Without Centralized System, Charities Handle $850 Million in Donations

One month after the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., charity and relief officials face the daunting task of distributing some $850 million in donations as quickly and effectively as possible.

However, instead of constructing a unified mechanism for delivering philanthropic relief — as happened after the Oklahoma City bombing — the New York Times reports that nonprofit organizations are coalescing around specific categories of victims and types of aid, from providing mental health counseling to offering assistance to low-income workers, with minimal guidance from public officials.

"[The relief effort] needs to be coordinated; it does not need a czar," said Susan V. Berresford, president of the Ford Foundation, which has pledged $11.2 million to the relief efforts, including $3 million for financial assistance to nonprofits and small businesses in Lower Manhattan.

Relief agencies in New York contend that a centralized system would produce gridlock, especially in a disaster of this magnitude. "You would get gridlock if you get everyone in one big room," said Lilliam Barrios-Paoli, a senior vice president and chief executive for human services at United Way of New York City, which is partnering with the New York Community Trust to operate the September 11th Fund .

Still, some officials worry that without a central coordinating body, the relief effort is more likely to be plagued by fraud and wasteful duplication. For that reason, New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who just a week ago was sparring with New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani over who would oversee the relief effort, says he will continue to press for one main coordinating body, even if he has to cajole reluctant organizations to participate.

Relief groups are addressing these concerns by proceeding cautiously for the moment with the distribution of funds, particularly since the landscape of victims, the types of aid for which they are eligible, and estimates of how long relief efforts may need to be in place are still evolving.

"I think the definition of a victim is widening as people understand the ramifications of what is happening," said Barrios-Paoli. "The need is going to be so different from what we all expect."

David Barstow. "$850 Million for Charity, Not Centrally Monitored" New York Times 10/08/2001.