Episode 571: Why Raising Money For Ebola Is Hard : Planet Money On today's show, the psychology of giving. Charities raised $1.4 billion to help rebuild Haiti after the earthquake. But when something like Ebola happens, so far, people look the other way.
NPR logo

Episode 571: Why Raising Money For Ebola Is Hard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351515481/351850221" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Episode 571: Why Raising Money For Ebola Is Hard

Episode 571: Why Raising Money For Ebola Is Hard

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/351515481/351850221" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


I've been thinking a lot about Ebola recently. I read all the news about it. It is a horrible, fascinating epidemic. There are thousands dead in West Africa. And I guess I've been a little surprised at how little action I see around this terrible disaster.


Yeah. It's in all of the newspapers, on all of our radio programs. And yet, no one has texted me with, you know, donate to a Ebola relief. Send this code back.

CHACE: There's no big benefit concert with Elton John, Lady Gaga, John Legend singing for Ebola.

SMITH: No huge Twitter campaign - #StopEbola.

CHACE: I called up some charitable organizations that deal with disasters. And they say, yeah, there has not been a lot of money coming in to help with Ebola. I even went to the one place in New York City that I was sure I would find people fundraising, Staten Island - Little Liberia. It has the biggest population of Liberians outside of Liberia in the world, About 10,000 people.

I met Oretha Bestman-Yates setting up stalls in a marketplace. They sell Liberian dried fish and peppers and sauces. People here in this little area are really affected by Ebola. Everyone has family in Liberia, and some people get bad news almost every day.

ORETHA BESTMAN-YATES: On Staten Island right now, we got one family that lost 14 family members from one person death, a lady that died in the family. From that one lady, about 14 person had died.

CHACE: Because they tried to bury her or something like that?

BESTMAN-YATES: Yes, they are going to bury her.

CHACE: Friends die. Family members die. People talk about it all the time, but that hasn't led to a massive fundraiser yet. Oretha says a bunch of church leaders got together different African churches around Staten Island, and they decided they would set up a website.

BESTMAN-YATES: He set up a go fund - a GoFundMe, something like...

CHACE: GoFundMe, yeah.

BESTMAN-YATES: Gofundme, yeah. Yeah, that's - yeah, they have that. Well, I even went and gave. I put $25 in there.

CHACE: Well, I saw the GoFundMe.


CHACE: And I saw that you were the only one that had put in the money.

BESTMAN-YATES: You see? So there you go (laughter).

CHACE: So that made me kind of worried...


CHACE: ...You know, about the fundraiser.

BESTMAN-YATES: The fundraising, right.

CHACE: The GoFundMe has $25 in it - Oretha's $25. Another bank account set up by the churches, it hasn't even reached a thousand dollars. Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Zoe Chace.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. We all remember the big fundraising campaigns after huge disasters. But listen to these numbers. When there was an earthquake in Haiti, $1.4 billion came into charities. The tsunami 10 years ago that hit Indonesia raised $1.6 billion. But when something like Ebola happens, so far people have been looking the other way. Today on the show, what does it take to get someone to notice something half a world away? And more importantly, what does it take to get that person to pull out their wallet and give money to someone they've never met?


THE BLACK EYES PEAS: (Singing) Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love, the love, the love?

CHACE: Clearly, the problem with raising money for Ebola is not the severity of the disaster because Ebola is horrible. It is scary and wretched and miserable. It is gross. You're in terrible pain, you bleed from everywhere and you die quickly. The people on the ground there - it's mostly Doctors Without Borders - they are overwhelmed.

DIRECTOR SOPHIE DELAUNAY: We keep saying we have reached our breaking point. But every week, we continue to challenge ourselves, and we actually go beyond our own borders constantly.

SMITH: This is Sophie Delaunay. She is the director of Doctors Without Borders here in the U.S. And Doctors Without Borders, they have dealt with Ebola before. But those were very small outbreaks in very rural areas many years ago. But they do know how to handle it.

CHACE: It is not like Ebola is some unsolvable problem that no amount of money could help with. It's fairly simple to slow down the spread of the disease. Ebola spreads from person to person through bodily fluids, so the key is to identify infected people, keep them from coming into contact with the healthy ones.

DELAUNAY: We need some laboratory capacity on the ground to test whether people are positive or negative. We need some disinfection kits to distribute to the families. We - every - we know exactly what needs to be done, but we need people to do it. We need organizations with a good chain of command to do it. We need logistic. We need organizations to organize the supply, to organize the community awareness. And this is what is lacking at the moment.

