spea magazine

Speaking Out: Learning from Katrina—What Our Experts Say

Hurricane Katrina and Philanthopy

Kirsten Grønbjerg

Kirsten Gronbjerg The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina has already inspired an enormous outpouring of philanthropic support. Within two weeks, data compiled by the IU Center on Philanthropy showed that U.S. donations for Katrina-related relief efforts surpassed $830 million. This is more than twice the amount raised for tsunami relief efforts within two weeks of that catastrophe ($342 million) and also exceeds the best estimate of funds raised for the victims of 9/11 during the first two weeks ($501 million). If these trends continue, total charitable support for Katrina victims will easily surpass total charitable funds raised to date in support of victims of 9/11 ($2.7 billion) or the tsunami ($1.6 billion).

How will Katrina impact U.S. charities? Two groups are directly and severely affected: national charities directly involved in the relief effort (Red Cross, Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, etc.) and charities within the affected region. Both groups are facing unprecedented increases in demand for services, but the latter are likely to have their service capacity dramatically impaired because of destroyed facilities, dislocated staff and volunteers, and disrupted collaborations. Charities elsewhere will be affected as well if evacuees arrive in their communities. But if our experience from 9/11 is any guide, analysis by the IU Center on Philanthropy suggests that the outpouring of charitable support for Katrina victims may have little or no impact on giving to charities outside of the affected region.

However, I am not sure that 9/11 is the best model. The Deep South is not New York City. Not only are there fewer charities per capita in the south, but there is no concentration of large, national foundations on the ground with the capacity to serve as rallying points for relief efforts. The scope of the disaster is also much larger in terms of numbers of people and institutions directly affected (even deaths are fewer), the number of square miles devastated, and the enormous cost of relief and recovery against a backdrop of a fragile economy and mounting deficits by government and nonprofits. It is also clear that responses to the disaster were much slower, revealing profound racial and class differences and severe gaps in planning and coordination. We are therefore unlikely to see a “bounce” in confidence in government.

donations graphIt remains to be seen whether the support now flowing to charities will erase the mostly undeserved impressions of abuse and mismanagement created by congressional hearings over the past 15 months. Indeed, recent reports of Katrina-related charity scams by con artists may muddy the waters again. However, one thing is certain: Charities will again face difficult questions about how to most effectively use the cash and other support they receive—and ultimately about who is helped the most, who the least, and when.


Kirsten Grønbjerg is a professor at SPEA, IUB. Her research focuses on the nonprofit sector—its structure and composition, the sector’s funding relationships, its management challenges, and its community dimensions. She is the Efroymson Chair of Philanthropy at the Center on Philanthropy at IU. Professor Grønbjerg has a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago (1974).