3Qs: Philanthropy in the wake of tragedy

From Mission to Market

Tragic events like last month’s Boston Marathon bomb­ings and the dev­as­tating tor­nado in Okla­homa this week have inspired incred­ible acts of kind­ness from people living in those com­mu­ni­ties, as well as others across the country. Many of those efforts come in the form of phil­an­thropy. We asked Rebecca Riccio, the founding pro­gram director of North­eastern Students4Giving who teaches in the Human Ser­vices pro­gram, to examine how char­i­table efforts unfold in the wake of tragedy, and the impor­tance of being an informed donor.

Rebecca Riccio, founding program director of Northeastern Students4Giving, said tragic events like the Boston Marathon bombings and the devastating tornado in Oklahoma provide critical reminders about the importance of charitable giving and being an informed donor. Photo by Thinkstock.

What was your reaction to the charitable efforts that have transpired following last month’s Boston Marathon bombings and the devastating tornado in Oklahoma this week?

These tragic events serve as important teachable moments regarding philanthropy, because as a society we rely so heavily on charitable giving to supplement government aid following disasters. I also think they help us reflect on ways to give effectively to make the most impact. A couple of specific points come to mind. First, individual philanthropy often focuses on helping victims and communities recover in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.  Look at how quickly The One Fund raised $30 million following the Boston Marathon bombings; it’s a reflection of people’s generosity and their impulse to help. However, if you look at disasters from years past like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy, it’s also clear that the victims’ needs and the associated expenses continue long after the media attention fades and the initial fundraising efforts wind down. We need to take a longer-term view of recovery because those efforts can take longer and cost more than we think.

A second point is that while people understandably feel compelled to respond to them, front-page tragedies can also eclipse some of the other problems we try to address through charitable giving, like hunger and homelessness, which never relent. Additionally, there are instances when donor fatigue sets in, particularly following clusters of events like these. People may feel overwhelmed by the tragedies and by the requests for money to fund them. This can take a toll on the nonprofit community as a whole. For instance, in Boston there’s been some concern that fundraising efforts subsequent to the Boston Marathon bombings have not reached anticipated levels.

What impact has social media had on philanthropic efforts in the wake of tragedy?

Social media can make people feel more intimately connected to these events because of the immediacy of the coverage and the realization that tragedy can strike any of us at any time. This heightened awareness and sense of connection inspire giving.

Social media also provides quick and easy mechanisms for making donations of any amount online; the democratization of giving allows everyone to make a difference.  However, the speed with which the Internet allows people to make donations is also a cause for concern because of the fundraising scams that emerge following tragic events. It’s important for people to verify nonprofits’ legitimacy before giving.

There is also risk in giving spontaneously because people may not necessarily stop to consider how their money will be used. Not all organizations are equally effective or well managed. There are online resources to assist people in making informed giving decisions; websites like guidestar.org can help verify basic information about nonprofits, while sites like charitynavigator.org provide rating systems for nonprofits.

One of the positive aspects of The One Fund was that Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, and Gov. Deval Patrick strategically minimized the risk of scams by forming the fund quickly and making it clear this was the primary mechanism for making donations.

What is Northeastern Students4Giving and what role do students play in its programming?

NS4G is the university’s experiential philanthropy education program, housed in Human Services. We use real-dollar grant making to teach students how social change happens and is funded. Students are responsible for every aspect of the funding cycle, and they get real insight into the challenges nonprofits face. They see that there are never enough resources to meet our community’s needs. I can teach about that in theory, but it’s more powerful for students to experience it firsthand. Every year, NS4G chooses a specific funding priority to integrate into the curriculum. This coming year’s priority will be helping the city continue to recover from the Boston Marathon bombings.

Much of my motivation for growing NS4G and teaching philanthropy courses is to help people understand not only the significant social and economic role the nonprofit sector and charitable giving play in the U.S., but also the power of being an informed donor.

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