Donations down: Tsunami hurts local charities


When the extent of the death and destruction wrought by the December 26 tsunami in the Indian Ocean became apparent, Americans began to give... and give... and give. Former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton joined together in an unlikely fundraising alliance, and national nonprofits' coffers filled to overflowing, with the American Red Cross garnering pledges for $228 million in less than a month. Here in Charlottesville, tsunami benefits were held across the area from Crozet to Stanardsville.

But while the powerful outpouring of concern for sufferers on the other side of the globe is heartwarming, for local charities, post-tsunami generosity may not be such good news.

"Our campaign is a little bit off-pace," says Jim Fitzgerald of the United Way Thomas Jefferson Area, a nonprofit that funds programs assisting at-risk children, the elderly, AIDS sufferers, and the mentally retarded. Though United Way of America does do international relief work, the two groups are not affiliated and therefore do not share funds.

"What I try to communicate," Fitzgerald explains, "is that when you give to our organization, you're giving locally."

David Starmer, president of the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad, also noticed a donation dip just after the tsunami. The Squad, which receives no direct public funding and relies entirely on donations to operate, was in the middle of its annual drive, making the situation particularly serious.

Starmer says he put out a "direct appeal" for donations in early January, but the all-volunteer rescue squad, which answered 12,000 emergency calls last year, still needs to raise about $100,000 before the end of January in order to fund operations in 2005.

Other charities say it's too soon to know how the tsunami might have affected their annual fundraising.

"We do most of our fundraising in the fall, so it's hard to say what the long term impact will be," says Ruth Stone, executive director of Piedmont CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates), a group that advocates for underprivileged children in the court system.

In addition, says Stone, the timing of the tsunami– just before the end of the year– makes it hard to separate several variables that could contribute to decreased giving.

"Many people make donations before the end of the tax year," says Stone. "January tends to be a pretty low receipt month." And then there was the presidential election in November, which Stone believes may have influenced some people's decision to donate– or not.

"It depends on whether people are feeling positive or negative about their future," she says.

All of the charities the Hook spoke with expressed support for the work going on abroad, but all hope they will be able to continue their local missions successfully.

"That's the sticky part," says United Way's Fitzgerald. "It's a challenge because you want to see everyone get the relief they need, and that includes folks right here in our community."

The Lafayette Hotel in Stanardsville was the location of the first 'Mission Tsunami' benefit event, held to raise money for the Indian Ocean tsunami survivors.