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Giving From the Heart
By Adam Corson-Finnerty

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The Story of One Girl

In 1964 a group of Mississippi tenant farmers went on strike. They wanted to develop a new payment system that guaranteed them the minimum wage, then about $1.25 an hour. Modern readers may not know much about the share-cropping system of the South, but in short it created a class of workers who were constantly in debt to whoever owned the land.

The sharecroppers were black, the landowner was white. After a few weeks he evicted them from their homes, which he also owned. The strikers set up a "tent city" nearby and their cause began to receive national publicity as a symbol of the Civil Rights struggle in the South.

One day a television station showed up to cover the strike. The TV crew focused on one young girl and her family. The story was carried nationwide, and soon a number of donations arrived from sympathetic viewers throughout the country. Many were earmarked for that single girl and her family.

The girl's family wanted to keep the money. The striking community felt that she had just been an example of their common struggle, and that the donations should be used for the good of everyone in Tent City. Each side felt the other side was being selfish and unfair.

I happen to know this tale because I was part of a student group that helped build a community center in Tent City. I heard the story when I arrived. Some of the resentments still festered. What was supposed to be helpful ended up causing division in the community.

September 11, 2001

Following the events of September 11, the American public poured hundreds of millions of dollars into emergency funds for the victims. At last count, nearly $900 million. So much money that the New York Times referred to it as a "glut of good will" (9/21/01) and in an October 1 editorial worried aloud about duplication, waste and unfairness.

Giving from the heart is not the same as giving from the head. Yet it is human nature to be touched by individual tales of suffering; personalized victims who we can see and understand. Empathy is the wellspring of charity, and to empathize one needs to identify with those who suffer.

I am writing about this because I worked for an international relief and development agency for a number of years, the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization based in Philadelphia. During my seven years with the International Division of the AFSC, and my many subsequent years as a volunteer member of its development committee, I saw all too often the unintended cruelties of crisis giving.

I use the term cruelty advisedly. No donor intends to be cruel, and yet a form of injustice can result from imbalanced and unsophisticated giving. Refugees in one country receive an outpouring, while refugees in another country are ignored. Hunger in Ethiopia becomes a cause, yet hunger in North Korea does not. Resources pour in for hurricane victims during one terrible season but not during another.

In the case of the September 11 tragedy, it was easy to see the potential inequalities taking shape. Millions were given for the families of firefighters and police, even though those unionized professions already have very generous survivor benefits. Window washers and restaurant workers were not so fortunate.

Mercifully, the flood of money has been so great that every direct victim is likely to receive substantial aid. For indirect victims--those who lost their jobs because their businesses were destroyed, people in the airline and tourism industry, those who were laid off because the economy took a strong hit--financial aid may be very meager.

And there is another element of inequality that I did not anticipate. Prodded by the airlines, Congress passed a law to compensate the families of the 6,000 who were killed along with those who were injured (approximately 8,700). An open-ended compensation fund has been created, and a special master will be appointed whose task it will be to get benefits to families as quickly as possible. It is estimated that families of those who died will receive at least $1 million, and perhaps much more. This will occur whether the victim was a mail clerk or a bond trader.

This is a very generous and egalitarian response. Far more generous than was ever provided to the victims of the Oklahoma bombing, or the embassy bombings in Africa. More generous than what was done for the victims of Flight 103. As the New York Times reports, the families of previous attacks have noticed the disparity. "Now, seeing the details of this new victims' compensation fund, these families find themselves feeling forgotten and heartbroken all over [again]."

Asked to comment on these feelings of unfairness, U.S. Representative Roy Blunt of Missouri lived up to his name by observing "Well, a lot of things in life are not fair, and this may turn out to be one of them. Some unlucky victims are more unlucky than others."

(All of the details of the compensation fund and the response are from "Fund for Victims' Families Already Proves a Sore Point," by Diana B. Henriques and David Barstow, New York Times, Monday October 1, 2001, front page)

More Unlucky Than Others

Those of us who have worked in disaster and relief agencies know all too well that some victims are more unlucky than others. We have seen terrible disasters pass unnoticed by our donors, while others grab the heartstrings and open the purse-strings. Often the difference has to do with the media, and whether immediate and graphic coverage is offered. Sometimes it has to do with the time of the year, or the location of the disaster, or whether it is a slow news period. Often victims who are white and dress in western garb receive greater attention than those who do not.

