Fr. Peter J. Daly
December 20, 2001
I think it is time for charities to give September 11 a rest. It is also time for them to learn the lessons of the fund raising disasters of this past fall.
Like everybody else, I got dozens of solicitations from charities during the Christmas season. Many of them were still mentioned the tragedies of September in their appeal. I guess it lends an aura of urgency to their requests.
But I was both wary and weary of these appeals after our experience this year.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks, we all wanted to do something concrete to help those affected. The Sunday following the attack we dedicated our poor box to the needs of the victims of September 11. The response was overwhelming. We received over $4,000, the most we have ever received in the poor box on a single Sunday.
Within the two weeks we dispersed the money to two charities, which had established funds for the victims.
We sent the bulk, $3,000, to the American Red Cross.
A little over $1,000 was sent to our local office of Catholic Charities, which had established a fund for the victims of the Pentagon attack.
People still wanted to do more. One of our scouts, working for his Eagle badge, arranged for a blood drive in our parish for the Sunday after Christmas. The available time slots to give blood quickly filled up.
As the weeks went by, however, we began to here discouraging stories. The Red Cross had diverted some of the half-billion it had received to infrastructure and other non-September 11 uses. Blood donations exceeded demand and small amounts of blood were being thrown away.
The United Way had accumulated over $300 million. It did not go directly to victims, but was dolled out to New York area agencies, which then distributed it to the victims using their own criteria. Therefore it had to pay for two levels of bureaucracy.
Some money went to agencies the donors did not expect, like legal aid agencies which represented those detained in the investigations.
Our local Catholic Charities director sent out a letter asking us if we knew of names of people affected by the tragedies. That indicated to me that they were having trouble finding people who qualified for the money.
People are generous when there is a concrete need. But they expect that when money is given for a purpose, it will all go to that purpose. Charities should be diligent in finding and helping the victims they use in their fund raising.
On a small scale, we had a specific example of this “problem” of generosity.
A seminarian who served in our parish has only one leg. He lost his right leg on a land mine in El Salvador when he was 11 years old. The artificial leg he had been using for a decade was wearing out. He needed a new one.
The HMO would only pay part of the cost for some “HMO type” reason. He needed $2,000. I told the people. We got $2,400 in the poor box that very day.
We sent him the whole amount. We told him to use what he needed for the leg and keep the rest for Christmas. (He needs the money since he is one of eight children).
The lesson we learned from September 11 was simple. If you tell people the money is going to go to a certain person or purpose, send it all. If donors are more generous than you expect, that is the good fortune of the victim, whose plight was used to raise the money, not the charity.
The money raised for victims belongs to the victims, not the charity.