Fundraising Fizzles For Myanmar And China

June 15, 2008       Mark Hrywna      

Donors have opened their wallets to help the devastated regions of China and Myanmar in recent weeks, but giving hasn’t reached the levels seen after the 2004 Asian tsunami or the Gulf Coast hurricanes in 2005.

At press time, roughly $70 million was raised, compared to the more than $1 billion for Katrina, Rita, and the tsunami.

It’s likely too early to know for sure why giving might be down, but Elizabeth Boris, director of the Center on Nonprofits & Philanthropy at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., has some guesses.

“I’m not sure that we know the answer to this and won’t until we start talking to people,” she said, but the oppressive nature of the regimes in China and Myanmar could affect giving, because they’re not particularly open to philanthropy. “They just recently let aid workers in, that’s got to play into people’s thoughts about, ‘Who’s going to use my money and how’s it going to be used?'”

“There’s not that comfort level that organizations that you know and trust…will be helping people,” Boris said. “That plays into some of the reluctance to help people and pour out money.”

While coverage of the recent disasters has been on the news, it might not be as dramatic or around-the-clock as the tsunami or hit as close to home as Katrina, Boris said. The economy might be an issue, she said, but normally when something of this magnitude happens, people find a little extra here or there to give.

“There’s been kind of a wait-and-see attitude,” Boris said, “and if you’re going to sit one out, this one might be the one before you venture a lot of money.”

Mercy Corps in Portland, Ore., has raised almost $4.5 million for relief efforts in China and $1.4 million for Myanmar in the two weeks after those disasters, but combined that still is less than half of what it raised by the same time in response to the Asian tsunami in 2004. Part of the reason some disasters raise more than others is the death toll, which might be lower in China and Myanmar than the tsunami, even though the numbers of affected people are in the millions, said Caitlin Carson, communications officer for Mercy Corps.

Media attention always plays a big role in disaster fundraising, keeping the disaster in front of donors. “While media attention for both disasters has been sustained relatively long in comparison to other disasters, it still hasn’t beat the tsunami in coverage,” Carlson said.

“I think it’s hard for people to feel emotionally connected to these disasters and I think a big reason is they’re not seeing the images in the media as frequently,” said Del Martin, managing partner and chairman of Atlanta-based Alexander Hass Martin and Partners and chairman of the Giving USA Foundation. Donors “have to feel connected and want to help. And I think what makes us want to help as individuals are putting ourselves in the shoes of another individual. And anything that gets in our way cuts down our chances of opening up our pocketbooks,” she said.

Given the economy, donors could very well be tightening their belts or weighing their decision to give some more, Carlson said, which is one reason why Mercy Corps have been pleased with current fundraising totals.

There was some talk of disaster fatigue after a number of disasters in succession, from the Asian tsunami in late 2004 to Hurricane Katrina the next summer and the Pakistan earthquake in fall 2005. Mercy Corps “hasn’t really felt the affects of the theory of disaster fatigue because we’re able to consistently grow our donor base,” Carlson said.

Santa Barbara, Calif.-based Direct Relief International (DRI) has raised nearly $600,000 for both disasters, far less than the $14 million generated after the Asian tsunami.

“In pure amounts, it’s less but we’re still very happy with the amounts we’ve received,” said Press Secretary Jim Prosser. “Part of the equation is, in the case of Myanmar, at the cusp was the unclear picture for the international community of what the Myanmar government would allow for the response, whether that would result in actual aid. And now those questions are starting to get resolved.”

Direct Relief appeared in a number of news outlets, as well as 3,400 blog hits, and along with UNICEF was featured on Google’s home page the week after the cyclone. The vast majority of the $579,000 raised came online, specifically from the Google exposure, Prosser said. There will be some very long-term needs for disaster victims, much like the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan, Prosser said, in addition to the short-term medicines sent during the next few months.

Direct Relief is committing a minimum of $250,000 to help meet the immediate need for basic health care and potentially significant long-term need for prosthetic and orthotic care in China. The organization also has committed $500,000 in cash and has already issued $143,000 in targeted cash grants to locally-based or locally-operating groups serving the medical needs of affected people.

The American Red Cross (ARC) has raised more than $17.5 million for relief efforts in China and more than $2 million in Myanmar, receiving $4.7 million for international response fund after May 2.

“Obviously there are a lot of factors involved in why people give,” said Michael Oko, a spokesman for the Red Cross. “It’s hard to say what is the one factor, especially at this point in a disaster when things are still developing. The economy could be a factor. The time of year could be a factor, the amount of media coverage.”

The 2004 tsunami had a tremendous scope, affecting more than 12 nations. The American Red Cross raised hundreds of millions of dollars for that in a relatively short time. “We’ve seen a lot of interest, but not of the previous scale of the tsunami,” Oko said.

Alyssa Herman, director of development for Doctors Without Borders/Médicines Sans Fronti�res (MSF) in New York City, doesn’t believe in “compassion fatigue,” but just different sets of circumstances. “The tsunami struck in the heart of the giving season, affected multiple countries, and there were fewer images. In the case of both China and Myanmar, there are significant barriers and the public is very aware of that. It’s just different, the way organizations can respond and the way media are talking about them is completely different.”

MSF saw a big boost in giving via the Web, some five times as much as it normally would receive online during a typical day and time of year. The nonprofit has raised $640,000 in restricted gifts and another $600,000 that donors said could be used for Myanmar or wherever most needed.

Other organizations have sent relief supplies, including water filtration systems and plastic sheeting for temporary shelters, in the days and weeks following the disasters. A joint relief effort by Samaratin’s Purse and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association in Boone, N.C., sent 90 tons of relief supplies. Stamford, Conn.-based AmeriCares sent 15 tons of medicines such as antibiotics, analgesics, ointments and multivitamins as well as medical equipment and supplies to treat the immediate needs of those injured and to help prevent the anticipated spread of illness and disease throughout the region.

The International Rescue Committee (IRC), based in New York City, sent more than 11 tons of plastic sheeting, water containers and health and hygiene supplies to devastated villages in Myanmar, with more water purification tablets and water treatment units on the way. The supplies were donated by Muslim Aid and Global Medic, which are also sending the IRC more than $1 million of antibiotics and other vital medicines. Another 10 tons of IRC’s pre-positioned emergency stocks that stored in Dubai were expected as well.

Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors aims to raise $19.3 million through The Bridge Fund Sichuan Earthquake Compassion Fund for the International Red Cross, to benefit the Red Cross Society of China efforts.

Alison DaSilva, vice president at The Cone Company, a Boston-based strategy and communications agency, said there are fewer companies donating and fewer corporate donations than in previous disasters. She estimated about $600 million was donated toward Hurricane Katrina efforts, $565 million toward the Asian tsunami and $750 million for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Seven corporations or their foundations have together pledged donations in excess of $6.4 million with more than 60 corporations in all pledging support to the Red Cross, which committed an initial $10 million.

DaSilva said there are any numbers of reasons why corporations have pulled back, whether it’s the Myanmar government creating obstacles, the U.S. recession or donor fatigue. Some companies refuse to purchase products from factories based in Myanmar, she said, while others might still be contributing to efforts in New Orleans.

Corporations might be looking more closely at where they’re giving and how much they’re giving, DaSilva said, becoming a little more selective. Katrina “was a big wakeup call for some companies,” she said, in terms of business impacting philanthropy. NPT