We know that there are unseen victims in many parts of the globe, and that suffering that goes on for years does not have the compelling quality that sudden, shocking, disaster does. When I first began to work in this charitable field, I was greatly disturbed by these disparities in public response. Over time I came to realize that such vagaries are simply part of the human landscape, and occur for a variety of reasons, including protecting our psyches from the trauma of dealing with mass human misery on a daily basis.

The job of relief agencies is to take this fickleness into account. The Red Cross, the Salvation Army, CARE, Catholic Charities, the AFSC, all know that emergency giving is unpredictable and rarely in proportion to relative need. That is why relief agencies do not wait for a crisis in order to raise funds, but organize their fundraising on an every-day, every-week basis.

These groups-and others like them--provide emergency relief to victims whether their story makes the news or not. They are there to help even if the disaster doesn't generate an extra nickel for aid.

When a well-publicized disaster occurs, fundraising is comparatively easy. In fact, money often pours in to agencies whose identity is known to the public. With the ease of giving on the Web, that tendency is further amplified. But in most instances, fundraising requires a lot of staff effort and volunteer energy. I am talking about the more commonplace forms of raising money: direct mail fundraising, foundation proposal-writing, walkathons, telethons, online appeals, and individual solicitations.

A Few Lessons

I would like to offer a few of the lessons that can be learned from observing the charitable response to the September 11th disasters. These are my own observations, born from years of involvement as both a paid professional and a volunteer fundraiser. I direct them primarily toward an audience of professional fundraisers, like myself, but also to others who might find them of interest-including donors.

Charitable agencies must take a long-term perspective to the regular occurrences of disasters. A key element of such a strategy is to raise funds to meet tomorrow's crisis as well as today's. The Red Cross knows this, and has structured its disaster fund so that the current outpouring can be used as needed for this disaster or another emergency. Donors who go to their website are told that their gifts are going to the Red Cross National Disaster Relief Fund, and that "By selecting a payment level below, your donation will help the Red Cross respond to the needs of those directly and indirectly affected by this nationwide emergency and other disasters." (See

The United Way of New York has drawn a narrower band around their "September 11 Fund," but still has given itself some maneuvering room. In soliciting for funds, they say "Your contribution will be used to help respond to the immediate and longer-term needs of the victims, their families, and communities affected by the events of September 11." I am certain that the United Way could not have anticipated that this fund would garner over $300 million in less than four weeks. In retrospect, it is good that they included the phrase "and communities affected" in their appeal. With 8 million people in New York City, that allows for a lot of possibilities. (See: However, almost half of the money in the September 11 Fund ($150 million) came from the national celebrity telethon, and that money is restricted to victims and their families.

The United Way, and its partner, the New York Community Trust, included a Website promise that donors love to see, but which they may come to regret: "Please note, 100% of your contribution will be used to support these efforts. United Way and The New York Community Trust are underwriting all administrative costs."

The administrative costs of properly and efficiently channeling $300 million in aid are quite significant, and both organizations could be in serious difficulty if they try to cover these costs in their current budgets. One hopes that a few sophisticated donors have come forward, perhaps a foundation or a corporation, to assist with these needed and reasonable costs.

{It is worth noting that the chorus of concern about duplication and inequity in the administration of the September 11 Fund became so great that the United Way and the New York Community Trust established a separate 22-member board to oversee the distribution process. Franklin Thomas, former President of the Ford Foundation was named as chairman of the board. (NYT, 10/16/01)}

Emotional donors are not loyal donors. The Red Cross site indicates that over 200,000 donors have made gifts online to their site alone. The total number of crisis givers may well exceed a million or even several million. One might think that a significant percentage of these donors would stand ready to give further assistance to the agencies who were fully prepared to step in to meet this emergency. But, if history is any guide, this will not be the case.

