Charitable Complications

News & Politics

Is it fair that the family of a New York firefighter who died in the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center will receive checks totaling $325,000 plus a lifetime pension, when the family of a food-service worker at Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the WTC, gets just $15,000 in financial relief? Is it fair that the married spouse of a victim who died in the attack will receive Social Security benefits when the gay partner of someone who died the same way will not? Is it fair that the families of undocumented immigrants have yet to see a penny of the $1.4 billion raised in charitable contributions to help those affected by the attacks?

Of course it's not fair. But the hard truth about the September 11 relief effort is that some families will end up receiving far more benefits than others. Why? Because a huge portion of the donated money is reserved for certain victims only. It's a sensitive topic, but one that must be addressed by charitable organizations, whose duty is to help those people who need it most.

Since the terrorist attacks on September 11, Americans have donated more money for disaster-relief efforts than ever before: $1.4 billion and counting. Yet just 10 percent of the money raised thus far has been distributed. Not surprisingly, the trickling of the money stream has angered critics such as Bill O'Reilly, the conservative host of Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor and a syndicated columnist. In an October 29 piece, O'Reilly characterizes the current situation as "so chaotic that nobody really knows what the hell is going on." He concludes: "This is one big, cruel mess."

Such criticisms have grown so loud that even Congress has taken note. Last Thursday, the House Ways and Means Committee took the unusual step of establishing a subcommittee to hold a November 8 public hearing on how charities have responded to the September 11 attacks. While announcing the hearing, the subcommittee's chairman, Representative Amo Houghton, a New York Republican, opined: "I believe if a person gives money to help another through a charitable contribution, that money should end up as quickly as possible in the hands of the one who needs it."

But who determines who needs what? Many charities set up to aid victims of the attacks don't have to think about the question at all -- from the start, many of the funds were earmarked for certain groups of survivors. New York mayor Rudy Guiliani's Twin Towers Fund, for example, is raising money for families of firefighters, police officers, emergency workers, and other government personnel. The fund has collected $88 million; its Web site declares that "[i]f resources permit, families of other persons who lost their lives or were injured during the tragedies may also be included as beneficiaries." (How that decision will be made remains unclear; fund administrators did not return phone calls from this reporter.) Eight additional funds are also slated to benefit families of New York firefighters and police.

Among the largest is the Firefighters 9-11 Disaster Relief Fund, which has accumulated $51 million for the families of the 344 firefighters who died in the September 11 catastrophe. George Burke, spokesperson for the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), which is administering the fund, says the IAFF has hand-delivered checks totaling $7 million to widows -- all the firefighters who died were men -- so they can pay mortgages and "buy clothes for the kids to wear to funerals." But the fund must be put into perspective. When the millions of dollars are divided up, each family will get only $150,000. "Is it enough for a widow who has five kids to live in New York?" Burke asks, and then answers: "Probably not. We're not making people millionaires. We're reaching out to loved ones of our fallen brothers."

To be sure, no one doubts that families of firefighters and police officers -- who daily put their lives at risk and, by storming into the towers, ran straight to their deaths -- deserve every penny of what's available to them. In fact, many people who have donated generously to the firefighters' fund would be delighted to see surviving family members get a million dollars or more. Says Kathleen McCarthy, who heads the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York (CUNY), "Everyone in New York feels the firemen were magnificent. We cannot possibly overpay them."

Nevertheless, McCarthy -- and many other observers -- note that some other victims' families simply do not have the same safety nets. For instance, a structure to help families of the 404 firefighters, police officers, and emergency workers who died on September 11 was already in place even before special charities were set up to help these groups. These families are already entitled to a federal death benefit of $150,000. In New York, surviving spouses of firefighters and police officers also receive $25,000 from Guiliani's office, as well as a lifetime pension that's equal to their deceased spouse's last year's earnings. Compare that to the families of the 43 union dishwashers, waiters, and cooks who perished at Windows on the World: they'll get only $15,000 in life insurance. This month, their union-paid health insurance will terminate.

In a September 20 article, the New York Times brought the equity issue to life through the stories of two widows who, on the surface, seem on equal footing. They happen to be sisters-in-law; they live in Stony Point, New York. Both of their husbands had worked on the floors occupied by Cantor Fitzgerald, the bond-trading company at 1 World Trade Center. The first widow, Ann McCarthy, whose husband, Robert, worked for Cantor Fitzgerald, can count on life insurance worth two years' salary, up to $100,000. Supplemental insurance that her husband had purchased will increase that benefit to $1 million. Cantor is also offering health insurance to employees' families for one year. That stands in contrast to the benefits of the second widow, Mary Jean O'Leary, whose husband, Gerald, worked as a chef in the Cantor Fitzgerald corporate dining room. Her husband had no life insurance from the company that operated the cafeteria, Forte Food Services. And her only communication from Forte since September 11 has been an envelope containing her husband's last paycheck.

