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'Donation fatigue' hampering fundraisers

The Star-Ledger

October 11, 2005


By Suleman Din and Saba Ali

The man stands up at the front of the mosque and clears his throat as lines of worshippers waiting for prayer start to fidget. Too often this year, they've heard the pitch: first, the stories of children buried beneath broken concrete, then a slide show with gruesome images. At the end, the inevitable request for donations.

Fundraisers like Raza Farrukh who make these presentations are so weary of the response, they start by apologizing for having to ask for money, yet again.

"It's tough, it's taking a toll on our donors," said Farrukh, the national coordinator for the Islamic Council of North America's relief effort. "We are asking the same people at the same mosques, the same congregations for the tsunami, for Katrina. Our workers are exhausted. They see us coming, and say, 'Oh no, we have to open our wallets again.'"

The world began the year reeling from the tsunami that swept through Asia. Then, the Gulf Coast of the United States was devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Killer mudslides followed in Central America. And on Saturday, a magnitude-7.6 earthquake rocked South Asia, with the death toll in Pakistan reaching into the tens of thousands.

For many charities and aid groups, the latest disasters are taxing already limited resources in what now seems to be a constant flow of requests for donations, people and supplies.

"It's pretty schizophrenic," said Adrienne Smith, spokeswoman for OXFAM America, an organization that does relief and development work worldwide. "We definitely feel strained."

After the number of natural disasters this year, along with big increases at the gas pump, it's going to be harder for people to find money to give, said Trent Stamp, executive director of Charity Navigator, a Mahwah-based charity watchdog group.

"I think there is a clear sign of donation fatigue," he said. "People on all ends are feeling beaten down."

Diane Concannon, spokeswoman for the Red Cross of Central New Jersey, said it has been a challenge to remind people that every disaster requires an immediate, generous response.

"We're hoping it's going to stop," Concannon said of the number of disasters. "It seems to be one right after the other."

Stamp's organization received more than $10 million given for tsunami relief, and $35 million for Katrina relief. Stamp said he would be surprised if donations for the South Asian earthquake reached more than $1 million.

The number of natural disasters has taken its toll on relief organizations' staffing and supplies, he said.

"Charity groups like to say they are getting donations and show they are in control," Stamp said. "But they've got to be strapped."

To deal with the South Asian crisis, relief organizations are employing a variety of tactics.

The larger, established organizations, like the International Committee of the Red Cross, are shifting their supplies and stock in other countries to assist in relief efforts in Pakistan.

Other organizations are collaborating on relief efforts to overcome shortages of manpower and supplies.

Yesterday, the Islamic Society of North America changed the name of the relief effort task force from Hurricane Disaster Relief to American Muslim Task Force for Disaster Relief.

"It is more inclusive," said Sayyid M. Syeed, the society's secretary general. "The challenge is so big, the proportions are so big, that there is not just one aspect to focus on. We need to have doctors, construction workers and engineers (in Pakistan). We need specialized efforts now."

His organization raised $7 million for Katrina relief, and Syeed hopes the task force will reach its goal of raising $20 million for its earthquake relief effort.

Within New Jersey's Pakistani community, relief efforts are shifting from giving money to collecting donations of tents, clothing and blankets, which will be shipped overseas for free by Pakistan's national airline.

Suleman Din and Saba Ali cover Middlesex County. They may be reached at sdin@starledger.com or sabaali@starledger.com or (732) 404-8080.

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