A Chill for Local Charities

With so much money now going to September 11 funds, other long-standing and less-urgent causes are struggling

Jane G. Gunter isn't sure she'll be able to pay her bills this month. The director of Family Life Ministries, an Atlanta charity that does everything from giving out food to helping the needy pay their electricity bills, has seen donations drop by half since September 11. At the same time, more people are coming to her for help. She says laid-off airline and airport workers -— who used to donate cash, food, blankets, and cooking supplies for the needy -— are now coming to her asking for help themselves. "It's Friday, and I hope I have enough money Monday to pay [payroll] taxes, because I've spent it all on food," says Gunter.

At a time when Americans have shown record-breaking generosity in donating to causes concerned with the September 11 attacks -- close to $1 billion has been given in the past five weeks -- local charities around the country are struggling (see BW Online, 10/18/01, "Giving: Too Big a Hand?"). Layoffs, the slowing economy, and a declining stock market were already crimping charitable giving before the terrorist attacks. And with so much money now going into helping the organizations focused on the terrorism victims, local charities are being left out in the cold.

"STUCK" ON 2%.

  Part of the reason is that charitable giving tends to be a zero-sum game. Experts note that when a new cause surfaces, such as the AIDS crisis in the early 1990s, older ones like cancer research see a drop in donations. "Americans have been stuck for the last three decades giving 2% of their income," says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy and Charitywatch.org. So could the money going toward the September 11 recovery effort mean less money for other worthwhile causes? "Oh sure," he says.

Fund-raisers are already concerned about "charity fatigue." On Nov. 1, the New York Times Neediest Fund will begin its 90th annual campaign for donations to help the cash-strapped and needy. However, the group just raised $36 million expressly for victims of September 11, and New York Times Company Foundation President Jack Rosenthal is worried that could hurt the new fund drive. "It's already clear that it's happening to less-urgent causes like the arts and the environment," says Rosenthal.

Some of those nonprofits have also found regular sources of income drying up as tourism has declined post-September 11. At the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Executive Vice-President Debra K. Fassnacht says a sharp falloff in visitors has forced her to look for savings anywhere she can. Senior staff have taken a voluntary pay cut, and so have hourly employees because their hours have been reduced. Travel is out of the budget altogether, and Fassnacht is even starting up the air conditioning later and shutting it down sooner to trim energy bills.


  Because the last few months of the year are generally the biggest for giving -- as people plan for taxes and get into the holiday spirit -- the full effect of September 11 is not yet known. Most charities are hoping that short-term cost-cutting will help tide them over until they get those needed donations.

Some even argue that the terrorist attacks might actually lead to a greater generosity this year. "Maybe everything that has happened after September 11 will prompt people who might not have given to reach into their pockets," says Joe Giunta, co-chairman of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Los Angeles. "Maybe this will actually increase the pie rather than shrink it."

So far, however, it has done just the opposite.

By Nanette Byrnes in New York and Ushma Patel in Atlanta, with bureau reports