The experiences of partners of the calamity's gay and lesbian victims also highlight the equity issue. Take Bill Randolph, whose lover of 26 years, Wesley Mercer, is one of three missing security personnel from Morgan Stanley. Randolph was featured in an October 14 article in the New York Times just days after conservative groups had demanded that gays and lesbians not receive relief funds. The flare-up prompted New York governor George Pataki to sign an executive order covering the surviving partners of gays and lesbians under the state's Crime Victims Board, which pays up to $30,000 for lost income and funeral costs. But because Randolph is not legally recognized as Mercer's partner, he is not eligible for the full range of benefits married partners are entitled to -- from pensions to Social Security payments.

Examples like these may represent just the tip of the iceberg. McCarthy wonders what resources the family of a non-unionized kitchen worker might have. Or the family of an illegal immigrant who washed windows at the Pentagon. Or the family of a vendor who ran a coffee-and-doughnut cart outside the towers. "There's a huge difference in need," she says. "The task for charities is to make sure individuals hardest hit get appropriate help."

Rick Cohen, who heads the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), in Washington, DC, agrees. He recognizes that charities cannot erase in death the inequities people faced in life. They certainly must reach out to all families affected by the September 11 cataclysm; but when calculating aid, charitable groups cannot ignore inequities among the victims. "All families are hurting," he explains, "yet one family might be more disadvantaged already, and their needs are greater." The issue, he admits, is unsettling when applied to human tragedy. Unfortunately, discomfort doesn't remove the task at hand. "It's the job of charities to help those most in need," he says. "They must think about how the use of their resources can assuage the inequitable circumstances of people who are equally affected by disaster."

As it stands, coordination of relief efforts seems nonexistent. No government agency keeps tabs on the dollars. No central body monitors who gets help from whom. No one organization manages the onerous application process for victims. Alan Abramson, who studies philanthropy at the Aspen Institute, a Washington, DC�based public-policy group, notes that the patchwork nature of the nonprofit sector has long made coordinating such efforts difficult. "It's not like someone with authority sits over nonprofits to make sure they don't bump heads," he says. "No one says, �Red Cross, you take care of these folks, and Salvation Army, go here.'"

This time, however, the problem has been made worse by the magnitude of the September 11 effort, with its many charities, funds, and communities. The situation opens the door for what the NCRP's Cohen refers to as "double dipping" -- i.e., some families may get paid twice while others languish. It increases the potential for gaps in services, or for people to be forgotten -- especially since there's no simple, comprehensive way for families to seek support. Instead, they must learn to navigate the application processes, to fill out forms for each charity, to figure out which charity will address their needs. Those who don't speak English or who lack formal documentation -- marriage licenses, pay stubs, birth certificates -- might find it impossible to get help. And so, as Cohen points out, "This disaster cannot be viewed through a lens of traditional charitable behavior. It cannot be business as usual." Or, as Abramson puts it, "Charities could and should do more."

Yet the sheer scale of this disaster has left charitable groups grappling with even basic questions about how to simply distribute the money. Take, for example, the American Red Cross. The country's largest humanitarian organization has raised the largest pot of money -- $547 million as of last week -- for its special Liberty Disaster Fund set up to benefit families of those killed or injured in the attacks. It has committed $320 million to what Red Cross spokesperson Darren Irby calls "immediate disaster relief." That includes $100 million for a "family gift program" to help families that lost a breadwinner meet imminent financial needs, such as food, utilities, housing, tuition, and funeral costs. So far, the Red Cross has issued 2267 checks totaling $34.1 million. Another $60 million has gone to aid rescue workers at ground zero in New York City: at two respite centers, the charity has served up hot meals and set up a "relaxation room" filled with TVs and La-Z-Boy chairs.

But from the moment the Red Cross launched its relief effort, the charity faced problems. First came a flare-up over blood donations. Within days of September 11, the Red Cross outraged other groups by continuing to urge the public to give blood. It wasn't clear, however, that more blood was needed. Even though thousands suffered injuries during the attacks, most of their injuries -- broken bones, abrasions, and burn wounds -- did not require blood transfusion. In fact, so few survivors needed blood that the federal Department of Health and Human Services advised blood banks to cut off all donations.

