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Charity funds for tragedy victims getting trickier

After the Boston Marathon bombing, organizers committed all donations to victims, to avoid controversy. Conflicts over other funds have prompted new approaches.

June 01, 2013|By Jenny Deam, Los Angeles Times
  • A memorial near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, pictured on the one-month anniversary of the bombing. A fund for the victims has raised $38 million so far.
A memorial near the finish line of the Boston Marathon, pictured on the one-month… (Charles Krupa, Associated…)

Within hours of the April 15 Boston Marathon bombing, even as the tragedy was unfolding on live television, the machinery of victim fundraising had already started to hum.

By 5 p.m. April 16 — less than 26 hours after bomb blasts killed three people and injured more than 260 — Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino and a handful of business leaders had crafted the One Fund Boston.

With "rabbit out of the hat" speed, the fund already had a post office box, bank account, website and articles of incorporation set for filing. It even had a spiffy logo, designed to look like a race bib.

Planners set a goal of raising $10 million in 90 days. They topped it in 44 hours. The fund is now at $38 million, with the first disbursements to victims scheduled to be sent this month.

In those whirlwind early hours of the Boston fund, planners also wrestled with the fear that it would fall prey to the who-gets-what controversies that have plagued other funds created for victims of violence.

"The American public has seen a number of examples of this incredible outpouring of generosity that they intended to go to the victims but then found out that is not what happened," said James Gallagher, executive vice president of John Hancock Financial Services and president of the One Fund Boston.

Organizers decided early on that the only way to keep the public's trust was to commit 100% of donations to victims, he said.

Tension has been growing between the old and new ways of doing victim charity in this country, said Ken Berger, chief executive and president of Charity Navigator, a watchdog group.

It is a conflict fueled, in part, by technology and unclear expectations.

Today's donors watch tragedies in real time on TV or online. They feel instantly connected with victims and can fire off donations simply by pressing "send" on a smartphone or computer.

Donors may assume their money goes directly to those whose stories they see on the news or hear in fundraising pleas, but as Berger warns, that is not always the case.

After the shooting massacres at Virginia Tech, in Aurora, Colo., and in Newtown, Conn., victim funds were initially administered by traditional charities and well-established foundations. Communities and local leaders turned to those groups because they had the experience and infrastructure to handle large sums of money.

Yet in each case, those handling the funds came under fire from victims who said the money raised on their behalf was misappropriated, and in some cases withheld.

At issue is a philosophical disagreement about what a victim fund can and should do, Berger said.

Long-standing charities, such as United Way and American Red Cross, have their own protocols and priorities and are more accustomed to helping communities recover from natural disasters, such as tornadoes and floods, than from man-made violence.

Such groups also tend to take the long view and earmark a portion of the donations for other nonprofits that can help entire communities heal now and in the future.

"At the United Way, we typically don't give directly to people," said Kim Morgan, CEO of United Way of Western Connecticut, which created the Sandy Hook School Support Fund after the mass shooting Dec. 14 in Newtown.

Her agency has always been community-oriented. Organizers deliberately avoided the word "victim" in the fund name because it was never intended that all donated money go solely to victims.

Morgan said the $11 million raised will be turned over to a new entity, the Newtown-Sandy Hook Community Foundation, which will decide how it should be distributed. The foundation first suggested giving $4.4 million to the families and then upped the amount to $7.7 million.

Morgan added that mental health problems after tragedies can take months or even years to surface, so it is important to preserve funds so area nonprofits can minister to everyone touched by the tragedy.

But the pace and vagueness have infuriated those who lost loved ones. They bristle at suggestions they are out to profit on the tragedy — they say donors are being duped.

"They see the pictures and hear the stories. That's why they are donating. They think the money is going to go to the victims," said Cristina Hassinger, whose mother, Dawn Hochsprung, was the Sandy Hook principal killed trying to save others.

In the more than five months since that shooting, family members of those killed or wounded, or children traumatized in classrooms, have yet to see a dime of the millions donated, she said.

The Connecticut attorney general stepped in to review how the funds were being handled and said the foundation had acted reasonably in deciding how much to distribute to victims.

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