American charities have raised about $50-million so far for hurricane-relief efforts—much less than nonprofit groups typically raise immediately after big-scale disasters, and far short of the hundreds of millions of dollars officials say are needed to help people harmed by the storms.
Charities are also facing trouble as they seek money to aid victims in Cuba and Haiti, where hundreds of people have been killed and far more structural damage has been wrought. For example, International Aid, a Spring Lake, Mich., charity, says that despite frequent appeals, it has not raised much more than $100,000.
The Salvation Army has raised less than $13-million of the roughly $15-million it has already spent to provide food, shelter, and other services to storm victims along the Gulf Coast.
The bulk of the money raised came from a single, $10-million grant from the Lilly Endowment, in Indianapolis. Less than $1-million has come from individuals.
While donations from companies picked up a bit last week, “we have never in our history seen this poor a response to any disaster,” said Major George Hood, national community-relations secretary of the charity. “The money is not coming in,” he said.
Catholic Charities USA says its hurricane-relief fund, established before Hurricane Gustav barreled into Louisiana, had received only $179,000 from 831. By contrast, Catholic Charities raised $150-million from 180,000 donors in response to Hurricane Katrina.
Patricia Hvidston, a Catholic Charities fund raiser, said that while no single storm this season was as devastating to a specific area as Katrina, the collective damage across Florida, -Louisiana, and Texas this year equals what happened in New Orleans.
Charity officials cite many reasons for the sluggish pace of donations. In particular, they point to the sagging economy, especially the turbulence in the stock market caused by last month’s collapse of several big financial companies.
They also say donors are distracted by the presidential election and that spotty news-media coverage of the hurricanes has not fully informed Americans of damages sustained in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere.
Because of the slow response, the American Red Cross, which has raised the most money so far about $23-million is now awaiting word from Congress on whether the charity will get $150-million in emergency federal aid it has requested.
The Red Cross says it needs the money to help cover millions of dollars in new debt it is incurring to provide food, shelter, and other services to victims of the storms. The Red Cross has opened lines of credit with several banks to help pay for relief services, which it says could ultimately cost double the $70-million it expects to spend on relief services for Hurricane Gustav alone.
The Congressional request came just days after Gail J. McGovern, president of the Red Cross, and Jeffrey T. Towers, the group’s chief development officer, announced plans to begin an organizationwide capital campaign for the charity’s national headquarters and 700 local chapters.
They declined to state exactly how much they hoped to raise in the campaign, but likened the stature of the Red Cross to that of universities that can raise hundreds of millions of dollars every year.
“I see no reason why an institution with a brand and mission like the Red Cross can’t be a fund-raising machine,” Ms. McGovern told The Chronicle in an interview. “The American public relies on us to respond to 200 disasters every single day. If we can’t get that message out, shame on us.”
But pulling off a big new campaign is likely to be difficult, if not impossible, for the Red Cross to manage now, particularly in an economic climate that makes it hard to find new donors.
The charity failed to meet its goal to amass $80-million to $100-million before this year’s hurricane season, and subsequent efforts to raise money have not done much better.
And in a development unlikely to inspire much confidence among donors, the Government Accountability Office has released a report saying the Red Cross, the nation’s largest relief group, would be “overwhelmed” by a large-scale disaster such as a major earthquake in Los Angeles.
One reason the Red Cross and the Salvation Army have struggled for hurricane-relief donations, according to Major Hood of the Salvation Army, is a change in how the two charities work with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Government and private relief organizations, Major Hood noted, were widely criticized for a sloppy response after Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and are now charged with working more closely together, with FEMA taking the lead in coordinating relief efforts.
As a result, Major Hood said, the “media is going directly to FEMA, and it is more difficult for nongovernmental organizations to get information to the media, so we find ourselves isolated.”
He added: “It was impossible to get our 800 number and our Web address on the news, when historically we’d have had that on all the networks. This year, they would not list nongovernmental phone and Web addresses, a new policy this hurricane season. This is breaking down our ability to communicate with the heart of the American public.”
Complicating relief operations in the hurricane-affected regions: Salvation Army and other charity workers are still unable to estimate how much more they might be called on the provide.
The Salvation Army was still providing around 75,000 meals per dayto people who lacked power or were still unable to return to their homes. More than 500,000 people in Texas are still without power, a problem that could persist for weeks.
Brennen Jensen and Paula Wasley contributed to this article.