The Red Cross later came under fire for its aggressive fundraising. One of the first agencies on the scene of any disaster, the organization provides such assistance as temporary housing, clothing, and medical care. But critics worry that agencies better suited to provide people with long-term relief -- such as employment and mental-health services -- won't have enough money to do so, since the Red Cross attracted so many of the post�September 11 charitable contributions. Explains Cohen, "The Red Cross is good at helping folks in distress. But needs will change. The Red Cross should say, �We've done the bulk of our part; the money would be better spent by other agencies.' "

Others have blasted the charity for failing to make clear that some portion of Liberty Fund contributions will not go directly to victims and their families. Donors like Maureen DeCoste, who had believed that her donation would help victims, have expressed outrage after discovering that the Liberty Fund would also be used for other purposes. "I was duped," DeCoste wrote in a November 2 letter in the Boston Herald. "I wish I could take back my donation and send it where I wanted it to go." Huge sums of money -- about $80 million -- are slated to help the charity "expand into new programs of aid never before required," according to the Red Cross Web site. That means the money will go to buy freezers to preserve the blood supply longer. It means the money will go to train volunteers on how to respond to terrorist acts. It means the money will go to operate a national hotline for people with anxiety about the attacks. Irby defends such allocations as "emerging needs." He adds, "On September 11, the Red Cross didn't think we'd be helping victims of anthrax. Every day a need emerges. We should use some of the money to be prepared."

Still, the controversy has continued. It erupted publicly on October 26, when Red Cross president Bernadine Healy quit, in part because of internal tension over the fund. Board members and chapter presidents disagreed with Healy's decision to use contributions to advance the agency's long-term goals. Board chairman Daniel McLaughlin has since tried to appease critics; on October 31, he announced that the Red Cross would stop seeking donations for the Liberty Fund.

The other major charitable group -- the United Way -- hasn't fared much better. Hours after the Towers collapsed, the United Way of New York partnered with another local nonprofit, the New York Community Trust, to set up the high-profile September 11th Fund. Yet critics have lashed out at the national charity, complaining the United Way has failed to get donations to needy people fast enough. It's a fair rebuke. Of the $320 million collected by the fund, only $30 million has been allocated so far. That's largely because the fund makes grants to smaller agencies that, in turn, offer services on the front lines. September 11th Fund spokesperson Jeanine Moss estimates that 30 agencies, including United Way chapters, have received 60 grants. The largest, an award of $7.5 million, has gone toward cash assistance for victims. Other grants have aided rescue workers, provided grief counseling for victims' families and workers, and supplied food. Moss recognizes that the application process -- standard procedure at the United Way -- slows down the flow of money. But, she notes, "People are working around the clock to get the grants processed and out the door."

Maybe so. But all the chaos lays bare the need for coordination. Whenever disaster strikes, the top charitable organizations typically come together to figure out how to serve affected communities, according to Irby. "We explain what we're doing to each other so we don't duplicate efforts," he says. Ever since September 11, that tradition has continued; representatives of the Red Cross, the United Way, and the Salvation Army meet daily with federal, state, and local officials at Guiliani's office to share information.

And just recently, a special coordination effort was launched. On October 25, New York attorney general Eliot Spitzer, whose office oversees charitable groups, announced plans to create two central databases for relief organizations aiding victims in Washington and Pennsylvania, as well as in New York. The first database will track how charities spend contributions; the second will list recipients and how they get help. Spitzer's spokesperson, Christine Prichard, says the attorney general hopes the databases will ensure that "this money is used wisely and distributed in a fair and equitable way."

In compiling the databases, Spitzer has borrowed a page from the relief effort in Oklahoma City, where 45 charities set up a registry after raising $40 million for victims of the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building. Nancy Anthony of the Oklahoma City Community Foundation says that effort sprang from necessity: "We knew the bombing was too big for any one agency." At first, the registry tracked the families of the 168 people who were killed, as well as the 3000 injured. But over time, it grew along with the relief effort -- and aided, for example, rescue workers who'd developed trauma from recovering bodies, workers whose wounds kept them from returning to their jobs, people whose neighboring businesses suffered structural damage from the blast. By 1999, when the database was shut down, it listed as many as 6000 people. "I'm not saying it was perfect," Anthony adds, "but it did coordinate funds. It was essential."

It's hard to say whether Spitzer can replicate the Oklahoma City effort, since in this case the number of "primary victims" -- families of the dead and injured -- totals more than 6000. Prichard admits that not all 192 charities have signed on to the project -- or even been notified of the coordinaton project. "It's a monumental task," she says. For weeks, Spitzer tried to persuade the Red Cross to participate in the database, but the charity feared it would violate people's privacy; two weeks ago, it finally signed on. The United Way has also agreed to participate in the shared database. And since those two organizations control 70 percent of the relief funds, Prichard adds, "We're at least up and running."

