News and analysis
March 16, 2011

Response to Japan Disaster Lags Donor Response to Other Recent Catastrophes

Toshiharu Kato/Japanese Red Cross Society

A Japanese Red Cross member surveys damage left by the tsunami.

In the first days after the devastating earthquake and tsunamis in Japan, giving has been strong. But the rate of donations has been slower than after last year’s earthquake in Haiti and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Some disaster experts worry, however, that nonprofit groups might be raising too much money too soon.

Five days after the March 11 catastrophe in Japan, American donors have contributed more than $64-million to 24 charities for relief efforts, according to a Chronicle tally.

In comparison, six days after the earthquake in Haiti, donors had contributed more than $210-million, and six days after Hurricane Katrina they had given more than $457-million.

Nonprofit officials say the difference in fund raising for the disaster in Japan compared with the response to the crisis in Haiti, for example, is to be expected given the very different contexts.

“With Japan you have an industrialized country with a very strong, respected government with all of the structures and systems and the ability to take the lead,” said Caryl M. Stern, chief executive of U.S. Fund for Unicef, in New York.

Because Japan has resources, she said, her organization could step back and conduct an assessment to figure out what role it could best play in relief efforts. As a result, the U.S. Fund for Unicef did not start raising money until four days after the disaster.

The earthquake in Haiti was a very different situation, said Ms. Stern. Because of the country’s grinding poverty and the damage its government sustained, the needs were clear from the beginning and aid groups had to jump in­.

One hour after the earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. Fund for Unicef had raised $3-million from large donors. In comparison, the organization raised $700,000 over the first day it started raising money for the disaster in Japan.

Still, some observers worry that nonprofit groups are getting ahead of themselves when it comes to seeking donations. “A lot of nonprofits are raising funds before they know for sure they’re going to be allowed to operate in Japan or if they’re going to find a partnering org to give the money to,” said Saundra Schimmelpfennig, a former aid worker who writes the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough (and one for The Chronicle, World View). She noted that Japan has an extremely good disaster-response system and that the government has turned down many offers of assistance.

Charities are scrambling to raise money because the donor response is highest in the first week or two after a disaster, said Ms. Schimmelpfennig. But if organizations raise money they can’t spend—or can’t spend well—they risk eroding donors’ trust.

Determining Needs

More than a dozen relief groups The Chronicle contacted said they were not actively raising money for relief efforts in Japan.

Some organizations, such as Oxfam America, reported that they were still determining whether and how they would respond to the disaster. Other charities, such as American Jewish World Service, said they were not responding because they only work in developing countries.

Doctors Without Borders is not accepting donations designated for the disaster in Japan. The organization sent assessment teams to the region but paid for those efforts with unrestricted funds.

Five days after the earthquake and tsunamis, the American Red Cross had received roughly $47-million in donations. The organization said it would use some of the money to pay for setting up emergency shelters in Hawaii and on the West Coast, at a cost expected to be less than $100,000, and would retain 9 percent of donations for administrative costs and send the rest of the money to the Japanese Red Cross Society. It sent the first $10-million distribution four days after the disaster.

Large international companies responded quickly to the crisis.

Corporations that have offices and employees in Japan have a different connection to this disaster than they did to the earthquake in Haiti, said Moira C. Hess, an international campaign officer at the American Red Cross.

“We’re having our corporate partners work with us both to make a gift but also as a way to get resources to ensure their employees are safe and well and are receiving the resources that they need to begin to recover,” she said.

Caroline Preston contributed to this article.