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National Perspective | POVERTY

In the United States, Charity Begins (and Sometimes Remains) at Home

Fund-raising experts say Americans are apathetic when it comes to making overseas donations. Relief agencies step up efforts.

April 27, 1998|MARK FRITZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — On paper, the pitch looked perfect: Use the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, to raise money to build playgrounds for children in Sarajevo, which had hosted the Games in happier times.

The result was a 90-second television spot that wove scenes of the Sarajevo Olympics with gut-wrenching images from the war that came later. Actress Sigourney Weaver donated a plaintive narration.

The commercial, which was bankrolled by John Hancock Mutual Life Insurance Co., aired during the opening ceremonies, which were seen by an estimated 56 million viewers in the United States. Hundreds of operators were standing by. They took in a grand total of 145 calls.

"It was kind of shocking for us that millions and millions of people were seeing this commercial and only [145] gave us a call," said Jules Hersman, spokeswoman for the American Refugee Committee, which runs the playground program in the Bosnian capital.

Suffering overseas has become a tough sell in this country, particularly when there isn't a compelling crisis erupting to act as a lightning rod for donations. Although media tycoon Ted Turner grabbed headlines last year when he said he would donate $1 billion to U.N. humanitarian programs--about half of what all Americans gave to international concerns the year before--most people believe charity begins at home.

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According to Giving USA, a publication that tracks trends in donations, international giving fell in 1995 and 1996 during a period when virtually every other category of domestic contributions went up. Although big relief agencies such as CARE USA say they are hitting or exceeding fund-raising targets, they have to work harder and more creatively to do it.

CARE, which has a direct-mail base of donors whose median age is now 70, is trying to target younger people. Like other charities, it's also trying to broaden the diversity of its donors.

"Bringing home to Americans an international concern is one of the toughest things we face," said Kerry Semple, director of programs for CARE USA. "It's not your mom dying of cancer."

Charities also are increasingly targeting ethnic groups, who may have more of an interest in donating money to an ancestral land. World Vision has for several years aimed ads at Latinos in the United States.

"We raised $25 million a year from the Hispanic population for our clients," said Tom Harrison of Russ Reid Co., a Pasadena advertising firm that handles marketing for charitable groups, including World Vision. "Ten years ago, that would have been zero."

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Sarajevo is, of course, an old story for an American public that already has donated an army to help end the Bosnian war. Yet the numbed response from such a vast viewing audience demonstrates the transitory nature of fund-raising in general--and how the wrong pitch at the wrong time can leave checkbooks inexplicably closed.

"Funders are fickle. What happened to the homeless?" asked Darlene Midlang, director of planning for New York-based Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

There are 1.1 million charities in this country, and 30,000 new ones are formed each year, said Dan Langan of the National Charities Information Bureau, a New York-based watchdog group.

They compete for the same small donors, the same foundation and government grants, the same small galaxy of millionaires who routinely dash off six-figure checks to the charity of their choice.

Cuts in domestic welfare spending and other government social programs have been a boost to the fund-raising efforts of domestic charities at the expense of their globally tuned counterparts, some experts believe.

"There's a feeling that the needs are greater here," said Toni Goodale, a New York fund-raising consultant and former Ford Foundation executive.

Others disagree. Langan thinks the rise in workfare and the plunge in unemployment may convince Americans that the poor now have jobs and no longer need help, even though many of those jobs don't pay enough to get by.

In fact, few people who follow the ebb and flow of charitable giving in this country can agree on any sort of trend. However, many believe that international concerns are overdue for a bump, in part because of the publicity from the contributions made in the last year by Turner, currency trader George Soros and other billionaires.

Yet many charities are admittedly terrified of the potential fallout from a recent Chicago Tribune investigation of Save the Children and three other charities that solicit money so people can sponsor a needy child overseas. The paper found instances in which the children in question never benefited from the contributions and, in some cases, had been dead a long time.

The industrywide estimates for how much Americans gave to charity in 1997 won't be available until May, after Giving USA tallies the numbers. But editor Ann E. Kaplan said she wouldn't be surprised to see the contributions for international causes climb after two years of declines.

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