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The numbers are almost too large to fathom, so many Americans stop trying. As bodies pile up in disaster after global disaster, even the most sympathetic souls can turn away.
Charities know this as “donor fatigue,” but it might more accurately be described as disaster fatigue — the sense that these events are never-ending, uncontrollable and overwhelming. Experts say it is one reason Americans have contributed relatively little so far to victims of the cyclone in Burma and China’s earthquake.
Ironically, the more bad news there is, the less likely people may be to give.
“Hearing about too many disasters makes some people not give at all, when they would have if it had been just one disaster,” says Michal Ann Strahilevitz, who teaches marketing at Golden Gate University and specializes in the factors at play in charitable giving.
Compared with disasters such as the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina, those in China and Burma have generated just a trickle of aid. As of May 16, Americans had given about $12.1 million to charities for Burma, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. The center said on May 19 that it was too soon to count contributions to China.
A number of factors may be at play in the slow American response, including a lack of sympathy for the repressive governments involved, doubts about whether aid will get through, and an inclination to save pennies because of shaky economic times at home.
However, Americans also may have been influenced by the quick succession of monumental catastrophes in two distant lands. At least 130,000 people are dead or missing in the Burma cyclone and more than 34,000 in China’s earthquake.
“For the vast number of Americans, if they just gave to some disaster far away and then another disaster happens, in their mind, that’s clumped as ‘faraway disaster,’ ” Miss Strahilevitz says. “So they will feel, ‘I just gave to a faraway disaster.’ ”
This problem came up after the 2004 Asian tsunami, an event that brought an avalanche of $1.92 billion in charity from the United States, according to the Giving USA Foundation. Hurricane Katrina eight months later generated even more, $5.3 billion.
Then fatigue seemed to set in. The October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan that killed nearly 80,000 people generated just $150 million from Americans. The Guatemala mudslide shortly thereafter that killed at least 800 was virtually forgotten.
If one disaster can be galvanizing, several in a row can be paralyzing.
“It’s too much pain, too much tragedy for someone to process, and so we tend to pull ourselves away from it and either close off from it out of psychological defense, or it overwhelms us,” says Cynthia Edwards, a professor of psychology at Meredith College in Raleigh, N.C.
A string of tragedies also can make potential donors feel nervous about their own safety, making them less likely to give. That could be especially troubling now for Americans, many of whom are worried about their jobs and rising food and gas prices.
It’s too soon to judge the effects of the economic downturn on giving, says Del Martin, chairman of the Giving USA Foundation, although early figures show that donations rose in 2007. In general, people tend to give to causes closer to home. In 2006, Americans gave more than $295 billion to charity, but less than 4 percent of that went overseas.
One thing that may make people give to foreign causes is their personal connection to a region, either by knowing someone there or hearing an individual’s story, Miss Strahilevitz says. That’s difficult when unpopular governments are involved or media access is restricted, as in Burma.
Lurma Rackley, spokeswoman for CARE USA, is heartened that Americans are giving to Burma at all, considering the lack of images from the disaster. “There’s always concern that the tragedy is going to be forgotten,” Miss Rackley says.
CARE USA, World Vision and Mercy Corps all say giving for Burma is on pace to match the amount given after the Pakistan earthquake, although the Burma death toll appears to be far bigger. That’s partly because of concerns about whether aid will reach the intended recipients, with reports that Burma’s military government may be confiscating the aid or diverting it away from those most in need.
That’s part of why Dave Morris, 34, has yet to open his checkbook — he’s not sure he could really help.
Mr. Morris aims to give 10 percent of his income to causes such as public radio, the Red Cross and breast cancer research. However, the engineer from Ypsilanti, Mich., hasn’t given to the relief efforts in Burma and China, in part because the world’s problems seem impossibly large.
“If you thought about at this very second the number of people who were suffering and dying, I could dedicate all my resources to that and yet it would be a drop in the bucket,” he says.
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