Complicating the already chaotic situation is yet another fund set up by Congress for the attack victims. Pushed through as part of the billion-dollar airline bailout, which was enacted just 11 days after the hijackings, the September 11 Victim Compensation Fund raises more questions than it answers. Under the legislation, US attorney general John Ashcroft has 90 days to appoint someone to oversee the fund -- a "special master" -- and to draft regulations for its administration. Until then, says Stephan Landsman, a DePaul University law professor who advises lawyers on the fund, "it's hard to know anything yet."

The legislation does set broad guidelines for the fund. Only families of those who suffered death or physical harm -- rather than mental trauma -- are entitled to compensation, determined in the same way that airlines pay damages when a plane crashes. That means claimants will receive payment for economic losses -- lost wages, hospital bills, and funeral costs -- as well as for emotional pain and suffering. Lawsuits can take years to settle, but under the fund's rules the special master must determine a compensation award within four months of a claim's filing.

What that means in real dollars is anyone's guess. Questions about how much each family should expect -- and how money received from insurance policies, pensions, and charities will affect that sum -- remain unanswered. Privately, some lawyers say the fund could cost taxpayers as much as $15 billion; for an estimated 15,000 victims, that works out to $1 million per family. But no one wants to venture a guess publicly. As US Justice Department spokesperson Charles Miller puts it, "I wouldn't care to estimate."

Already, the uncertainty surrounding the fund has sparked debate. New York attorney Aaron Broder, who handles airline-litigation cases, purchased front-page ads in the New York Times urging September 11 victims to stay clear of the money. Broder believes it violates basic constitutional rights because the special master's decision regarding compensation, as the legislation states, "shall be final and not subject to judicial review." In short, victims who participate can neither appeal nor sue. "This is not a kingdom," Broder says. "This is a democracy. Yet this fund reposes a special master with an autonomy that no king has had since the Magna Carta."

Broder doubts that a Bush-administration appointee will award damages to victims' families in the same way that a jury would -- without caring about the cost. In airline litigation, juries have awarded victims millions of dollars for the loss of their spouses -- for the loss of their companionship, affection, love. But the special master, he argues, "is a bureaucrat. He's not going to give out millions to every widow who lost her husband. So why should people commit themselves to a fund that makes them waive their legal rights and gives them a mere pittance compared to what a jury would give?"

Other lawyers counter that such conclusions are premature. Chicago attorney Robert Clifford, who also handles airline lawsuits, heads the American Bar Association's newly created task force on terrorism and the law, which is advising the Justice Department on proposed regulations for the fund. He insists it's too early to question either the fund's legality or its legitimacy. Rules might be written to favor victims -- by allowing for an appeals process, for example. They might be written to favor the government. Or they may favor both. Says Clifford, "The point is we don't know yet."

Some issues are sure to be resolved December 21. That's when the deadline for drafting the regulations expires, and the soon-to-be-named special master must open the federal fund for business. If all goes well, victims and their families could find their awards in the mail by next April.

As for the charities, chances are they'll still be sorting through the mess. It took the Oklahoma City relief effort six years to address the needs of Timothy McVeigh's victims. Sometimes physical injuries don't appear for years. One Oklahoma City woman walked away seemingly unscathed from the bombed-out Murrah building. Only recently did she reach out to relief agencies for help: last year, glass shards embedded in her skin finally rose to the surface. For others, the mental trauma of witnessing a horrible event -- like, say, human beings jumping to their deaths from 100-story buildings -- doesn't immediately register. In Oklahoma City, some people who saw the Ryder truck that Timothy McVeigh abandoned outside the Murrah building were so traumatized by its image that they couldn't return to work.

And then there are the rescue workers, whose jobs sifting through rubble and human remains may affect their mental health. There are the proprietors whose businesses have suffered crippling economic losses -- especially in New York, where entire city blocks have been cordoned off from the public. There are the employees in the airline and hotel industries who have been laid off since September 11. Even those Muslim families who have had their homes vandalized because of misguided attempts at retaliation may count as "victims" with needs, observers say. In this disaster, says McCarthy, "it will be a long time before we know the extent of the need."

Quite right. These days, we don't even know what tomorrow will bring in the war against terrorism abroad and the anthrax scare at home. If life in the post�September 11 world has forever changed, as people so often point out, perhaps philanthropy must change too. Says Cohen, "If September 11 were a snapshot, we could all hold our breath, donate money, and work our way back to normalcy." But it isn't.

Kristen Lombardi can be reached at

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