Donors Not Digging Deep For Japan Relief

March 14, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

Five days after a historic earthquake and tsunami struck Japan, charitable donations have reached nearly $25 million, about one-tenth of the level seen at the same time after other recent, large disasters.

Five days after an earthquake rocked Haiti in January 2010, about $228 million had been raised, some $24 million by the American Red Cross in the first week, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Similarly, five days after the Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, about $248 million had been raised, and $227 million after the December 2004 tsunami.

The $24.5 million total comes from 15 organizations tracked by the Center on Philanthropy, with $19 million raised by the Red Cross, according to Executive Director Patrick Rooney. Mobile giving has followed a similar pattern, with $1.6 million in text donations, about one-tenth of the total at the same time after Haiti.

The Center on Philanthropy started tracking disaster giving after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Two weeks after those attacks, the first point in which donations were calculated, about $607 million in donations was raised.

The Red Cross today announced an initial contribution of $10 million to the Japanese Red Cross Society to assist in ongoing efforts to provide medical care and relief assistance. “From Sunday to Monday, we saw more than a doubling of the amount of the humanitarian aid going to the Red Cross,” said Mat Morgan, a spokesman for the American Red Cross. “That can be attributed to how strong the Japanese Red Cross is, they have 2 million volunteers.

Rooney said there are a couple of theories as to why giving is not as high as it was after Haiti, but they’re only considered “untested hypotheses.” First, Japan is a well-developed nation with a relatively affluent population and not as needy. In the case of Haiti, it was relatively nearby and perceived as very poor, and quite needy, said Rooney. The country also tends to view itself as self-sufficient and its government as effective. “The perceived need then, both by citizens and by outsiders, probably is less than it would be” elsewhere, he said.

Media coverage also plays a big part in philanthropic response. The death toll in Japan initially was reported as quite low compared to Haiti, where in the first 24 to 48 hours, as many as 100,000 people were feared dead, and many more expected. Initially reports were relatively quite low, and while still growing, Rooney said, they are not approaching the 230,000 seen in Haiti.

Early television coverage of the two disasters was disparate. In Japan, the tsunami offered incredible video and pictorial evidence of the devastation of buildings and other property, Rooney said, with less of a focus on individuals. Many citizens who have talked to media have been fairly stoic, which might not elicit the same philanthropic responses, he said. This might also be more of a cultural difference, he said, as the Japanese tend to be more reluctant of interviews and generally believe there’s always someone worse off the themselves.

“They may not complain as much, even if what they’re enduring is pretty tough,” he said. “It’s part of this notion of faith in themselves and their government. This tradition of stoicism actually may be a great way of coping and dealing with adversity, but tends not to stimulate as much philanthropic response,” Rooney said.

Japan is an industrialized nation, so most international aid organizations don’t even have operations in there, whereas in Haiti, many of these organizations already were working there, according to Rooney. For instance, Medicin Sans Frontieres/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) is not accepting donations for Japan and plans to send an assessment team, he said, while it was working in Haiti at the time of that earthquake.

There was a lot of dysfunction in Haiti, where the need was greater because there wasn’t a infrastructure to begin with, said Amy Parodi, a spokeswoman for World Vision, headquartered in Federal Way, Wash. “In Japan, they have the best building codes in the world,” which might have been responsible for less destruction, and in turn possibly fewer donations as a result. “It’s much more stable of a country,” she said.

World Vision, which had raised $1.5 million as of 6 p.m. Monday, is preparing relief supplies, such as water, diapers, and other basic needs for people who have lost their homes, Parodi said, and looking at other options as well. “In Japan it remains to be seen where this money is going to need to go,” she said, though there may be huge needs for nonprofits to do a lot more than they were doing in Japan before the disaster.

Save the Children has been working in Japan for 25 years. Contributions are less than they were in relation to Haiti but more than was expected for this disaster. “The media is really driving it. The images have been really effective,” said Dawn Nunn, director of resource development services at Westport, Conn.-based Save the Children. “Our job is to help children, at least 100,000 are displaced, and people really respond to our issue,” she said, adding that corporate interest has been high, with $2.3 million in contributions. “Many are doing workplace giving and having employees individually give to different accounts,” said Nunn.

Mobile giving set records after the Haiti earthquake and while it’s been active after this most recent disaster, it’s not been nearly as viral. The Red Cross has raised the bulk of donations by via text message, with a total of $1.7 million for Japan, which pales compared to the $24 million in the first five days after Haiti. Text/mobile giving comes in increments of $10, added to a donor’s monthly cell phone bill, which tends to lower the average amounts donated, said Rooney.

Research on other disasters indicates average amounts donated of $125 for a household that gives, and a median amount of $50, according to Rooney. If donors only give that one gift by text – another untested hyphothesis, he stressed – the $5 or $10 contribution would drive the average donation lower. With text donations, the nonprofit also doesn’t get the vital donor data that enables them to cultivate long-term relationship with individuals.

Social media efforts have become a staple of disaster fundraising in recent years. Twitter contacted the Red Cross on Monday night and offered a spot in its trending topic section pro bono to fundraise, according to Wendy Harman, director of social media.

“They are different situations,” Harman said of the response to Japan and Haiti. “The Text Haiti campaign was brand new, that was the first time the public had used this. This time the American public started texting the 90999 numbers before we even started the campaign. It was even trending on Twitter (RED CROSS 90999). It was a little different because people had that expectation. It always open, just not designated for Japan,” she said.“We are seeing a similar outpouring of public support. The American public is really cool in that way,” said Harman.

“The same thing that came to me was that people were using these tools to ask for help. We haven’t seen that as much with Japan. I think it’s because of the language difference. During Haiti, people were expecting that we would pass on information. We’ ve done a lot of work since then to help people out when they are communicating to us via social media," she said.

Save the Children has employed Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Causes to raise money, focused on awareness with and fundraising coming as a by-product, said Ettore Rossetti, director of internet communications and marketing. “We would blog about the emergency and tease the article on Twitter and Facebook,” he said.

“Fundraising is just one part of communication. The notion of personal fundraising, people want to do more, might not have the money, they just want to help. Social media by its nature is a shared message platform. Not just top down communication. That syndication of our message allows our message to travel further,” said Rossetti. One issue with social media, however, is the ability to track the giving. “When it becomes word of mouth, it’s difficult to track the response,” he said.

“Embedding giving” through things like incentivized social gaming may be the next frontier in fundraising. Of the $4.4 million raised by Save the Children, about $1 million came in a 36-hour period through a partnership with Zynga, a social media game company. Players across eight of Zynga’s, including the popular Facebook game, FarmVille, can purchase Japanese-related items in their games — or donate directly via a donate button in the game – with 100 percent of the purchase price of these virtual items donated to the fund.

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