SMITH: Which is what amazes me, right? These supplies, these people, the money needed to do all these things has not yet shown up in West Africa. And without all these things, without the money, without the supplies, without the people, the situation's getting worse.

CHACE: So how do you get people to give in this situation? Like, this is something that charities are thinking about all the time. Bob Ottenhoff is with the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. This is his whole world. He says people are actually extremely predictable in how they give.

BOB OTTENHOFF: Ninety percent of all dollars given to disasters is given within 90 days of a disaster.

CHACE: OK, so that implies that a disaster has to begin somewhere.

OTTENHOFF: Yes, exactly. Right. There has to be an event.

SMITH: This is the first rule of disaster giving.

CHACE: The first and last. Like, this is really the thing.

SMITH: There needs to be a galvanizing moment, a moment that focuses world attention all at once. If you think just in terms of fundraising - and, to be honest, a lot of people, these charities, their job is to think just in terms of fundraising. But if you think in terms of fundraising, there is one disaster in particular that everyone from this world points to as a kind of perfect moment for giving.

JOEL CHARNY: The perfect disaster - and all your listeners will recall this - was the Haiti earthquake.

CHACE: Joel Charny is with a group called InterAction that coordinates disaster relief organizations. And remember, he's just talking about the money side of this.

CHARNY: It had everything. It had this element of being an act of God in one of the poorest countries on the planet that's very close to the United States. The images were there immediately, and the global public just mobilized tremendously.

CHACE: Everyone comes together for this big telethon.


JAY-Z: (Rapping) When the sky falls and the earth quakes, we going to put this back together. We won't break. When the sky falls...

CHACE: Jay-Z's on stage with Rihanna. Beyonce's there - Sting, Bruce Springsteen. Of course, it's closed out by Wyclef.


WYCLEF JEAN: (Rapping) (Unintelligible) Put your hands in the air in the telethon like that.

CHACE: In the Haiti earthquake, buildings and lives were destroyed. The pitch was let's help them rebuild. Your money can help things get better in Haiti.

SMITH: It was a great moment of optimism. But Ebola is the opposite of the Haiti earthquake in just about every way. It's not in the Caribbean. It is far from here, a place that most people have not visited.

CHACE: It's hard to understand. It's a complex disease.

SMITH: And it wasn't clear at first just how bad it was. It didn't have that defining moment. And finally, like, Ebola is a medical disaster, and most people kind of expect governments to handle that.

CHACE: In the case of Ebola, it's been harder to make a pitch because the money that they need there is not to make things better like it was supposed to in Haiti. It would keep things from getting worse.

SMITH: And when we talk to people who work in charities, they say, listen, this is well known. People donate to disasters. They don't really donate for prevention, which, in this case, is particularly tragic because with an outbreak like Ebola, the best time to give money is at the beginning because the number of cases are small. It is more manageable, and you can actually afford and ship in the supplies you need.

CHACE: It's the same problem with a famine. Everyone I spoke to was like, oh, famine, it is the worst in terms of fundraising. Here's Gary Shay who works with Save the Children.

GARY SHAY: There's plenty of early warning. All the people on the ground know what's going to happen. They talk about it. But until something is much more visible in the media, it's almost impossible to raise funds.

CHACE: I have to say, I was pretty shocked by this when I heard it, like, thinking about it, that if you work in these areas and you can see a food shortage coming that you can't raise any money until people are actually starving. This is something that's really obvious to people in the charitable world, and they have just reconciled themselves to this, to the fact that there are going to be big obvious disasters that capture the world's attention and raise a ton of money and there are going to be slow moving, very deadly disasters that get worse and worse and nobody cares until way deep into it.

SMITH: And when we are talking about this here at PLANET MONEY, we thought, well, there is an obvious economic solution to this problem. And it's this - when you raise a bunch of money for an earthquake, say, and you don't spend it all - everyone has the aid that they need for the earthquake - maybe you can just save some money for the less popular disasters. Save extra money for the famine. Save some for Ebola.

CHACE: A dollar is a dollar, right? Money is fungible. A dollar for an earthquake victim would be just as helpful for a flood victim.

SMITH: It is logical. But charities have a really, really hard time doing this, even though it makes total economic sense. And the reason they have a hard time doing this goes back to a pretty famous story in the charitable world.

