The unprecedented level of individual donations in response to
the South Asian tsunami may reflect fundamental changes in the
culture of giving, both in the US and worldwide.
By now signs of benevolence are ubiquitous in the developed
world, from the donations jar at the local coffee spot to the
proliferation of children eager to send their allowance to people in
need. Big charities can hardly answer their phones, with some
reaping in minutes the donations they used to get in a month.
In part this is a simple response to the scale of the tragedy.
The number of people and countries affected seems to demand a
universal answer of help. But some donors say they want the United
States to be seen as compassionate, not just well-armed. And
underlying it all is video and the Internet - an electronic grid,
which, for all its pop-culture excess, may prove to be a
transformative tool for organizing compassion.
"I just think all of these things have conspired in a positive
way to really bring out that sort of giving capacity that we all
have," says Courtland Robinson, an assistant professor of
international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public
Totals for private donations are difficult to establish, given
that the money is continuing to come in. In addition, the breadth of
the fundraising makes calculation difficult. The tsunami relief
effort has spawned ad hoc Internet charities - often centered on
shared interests, such as surfing - that have become feeder
fundraisers for the big established relief groups.
As of Monday night, the total was about $163 million, estimated
the Council on Philanthropy. But the number seemed set to soar far
higher. Spokesmen for individual charities contacted by the Monitor
universally said they had given up on addition, and were using all
available personnel to handle incoming donations.
Experts say it is almost certain that the US charitable response
will set a national record for donations in the wake of an
international disaster. The only comparable response might have been
in 1984, when Ethiopia was suffering a terrible famine.
Back then, "there was a tremendous outpouring with US Aid ... and
the live "Band aid" concerts," says John Hammock associate professor
of humanitarian assistance at Tufts University's Fletcher School in
The total for US donations in the wake of the 9/11 attacks was
more than $2 billion. That was a domestic disaster, however - and if
the pace keeps up, US donations to tsunami relief could approach
In a normal year, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) collects about
$700,000 in disaster aid. Over the last week, the group has brought
in more than $9.1 million.
During daylight hours, donations have been peaking at $100,000 an
hour, says Mark Melia, director of annual giving for CRS. At one
point a donor called in to give the money he had set aside to pay
for new hearing aids. "He said 'those people need it much more than
I do, and I can make do with my old hearing aid for a while,' " says
The spate of generosity results from a mix of numerous factors,
say some who study patterns of charitable giving. For one, the
tsunami itself is a once-in-a-century disaster. There are an
overwhelming number of victims, and no villains.
In addition, the tsunami affected far more countries than most
natural disasters - and Western tourists as well. Rightly or not,
the feeling that the disaster affected Europeans and Americans, not
just people in a far-off corner of the world, may be behind some of
the giving. "It feels like a universal tragedy ... and that really
is unprecedented," says Mr. Robinson.
For Julie Putterman in Chicago, giving to the relief effort was a
first - not in terms of donating to charity, which she tries to do
regularly, but for this type of cause. …