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Natural Disasters' Impact on Fundraising


Charities are ramping up their relief efforts in South Asia, and they're asking Americans to open up their checkbooks to help. But with three major disasters in the past year--the tsunami, Katrina and now the earthquake in Pakistan--will people give, and will they give as much as they have in the past? It's still too early for figures, but Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy, says some charities could see a drop in donations.

Ms. STACY PALMER (Editor, The Chronicle of Philanthropy): After charities have raised money for so many causes this year, to have yet another one that people have to donate to, it's going to be very challenging. But I think many groups are optimistic that Americans will want to give, and give very generously, because they've seen so much suffering in their own country, and they will want to help others.

NORRIS: And so there is such a thing as donor fatigue.

Ms. PALMER: Absolutely. And the charities that have reason to be most nervous are those that aren't providing humanitarian relief, the ones that aren't connected to Katrina or providing relief in Pakistan or those kinds of things. Arts groups, environmental groups, other organizations--they may have trouble getting people to give because people have given so generously to other causes.

NORRIS: Now in this conversation, we're talking about Americans.

Ms. PALMER: Absolutely.

NORRIS: And Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita were--that's one thing. People recognized the victims; they were fellow Americans. In the case of the earthquake, this happens--you know, this took place half a world away. Is it harder to get people to open up their hearts and their wallets for a disaster on the other side of the Earth?

Ms. PALMER: It's always hard to persuade people to give internationally because they may not be as aware of the needs as they are locally. But certainly, the tsunami showed us that Americans can give very generously overseas; they gave more than a billion dollars to American charities working overseas. So clearly, people are very interested in helping others abroad.

NORRIS: Well, I'm--just in speaking of giving, I'm looking here at one of your charts, and it shows that Americans have provided more than a billion dollars in donations post-Katrina. Does that mean that that's money that's going to relief organizations that normally would have gone to other charities?

Ms. PALMER: That is the big question, as to whether people are going to give an extra donation this year to their favorite charities as well as to the Katrina causes or whether after they gave to Katrina, they're all tapped out. And this is the big giving time of year; most charities get their donations in the last quarter or so. This is a very nervous time in many fund-raising offices to make sure whether people are actually going to be able to give twice.

NORRIS: From what I understand, you often see a dip in giving after a large and catastrophic event. You saw that post-tsunami; you also saw that in the months following 9/11. Might things be different this time?

Ms. PALMER: It all depends on the economy. Charitable giving is directly tied to how the economy does, so if it's OK, then charities should be able to weather this. And some groups will have a tough time, but in the end, it will come out OK and most of them will be able to recover.

NORRIS: In asking people to make these donations, is there sort of a critical window where you need to act before you hit the `enough already' moment?

Ms. PALMER: It's unclear when that `enough already' point is going to come for a lot of people because we haven't really seen that kind of thing before, where we have so many disasters hitting people all at once. But Americans have a huge ability to give and to be compassionate, so I don't think we're at that point yet. But certainly, if more disasters keep coming and if the economy gets bad and people are worried about their own jobs, then they're going to have a challenge deciding just how compassionate they can continue to be.

NORRIS: Well, Stacy, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

Ms. PALMER: Thank you.

NORRIS: Stacy Palmer is the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.