc basis.

You know the phenomenon: everyone sends money in response to 9/11.  Then everyone sends money to Indonesia for the tsunami.  Then everyone sends money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.  And then, confronted with long-term issues like the persistence of malaria or malnutrition, everyone talks about "compassion fatigue." 

Not giving money to the cause du jour is considered the moral equivalent of kicking a puppyBut if we don’t support charities that day-in, day-out care for people who have no homes, cars, jobs, money, medical care or food–if we pitch in only occasionally, when the pictures happen to move us–that’s the moral equivalent of adopting a bunny at Easter and then turning it loose to fend for itself when the kids are tired of it.

Probably some people who give in response to a well-publicized catastrophe will find the experience so rewarding they’ll end up repeating and enlarging it. But there are several reasons to fear that won’t be the case.

First are the incidents of fraud that arise around any major charitable push.  Never mind that nonprofit fraud is actually pretty unusual, for the simple reason that there generally isn’t enough money to make it worthwhile. Willie Sutton was right: you rob banks because that’s where the money is. As we all know, charities are where the money isn’t. But people hear about the scandals, because that’s what gets news coverage, and then they get discouraged about giving and stop.

Even more insidiously, people hear that legitimate charities––the Red Cross, the Salvation Army––are "diverting" their gifts from the headline tragedy into their general coffers. Certainly the Red Cross should have been upfront with its 9/11 donors about how their money was going to be spent, and in fundraising for Katrina it was careful to say, "for the victims of the hurricane and other disasters," "other disasters" being what the Red Cross does every day.  (Though really, what’s so terrible?  Who is really shocked, shocked that their money has been horribly mis-spent, say, guaranteeing the long-term safety of the blood supply?)  Still, people who find their donations are headed to a house fire in Lamont instead of a hurricane in Louisiana feel mistreated, and are unlikely to look for further chances to feel that way.

The real reason to worry about explosions of post-disaster charity is that donors get tapped out.  Philanthropy experts claimed Katrina wouldn’t have much effect on long-term giving––that corporations took their relief dollars from another pot, like marketing. Even assuming that was true, it answered the wrong question.  Corporate giving is insignificant compared to the 75%-plus of charity that comes from individuals. It’s their budgets––which don’t usually include a line item for marketing––that are stretched by giving for the hurricane (tsunami, terrorist attack, epidemic), and their budgets that then may not allow for giving anywhere else. But kids still need vaccinations, and homeless people still need services, and all of us still need museums and wildlife protection and performances of Shakespeare. 

Look: when you go to the grocery store, you take a list. It minimizes the likelihood that you’ll come home with Trix and marshmallow peanut cremes instead of chicken and broccoli––in other words, it prevents impulse purchases.  Hurricane Katrina and its ilk are the impulse purchases of the charitable world: they’re fine, as long as they’re not a substitute for real food.  But if you do buy Trix, there’s a risk that you’ll have to cut down on broccoli. People who’ve emptied their pockets for catastrophe A often won’t have enough to give to long-term problem B.

Let’s figure out a way of counseling donors to prepare a shopping list of charities they want to support regularly, based on what they value most.  Maybe that is disaster relief above all; but it might be higher education, or medical research, or social justice.  Donors who make that kind of list and then compare it to where they’re giving now might be surprised to see that things which matter to them a lot are going hungry.

Whose role is it to help donors give to what matters to them on a regular, measured and thoughtful basis, instead of just reacting––impulse-purchasing the latest disaster, or responding to the appeal letter with the most affecting pictures, or giving to whoever calls because they can’t bear to be rude?  Charities, financial counselors, lawyers, consultants–all of us should take as our text some version of the following:

Whatever your gifts, make them extensions of who you are. That’s what makes charity such a pleasure.



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