Disaster Fatigue?

In the last several weeks, two natural disasters swept Asia. The May 3rd cyclone in Myanmar has a projected death toll of 140,000 people with millions more in need of help, while the May 12th earthquake in China has killed close to 35,000, leaving 250,000 people hurt and millions homeless. 

In the wake of such disasters, we can’t help but be reminded of other tragedies during the last seven years and the generous and effective response of so many U.S. companies. Companies donated approximately $600 million toward Hurricane Katrina relief in 2005, $565 million toward the tsunami response in 2004 and more than $750 million to benefit those affected by the September 11 terrorist attack in 2001.

Many of the major corporate donors who responded to these earlier disasters are the same ones lending aid in Myanmar and China.  Approximate donations by some leading companies include:

  • Abbott:   $800K (Myanmar), $1 million (China), $4 million (Tsunami), $6.5 million (Katrina), $2 million (9/11) 
  • Pfizer:   $150,000 (Myanmar), $10 million (China), $10 million (Tsunami), $2+ million (Katrina), $10 million (9/11) 
  • Cisco:   $1 million (Myanmar), $1 million (China), $1 million (Tsunami), $2 million (Katrina), $6 million (9/11) 
  • Chevron:   $2 million (Myanmar), $1.4 million (China), $10 million (Tsunami), $1 million (Katrina) 
  •  UPS: $200,000 (Myanmar), $1 million (China), $2 million (Tsunami), $1.5 million (Katrina) 
  • Wal-Mart: $430,000 (China), $2 million (Tsunami), $17 million (Katrina), $7.3 million (9/11)

You have to commend these companies for once again digging into their pockets during a tough economy to support relief efforts.  Yet, we can’t help but notice there are fewer companies stepping up than in the past, and the level of donation is getting smaller.  There are many factors influencing this decline:

1. Local government: The Myanmar government continues to create obstacles that prevent both the U.S. government and NGOs from providing adequate aid, and companies are rightfully cautious to ensure their money is getting to those in need.

2. Corporate relations with the country:   For example, Wal-Mart Canada has refused to purchase products from factories based in Myanmar.

3. Recession:   As companies have fewer pre-tax earnings to donate, they are focusing their resources on key issues that impact the communities where they operate and on issues that impact their business.

4. Lack of employee and consumer engagement:   After local disasters, and even the tsunami, Americans were eager to help.  Companies encouraged employee donations with generous matches.  Many retailers created in-store promotions soliciting consumer contributions.  However, as Americans face more personally relevant economic hardships, companies are not making such a concerted effort to ask their employees and consumers to raise funds.

5. Donor fatigue:   Are companies becoming desensitized and more protective of their philanthropic dollars as it relates to disaster response and rebuilding?  There are many companies that are still actively engaged in rebuilding New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.  At some point these dollars are going to be spread too thin to have a real impact.

Despite all of these factors, companies that wish to donate should support nonprofits that have experience delivering relief and have operations in the areas affected, including: CARE, the Red Cross, Save the Children, the U.N. World Food Programme and World Vision.  The US Chamber of Commerce Business Civic Leadership Center is another great resource.


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