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Catastrophe in Southern Asia

Donations Large and Small Climb by the Hour

January 01, 2005|Sharon Bernstein | Times Staff Writer

Fueled by Internet donations from hundreds of thousands of individuals, the outpouring to help victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami is on track to surpass gifts for victims of previous natural disasters, and charities say contributions are even outpacing those of the first days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Americans are donating so much money -- so fast -- that relief agencies say the totals are rising dramatically hour to hour.

By Friday, the International Red Cross reported $47.3 million in donations in the first four days after Sunday's tragedy. World Vision, based in the Seattle area, said it had collected $8 million, and UNICEF received $20 million.

With donations as small as $10 and as large as the $35 million pledge of cash and medicine from pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., people across the United States are finding a variety of ways to give.

An 11-year-old boy stood in the rain in a Seattle suburb selling hot chocolate. A Trinidadian cabdriver in New York handed $150 in cash to the director of a Jewish relief agency. Employees of a Burbank production company started out collecting blankets, and now expect to donate as much as $20,000 in cash and checks.

A haircut marathon is scheduled for Monday at an Alhambra beauty school. A company that owns thoroughbred racehorses in Kentucky, Australia and Ireland is trying to raise $1 million by auctioning stud services for some of the world's fastest horses.

Each day into the tragedy, giving has increased.

UNICEF's online fundraising netted $300,000 on Monday, the day after the magnitude 9 earthquake and tsunami struck; $1.6 million on Tuesday; $3.5 million on Wednesday; and $5.3 million on Thursday.

"It's broken all records," UNICEF spokeswoman Lisa Szarkowski said Friday. "We raised $4 million for the earthquake in Gujarat, India, in 2001, and we thought that was an outpouring. But we raised more than that online yesterday alone."

So much money has come in that charities have not had a chance to analyze who the donors are.

Tim Ledwith, who directs online fundraising for UNICEF, said the agency has not yet developed a fundraising goal -- or even begun to estimate how much could ultimately come in.

"I am a bit surprised to see [contributions] increasing and not leveling off," he said. "The level of generosity is just overwhelming."

The Internet has taken on a particularly important role in charitable donations, even more so than after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a publication that monitors charitable giving. "When Sept. 11 happened, the Red Cross' site crashed and was down for two days" because of an onslaught of donors, Palmer said.

This time, she and others said, nonprofits were ready. And computer users, more comfortable making financial transactions online than they were three years ago, have responded intensely.

The shopping site has a link on its home page for donations to the Red Cross. By 6 p.m. Friday, the site reported that 130,000 people had donated $10 million. The Red Cross has not yet included that amount in its total.

Three-fourths of the $8 million raised by World Vision came in over the Internet, said spokeswoman Sheryl Watkins.

Tommy Loeb, deputy executive director for the American Jewish World Service, said donors are more likely to give via the Internet because they can do so on impulse. Rather than having to look for a checkbook, an envelope and a stamp -- as well as the address of a charity -- many people simply go online.

The day after the tsunami, Rajeev Gajendran of Saratoga, Calif., went to the Red Cross website and entered his credit card information, donating $100 in seconds. The next day, Gajendran, who grew up in Sri Lanka, one of the countries most affected by the tragedy, went back online and donated another $100 through his employer's website.

"Living here, we really don't have much in the way of roots and connections [to Sri Lanka] anymore," the computer design manager said of himself and his family. "But we had to do something."

The immediacy of online donations has made a huge difference for relief agencies, which in the past often had to wait weeks for checks to arrive.

"I can see down to the minute how much money is being raised," said John Hartman, vice president of Kintera Inc., which provides fundraising software to World Vision, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF and other nonprofits.

"UNICEF is able to have a meeting tonight and know exactly how much money was raised today. It allows them to budget much more effectively."

It is difficult to say whether the outpouring of support for tsunami victims will reduce donations to other charities as the new year progresses.

Many arts organizations and some AIDS charities said that donations dropped after Sept. 11 because donors were more focused on assisting the families of terrorist victims.

"Usually there are some winners and losers in this kind of thing," said Palmer, of the Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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