Haiti Donations Soar Despite Economic Crisis

Americans have contributed $518 million toward relief efforts in Haiti 13 days after the earthquake in the country, outstripping the giving that followed the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, says Melissa Brown, associate director of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Brown says Americans are particularly generous and are moved by what they see and hear in the media.

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First, there was the text messaging campaign, then the star-studded telephone. Over the past two weeks, there have been countless ways to donate to the relief effort in Haiti after the devastating earthquake there. But just how generous have Americans been? I put that question to Melissa Brown. She's associate director of research at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Professor MELISSA BROWN (Associate Director of Research, Indiana University Center on Philanthropy): Madeleine, it's really fascinating. The Haitian relief giving so far has outstripped the amount of giving that we saw after the attacks of 9/11 in this country, which is the first major relief effort that was tracked. Those data come from the Chronicle of Philanthropy. But we're now above that level. We have 518 million, almost, in just 13 days since the disaster.

BRAND: What do you account for that? Why is that?

Prof. BROWN: Well, I do think that Americans are particularly generous. We've seen this over and over. Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina was 831 million. I think that we have become familiar with this type of giving. And we are very moved by what we see in the media and hear on the radio. The kinds of stories that have been broadcast have really helped us understand the urgent needs there. And we're responding with a tremendous sense of altruism and hope for this very devastated country that's the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

BRAND: So you think it was actually images that we saw on TV or the stories we heard on the radio that moved people to donate that just touched the heartstrings?

Prof. BROWN: There is a great deal of research that shows that people have high levels of empathy that they can identify with the victims of disasters, especially when they see those pictures. But I also think that the fact that we have the text messaging coming into play now so that people's immediate altruistic response: I don't have to wait till I find a donation bucket, hit the bank or a boot that's being passed by a firefighter. I can actually just text to any one of the numbers that's been publicized anytime I'm moved. When people are moved by that sense of urgent care for other people, they want to act right away. And I think that we've become more practiced now, that we have systems set up now to help that - support that kind of giving.

BRAND: And as you say, the technology helps them act immediately with texting.

Prof. BROWN: Absolutely. We know that after 9/11 the phone lines and the Internet were deluged. They were jammed. People could not make the gifts as quickly as they wanted to. And this mobile giving phenomenon has really taken off. That's at least 30 million that we can show has come through that vehicle.

BRAND: And I suppose what also makes this level of giving more remarkable is that we're in the middle of a recession right now. People don't have as much these days to give as they did in the past.

Prof. BROWN: We have seen over and over that people dig deep. The attacks of 9/11 actually also occurred during a recession and people dug pretty deep to give after those events. The average gift in these kinds of disasters has been in the range of $125. And most gifts, the median amount is actually $50. So if you think about your own budget, it's pretty easy to find a way to come up with $50 for most people who are working to dig into their pockets, give up a couple of lattes, whatever to make up that difference.

BRAND: Melissa Brown is with the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. Thank you.

Prof. BROWN: Thank you so much.

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