CHACE: September 11, the largest outpouring of individual support in the history of the United States.

STACY PALMER: Donations just kept coming in and coming in. It wasn't even that the Red Cross was saying, we need this. Nobody had seen this amount of money ever come in before.

SMITH: This is Stacy Palmer with The Chronicle of Philanthropy. And I actually remember, Zoe, 13 years ago, right after September 11. I was a reporter for NPR's National Desk covering philanthropy. And it was an amazing time. There were so many donations to the Red Cross that the website crashed. A young company called amazon.com had to step in to provide the server capacity to take in all these donations. In just the first week after the attack, private charities - mostly the Red Cross - got something like $240 million. That tally eventually went over a billion.

PALMER: Did they need a billion dollars was the real question. And they said, yes, we actually - not only do we have needs now, but we have needs that we want to prepare for for the future. There are going to be disasters like this. We're going to use the money to prepare. And we have all these plans, and we'd like to use the money that way.

CHACE: In other words, what the Red Cross was saying was thank you for the money but we're good. We have enough money for the victims of September 11. And we want to save the rest of this money for future disasters, like maybe future terrorist attacks. The thing is, the Red Cross didn't come out and make some big announcement. As Stacy describes it, they just did it. They just shifted some money around.

SMITH: The people who gave all that money, gave the billion dollars, when they found out what the Red Cross was doing, they flipped out. It was a huge scandal. There was so much heat on the organization.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Has this been a public relations disaster?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Well, I think it's...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean, the whole thing.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's been a difficult time for us, obviously.

SMITH: Yeah, that's an understatement. This is C-SPAN, and that's one of the Red Cross directors being grilled in November of 2001. And then C-SPAN asked donors to call in, and you can predict what happened.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: When I gave money, it was my intention that the money go to the families of the victims of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

CHACE: People were super mad.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: And this money should be going to this particular incident. It should not be spread across the country.

SMITH: And here, at what should have been really the proudest moment ever for the Red Cross - they had just raised a billion dollars - the head of the organization, Bernadine Healy, had to resign. And charities around the world took notice. They learned you do not shift money around. They learned when a donor is moved to give money to one disaster, it is an emotional act. It's not necessarily a rational one. Donors are not thrilled when that money gets shifted to some other need. They feel like they didn't get what they paid for, which was to feel good about helping a certain person - a certain kind of victim.

CHACE: So where does this leave Ebola? It is not, as we've seen, a natural money raiser. It's trajectory is going in the opposite direction of a popular disaster because it's going to get worse before it gets any better. And charities can't easily move money around to help.

SMITH: One way to solve this is to create a big event, the sort of big event we talked about in Haiti, the sort of big event that galvanizes public attention. But you have to sort of do it artificially, which is what you might say the Centers for Disease Control did this week.

CHACE: Yeah, the CDC just released this remarkable number. They said if nothing is done to slow down Ebola, 1.4 million people will be infected with this disease. In January, 1.4 million people - that is very scary.

SMITH: Yeah, it's a shocking number. Like, I actually had to read it a couple of times when it came out to say, like, wait a minute, 1.4 million people? Now, they do say this is a worst, worst case scenario and it is an unlikely scenario. It is assuming that absolutely nothing is done in West Africa. And so it is a little unlikely because the United States government has already pledged hundreds of millions of dollars. It is sending troops to Liberia. The U.N. is talking about how they can send additional help, and the 1.4 million was calculated assuming that nothing whatsoever would be done.

CHACE: But the 1.4 million number is making headlines. It's a shocking number, and maybe it's supposed to be shocking. It's essentially saying, hey, the telethon thing that you might get around to throwing next year if this keeps getting worse and worse and worse, when things are terrible, you might want to try that now, before it gets much worse.


CHACE: I want to thank a couple people who helped with the show today - Jana Sweeny with the Red Cross, NPR's Science Desk, who has been doing an amazing job covering Ebola and helped me a lot with this story, and our intern Aparna Alluri.

SMITH: We are always curious what you think of PLANET MONEY. You can email us planetmoney@npr.org or tweet - @planetmoney.

CHACE: About our show was produced by Phia Bennin. I'm Zoe Chace.

SMITH: And I'm Robert Smith. Thanks for listening.


THE BLACK EYED PEAS: (Singing) 'Cause people got me, got me questioning where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love? Where is the love, the love, the love?

Copyright © 2014 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.