Magazine article The Christian Century

Donors Favor Those 'Worthy' of Compassion

Magazine article The Christian Century

Donors Favor Those 'Worthy' of Compassion

Article excerpt

AS AMERICANS set new records for charitable giving in response to Hurricane Katrina, some fund-raisers are seeing a principle confirmed: when the sufferers are perceived as innocent victims, donors respond generously.

But giving patterns suggest that donors are losing interest in chronic problems such as poverty, in which suffering is arguably exacerbated by questionable individual choices. Private donations are shrinking for homeless shelters, AIDS-related ser vices and programs for troubled youth, to cite just a few examples.

In religious circles and beyond, some see a troubling trend: compassion is increasingly being reserved for those who appear to have done no wrong.

It took only ten days after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast for donors to exceed $600 million for relief efforts, according to data tracked by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Ten days after the attacks of September 11, Americans had donated $239 million to relief efforts.

A quick glance at the big picture reveals an increasingly generous public. Total annual giving to all charities has climbed steadily from $231 billion in 2001 to $249 billion in 2004.

Closer scrutiny reveals that giving to human service causes--including legal services, food pantries and rehabilitation for ex-convicts--has declined every year, from a $22.1 billion peak in 2001 to $19.2 billion in 2004. Hardest hit: small organizations, those raising less than $1 million per year. They received 3.4 percent less from private donors in 2004 than in 2003, according to Giving USA 2005.

"For some reason, we're not being sympathetic to the poor and the needy as we're leaving certain people behind," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the Chicago-based American Institute of Philanthropy. "It is harder to raise money for people who made bad choices.... It is hard for the charities to tell people, 'Yeah, OK, sure, these giant things get a lot of news, but you know, there's thousands of people who smoke in bed and start a fire and have to get help."' Historically donors haven't dwelled on the question, "Is it your fault or not?" according to Chronicle of Philanthropy editor Stacy Palmer. She has a hunch that donors now ask it quite often.

"I think it's increasing" as a criterion, Palmer said. "Charities need to do more to get information out about the kinds of problems people face and why they face them. …

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