One of the surprises that I received as a relief organization fundraiser was the fact that donors who responded generously to a crisis were not likely to make a second gift - even to aid the victims they had been so concerned about. They were not necessarily interested in other aspects of our work, nor did they want to sign on as long-term supporters for future disaster-response needs. Their spontaneous gift in the first hours of the crisis had met a psychological need to "do something." That need quickly ebbs.

That is not a terrible thing-spontaneous acts of generosity are to be commended-but it makes the task of relief agencies much harder. We are chartered to serve people in need, including the ones who are "more unlucky" than others, and for whom large amounts of money are not--and never will be--forthcoming.

This mandates an important duty on the part of disaster relief organizations: We must devote time and resources to developing long-term constituencies for our work. We cannot simply lurch from high-profile disaster to high-profile disaster, opening and closing our tents, securing and firing staff, offering and then withdrawing assistance, all depending upon the flow of emotion-driven dollars. We need to educate the public about the nature of our work, and the profiles of those who need our assistance. We must find ways to help our one-time or first-time donors realize that their philanthropy is needed on a sustaining basis. But the educational task is even greater, because:

Emotional donors are not sophisticated donors. Emotional donors see a starving child on the TV screen. Behind the child they observe a sea of misery, perhaps a refugee camp or a hospital ward or a drought-stricken village. They want to help those people right now with food, medicine, and basic supplies. And so they donate.

But, barring accidents and natural disasters, most situations of acute and massive suffering have deeper causes. The drought may have been caused by ecologically destructive acts; the starvation may be the result of civil war or a rapacious land-owning class; the illness may come from polluted water. Clearly, in those instances, money should be given for immediate assistance and for programs that address the deeper causes of the suffering.

That is why CARE does not just send "CARE packages" but also invests in agricultural development and public health programs. That is why the American Friends Service Committee mounts programs of behind-the-scenes peacemaking in the Middle East and the Koreas. That is why the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has devoted major resources to infectious disease prevention.

Stay with that last example. When Bill Gates first began to give money away, he concentrated on gifts that brought computers to schools and libraries in poor communities. He was at that time an unsophisticated donor, and he gave to support something that he knew and understood. As he and his wife became more involved in philanthropy, he began to realize that there were many important things that could be accomplished with his money, and that he had the responsibility to step in where other, less sophisticated donors, would not. Infectious diseases was one of those areas. As they note on their website:

According to WHO, infectious diseases are the world's biggest killer of children and young adults, accounting for more than 13 million deaths a year, and half of all deaths in developing countries. Yet most of these deaths could be prevented with low-cost, highly-effective tools, such as vaccines.


As he studied the issue, Gates not only realized that the general public would not come up with the millions and tens of millions needed for these major needs, but that the private pharmaceutical industry also could not be relied upon-since many of needed vaccines will never produce a profit.

Gates has taken to chiding his fellow info-tech CEOs at trade gatherings and conferences. Many of them are still speaking as though bringing the Internet to Africa will meet important social needs. Gates asks such techno-enthusiasts whether they are aware of the limited availability of electricity in African villages, and have they thought about helping to provide something more basic, like clean drinking water?

Let's go back then to the main point: emotional donors are not sophisticated donors. Too often, when we see the tiny child in the hospital bed, we don't think about the vaccine that could have prevented her illness, we think "I have to help that child right now." And as a result, we make a donation for emergency aid.

To be perfectly blunt: Americans ought to be more sophisticated donors. Whether we can give $10 or $10 million, we should try to make our gift be as effective as possible. We can give from the heart, that's a good thing to do, but we then should engage our head. If we weep for that little girl in the hospital bed, if we care about her, then we should care enough to find out how she got there in the first place, and what can be done to make sure that her sisters and brothers and other children like her do not have to suffer her fate. That leads to sophisticated giving.

I can say from experience that the men and women who work for disaster and relief agencies are very sophisticated people. It doesn't matter if they have PhDs or high school educations. It doesn't matter if they are area specialists or farmers volunteering during the slow season with the Mennonite Central Committee. They are serving because they care-their hearts are engaged-but they quickly see important things that need to be done to prevent future disasters. All of us can learn these lessons, and it doesn't take a trip to Uganda to learn them.

