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Catastrophe in Southern Asia

Charities Debate When to Say They Have Enough

An agency's notice that it has adequate tsunami funds and its request that further gifts be unrestricted highlight a dilemma for nonprofits.

January 08, 2005|Sharon Bernstein, Mark Magnier and John Glionna | Times Staff Writers

As donations pour in to help the victims of the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami, charities and relief agencies in well-appointed boardrooms in New York and wrecked seaside villages in Sri Lanka face a tough ethical and practical dilemma: How much is enough?

That question gained urgency this week after the medical relief agency Doctors Without Borders announced Tuesday that the $50 million it had raised in donations was sufficient to fund its work providing short-term medical care to survivors of the Dec. 26 disaster. The group asked that future gifts be unrestricted, available for use in other emergencies around the world.

Fearing that they would be criticized for greedily raising too much money, other charities said they too would cap donations when they had collected enough for their tsunami relief efforts. But some agencies worry that even the mention of limits on fund-raising could scare away much-needed donors at a critical and possibly fleeting time when public attention is still gripped by the Indian Ocean tragedy.

"I was concerned that the public would think nobody needs more funding because enough has already been given," said Chip Lyons, president of the U.S. fund for UNICEF. "And that's just not the case."

Such a debate about plentitude may seem obscene to people working in the aid effort in southern Asia, where new horrors are unearthed every day.

"The local people desperately need tents, shelters, tools, very basic things," said Hazel Gallagher, a Briton who teaches English in Thalpe, Sri Lanka. "People are trying to clear 2 feet of rubble from their houses with their hands," said Gallagher, who has been working with the Rotary Club to channel supplies to locals.

The question of when to say enough money has been raised for a particular crisis has dogged American charities since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The American Red Cross was flooded with donations after that tragedy and said it would spend funds received for terrorism victims on other causes, including a blood bank. The move sparked public outrage and a threat of legal action by the state of New York and was later rescinded.

To avoid similar controversies, most major charities have since promised to tell donors when they've received enough, and to request that any future donations not be restricted to a particular crisis. And many are doing so.

"Charities are being much more forthright than they have in the past," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, which monitors charities.

The American Red Cross announced Friday that it would cap its fund-raising for tsunami relief at $400 million; the agency has raised about $150 million and any cutoff is far from imminent.

"What we have committed to do in the wake of Sept. 11 is to inform donors when we've received enough resources," said Marty Evans, president and chief executive of the American Red Cross. "Because what we don't want to do is get us into a position of accepting more donations than we can effectively steward."

Doctors Without Borders, which calls itself the world's largest independent medical relief agency, still welcomes donations, spokeswoman Kris Torgeson said, but this week began specifically asking such major contributors as Kaiser Permanente health group to make gifts available to its general fund, rather than restrict them to tsunami relief.

Hours after Kaiser Permanente announced its $500,000 donation to Doctors Without Borders, executives at the giant HMO received a surprising phone call from the agency.

"They said, 'We've got more than we can spend on the immediate needs there,' " Ray Baxter, Kaiser Permanente's national director of community benefits, said. "They asked if we could make our donation unrestricted, so they could use it in other places if they needed to."

Impressed that the relief organization had asked permission, Kaiser Permanente decided to give the $500,000 anyway. "The point was," Baxter said, "they asked us first."

Philanthropy experts praised Doctors Without Borders for its integrity, but many fund-raisers worried that such statements could backfire.

Kevin Kearns, a Santa Monica nightclub manager who is organizing a benefit for tsunami relief next week, said his group decided not to donate to Doctors Without Borders after the aid agency's announcement. Now the benefit will help Oxfam, UNICEF and AmeriCares.

"We really would have supported them as well," Kearns said of Doctors Without Borders, "but they don't need any more money."

In Sri Lanka, the evidence of need is overpowering.

By midweek, more than 100 cargo planes had arrived with food and medicine from all over the world -- but many places still face acute shortages. In the months and years ahead, aid workers will be stringing electrical lines, rebuilding hundreds of schools, replacing water and sewage systems.

Throughout Sri Lanka's south and east, groups of survivors wait by the roadside hoping people will come along and give them supplies.

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