With Aid Boom Come Questions


As contributions for Asian tsunami relief through Jewish organizations soared to $13 million and counting this week, a newly formed alliance with a unified bank account began mulling who will get the money — and not everyone appears on the same page.

Some of the 36 members of the Jewish Coalition for Asia Tsunami Relief are urging that Israel-based organizations working in disaster-plagued areas get first crack at the funds, helping them carry out operations that have generated positive publicity for the Jewish state and opened new diplomatic ties.

But in a conference call Tuesday, other coalition members said such organizations, which include Zaka, Magen David Adom and IsraAid, should submit the same grant proposals as other groups, participants in the conference reported.

“If they submit the required material, we will make a very serious review of the group,” said Ruth Messinger, executive director of the American Jewish World Service, which put an initial $250,000 of the more than $6 million it has raised as of this week into the coalition’s united fund.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee also contributed $250,000, and is providing administrative and logistical support to operate the coalition. It has raised some $6.4 million as of Wednesday.

Participants in the conference call who spoke to The Jewish Week declined to discuss which organizations were advocating for the funding of the Israel groups.

The discussion reveals some of the complex issues that arise as the communal organizations shift from fund raising to dispersing the money.

Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the JDC, said some members of the coalition also discussed admitting the Israel-based organizations to the coalition, which now includes only North American groups. That matter was tabled pending a formal proposal and further development of membership guidelines.

Recant urged participants in the conference call to determine how much they can contribute to the united fund and gather grant proposals from relief agencies for consideration by the tsunami coalition.

“Any group that is doing relief work and will abide by the guidelines of the coalition [will be considered],” said Recant. “There are no set-asides.”

Messinger, who praised the work Magen David Adom was doing in the region, said she hoped the coalition would make it easier for groups seeking help to approach the Jewish community.

“Whether it is a group of Israelis working on the ground or some larger group like the International Medical Corps, they don’t need to send out 20 proposals, just one proposal to the coalition,” she said.

Recent polls show that more than a third of Americans have contributed to relief efforts for tsunami victims in the 11 countries struck by the Dec. 26 disaster. At least 150,000 people have been killed.

The number of givers may well increase in coming weeks as a deadline for contributions eligible for deductions on 2004 tax returns approaches. President George W. Bush last week signed legislation extending the deadline through the end of January.

The debate over how the unprecedented wave of charitable funds in Asia will be spent and what percentage will directly reach those in need has taken on national prominence, as it did after 9-11, when millions of dollars were collected for victims and their families.

Mark Charendoff, executive director of the Jewish Funders Network, which matches charitable foundations with beneficiaries, said he was helping grantors decide whether to address immediate needs in Asia — such as providing food, water and medicine — or fund long-term projects.

“A half-dozen large Jewish foundations I have spoken to in the last week are actively working on long-term strategies,” said Charendoff. “Needs will change. The mental health needs of the families who are left behind are going to be enormous. Dealing with orphans and widows left behind, rebuilding infrastructure — these are the types of long-term investments that are harder to capture in TV sound bites, but they are profound needs nonetheless.”

Another issue preoccupying the philanthropic world is the impact of tsunami relief efforts on other charitable causes, at home and abroad, which may see donations drop.

In the aftermath of 9-11, the massive fund-raising effort, combined with a sluggish national economy, led to difficulties for many charitable groups.

“In subsequent years, things are beginning to get a little better,” said Stacey Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “But the reason so many people are nervous is that the [economic] recovery has been somewhat on the fragile side. That’s what’s making groups panic with all the money going to tsunami relief.”

Members of the Jewish Coalition for Asia Tsunami Relief also voiced concern that crises in other troubled areas may fall by the wayside. Many of the same organizations recently forged a coalition to distribute $25 million to aid refugees from genocide in Sudan.

“The issue is, how can we focus more attention on the other areas that require humanitarian relief and assistance,” said Recant. “We need more advocacy, more media attention to make it known that other [crises] exist.”

Messinger, who was among 19 leaders of relief organizations invited to the White House Tuesday, said President Bush had discussed with them the importance of continuing their work on other issues of importance.

“He touched on most of the themes these groups think are critical, including the careful use of donations and the idea that emergency giving is really important, but that it shouldn’t stop people from giving for the rest of our work,” said Messinger.

Charendoff predicted that donors would continue to be generous.“For the most part, by and large people don’t give to their capacity, people give because they are inspired to give,” he said. “People will dig deep down to give extra, hopefully not at the expense of something else.”

It will be several months before local charities that aid the sick and the poor, the addicted and the physically challenged, fight discrimination or support Israel can determine whether the donations to Asian relief are in addition to or at the expense of regular donations to familiar organizations.

Paul Kane, who is in charge of fund-raising and development for UJA-Federation — which has collected more than $1.5 million for its tsunami fund — predicted only a minimal impact on his agency’s diverse charitable network.

“We are not anticipating, nor are current figures showing, any decline,” he said, adding that the experience of helping others in Asia might increase giving closer to home by fostering a more charitable spirit. “This opens a whole new segment of people who don’t normally give to charity and may give for the first time.”

Even those who can least afford to make donations have shown a willingness to open their limited pocketbooks when needs arise, said William Rapfogel, executive director of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty.

“I’ve seen people who make practically nothing show enormous generosity,” he said. “Once people experience giving they become addicted to it.”

The director of fund-raising at the Anti-Defamation League, Marshall Levin, said his organization did not see a drop in donations after 9-11 because of the organization’s role in fighting terrorism and protecting human rights around the world. But he conceded that this crisis may have an impact.

Yet far from competing for dollars, the ADL has been steering donors to the Joint Distribution Committee’s fund.

“We feel very strongly that supporting people who have suffered because of an act of God is the right thing to do,” said Levin. “We believe that people who do the right thing will give to multiple causes.”