Just as donors have an obligation to learn more about the causes of human suffering, so do relief agencies have an obligation to educate their supporters and the general public about these matters. Public education must be a key component of their service mission.

That obligation to educate the public is not always undertaken, sometimes out of fear of addressing controversial subjects. To take an obvious example, the American public has been scrambling to try to respond to, cope with, and understand the September 11th attacks. Our nation is girding up to answer this assault through military, diplomatic, and other means. As we seek to prevent future attacks we find ourselves asking, what are the root causes of this disaster? Who are the perpetrators and what motivated them? If they have received tangible and intangible support from governments and citizens in other lands, why did they get that support? What could lead 19 adult men to undertake such a suicide mission, and how can we prevent 19 or 1900 or 19,000 men from taking their place?

With these questions in mind, it is informative to visit the websites of some of the humanitarian organizations that are responding to this crisis.

Such questions are not addressed on the Red Cross Website. The Red Cross does not include that kind of public education in its mission, perhaps because they would soon wander into social and political analysis, and such areas are minefields. Rather, their public education is focused on safer and more practical subjects, like "how to prepare for disaster" and "what to say to children" about the September 11th attacks.

In contrast to this self-imposed limitation, readers might look at the pages of Oxfam America, particularly their information about the situation in Afghanistan. Oxfam is also a major provider of disaster relief services, yet it also tries to share some background to the current crisis, and asks its supporters to advocate a US response that does not worsen the suffering of millions of Afghan people. (

And CARE�a mainstream humanitarian organization�has mounted an impressive array of information on its website, and prominently features this very compelling statement:

As a humanitarian organization with its roots in the United States, and offices in Washington and New York, we vehemently deplore this act of evil, and hope that the real perpetrators will be brought to justice, swiftly and comprehensively.

Tuesday's attack was an assault not only on the United States, but also on humanity. The shock extends not only from coast to coast, but around the world, bringing sadness to the hearts of all peace-loving people. Americans should know that the vast majority of people around the world -- including Afghans, Palestinians, Sudanese, and many, many others -- strongly condemn what happened on September 11.

We are concerned that the United States take care not to avengethese attacks with the indiscriminate killing of other innocent people who may happen to share the same nationality, religion or ethnicity as the alleged perpetrators. Reactions of fury and vengeance are not the answer.

Even as we seek justice for the terrorism of this week, we recommit ourselves to building support to fight poverty around the world. Ending poverty will ultimately be the best way to combat divisiveness, oppression and terror at its roots.


(See also the websites of The American Friends Service Committee, especially its "No More Victims" campaign ( And the Mennonite Central Committee, which includes on its website a very thoughtful commentary by John Paul Lederach, Professor of Sociology and Conflict Studies (

Finally, I would like to share one other observation:

Really, truly huge disasters require collective action through our government, and must be paid for through our taxes.

In recent years it has been fashionable to disparage our government, especially our national government. Government action is caricatured as ineffective, wasteful, and self-aggrandizing. Government employees are described as slothful, surly, unimaginative, and altogether second-rate. Government is often contrasted with private enterprise, which is portrayed as nimble, efficient, effective, creative and customer-oriented. Taxation is portrayed as rapacious and wasteful, and tax-funded social services are assumed to be more costly and less effective than charitably-funded services, perhaps even less effective than profit-driven services.

I hope that this demeaning, unfair and socially-harmful prejudice has been countered by the heroism of firemen, police, and emergency workers who risked their lives and gave their lives to help the victims of the September 11th attacks. Until this tragedy, these public servants were not profiled on the cover of Business Week or Time. They were not held up as sources of inspiration for ambitious young people. After all, they were not in line for stock options, nor did they get six-figure bonuses at year-end. Their creativity was limited to saving lives in emergency situations, not launching high-profile dotcom companies.

Are my personal feelings about this apparent? Perhaps it is because my grandmother was a public servant�a school teacher. So was my mother. My aunt was a missionary who started a girl's school in a country that cared little about its girls. My uncle served out his career in the Navy, my father in the Air Force. Other close relatives and close friends are social workers, day care workers, policemen, educators, therapists, hospice workers, drug-abuse counselors, and civil servants. Why have rock stars, movie actors, and video game designers been our heroes�rather than people like these?

What has happened to us as a country? How is it that we have become so unwilling to utilize our most powerful collective institutions�our city, state, and federal government�to help our fellow citizens and our fellow humans on this planet? How have we become so selfish that we begrudge the use of our tax dollars to help others in need?

I have worked in the non-profit arena all my life, so I do not for a minute disparage the contribution that private charity makes to our common welfare. I am an active member of my religious community, and I support humanitarian programs that we undertake in the name of our faith.

But look at what happened on September 11th. The cost to New York City alone has been estimated at $105 billion. Of which $34 billion is property and "human capital", and the remainder is lost jobs, lost rents, and lost revenues. The private charitable contribution to this disaster is $700 million. That's a wonderful outpouring, but it amounts to less than one percent of the damage. (The damage figure comes from "City Puts Attack's Costs at up to $105 Billion," by Leslie Eaton, NY Times, Oct. 5, 2001, B10)

Clearly government action is needed in New York, in Washington, in our national economy, and in our country as a whole. Unemployment benefits must be provided, workers must be retrained, health benefits must be extended, the airline transportation system must be kept from imploding, our counter-terrorism and intelligence systems must be expanded and improved. These things will not be accomplished through bake-sales and private funding.

My parents grew up in the Depression. They saw how important the federal government was in our national recovery and in forming a social safety net through Social Security, Medicare, and other tax-funded programs. My generation saw the importance of the federal government is bringing an end to the apartheid system in the South, and combating hunger and poverty in our poorest communities.

Perhaps today's teens and twenty-somethings will learn about the positive contribution of government and public servants as we seek to recover from this recent tragedy. That is the surmise of David Wessel, writing in the October 4 Wall Street Journal:

The importance of government was widely questioned before Sept. 11. For a time, Washington was just plain boring to many. ...The power of markets to produce prosperity was self-evident; the potential to privatize functions once reserved to government appeared unlimited. There was debate, but there was no doubt which side was winning.

Today, the centrality of government--particularly the one in Washington--is unquestioned. The government is criticized for not foreseeing or preventing the attacks, and for the adequacy and shape of its military and economic response. But no one is calling Washington irrelevant.

("A Pivot Point in American Life," by David Wessel, WSJ, Oct. 4, 2001, front page)

Perhaps one benefit of the September 11 disaster will be that the American people reflect on why we have a government in the first place. The framers of the Constitution said it for us, and it still rings true:

We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

This would be a good place to stop. However, I would do this essay a disservice if I did not take my argument up one more level.

When the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation decided to support a major vaccine program they joined together with other key players to form the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI). They did not proceed from the hubris of assuming that they could tackle this problem alone, recognizing that "Since immunization is a global issue, it requires a global solution."

The membership of the Global Alliance says it all: the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Associations (IFPMA), public health and research institutions, national governments, the Rockefeller Foundation, UNICEF, the World Bank Group and the World Health Organization (WHO). Thus a big problem is being managed by big players, many of whom work with public funds.

In the recent past, the American distaste for government has been even sharper when it comes to global government and global institutions. Yet after the shock of September 11, the Bush administration began to work through the United Nations. We paid our back dues, and stepped up multilateral food aid for Afghan refugees. Nothing has yet been said about the International Court of Justice at the Hague, but if it can try Slobodan Milosevic, it can certainly handle Osama Bin Laden and his cohorts.

Here again, we must face the fact that active US participation in and support for global institutions is critical to our own security--not to mention the well-being of our fellow travelers on this planet.

As an American, I have found it inspiring to witness and experience an upsurge of patriotism and sense of all-being-in-the-same-boat. It has been a long time since we were brought together as a people in common cause. I hope that this new sense of community and caring will last longer than a television season, and I pray that it will extend beyond our borders to include the rest of our human family.

Adam Corson-Finnerty is a development officer and author. His books include Fundraising and Friend-Raising on the Web (ALA, 1998) and World Citizen (Orbis, 1982). He is a member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). His recent writing can be found at:


Permission is given to reproduce or forward this article.

Copyright October 2001.

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