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Is Haiti just a passing fad? Donations are already slowing

haiti_telethon.gi.top.jpgBy Blake Ellis, contributing writer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- As Twitter feeds light up with "Text HAITI" and celebrities host telethons and wear support ribbons at award ceremonies, the money to assist earthquake survivors in Haiti is pouring in.

Major charities have pulled in more than $380 million for relief efforts as of Friday, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, a newspaper covering nonprofit organizations.

But despite the record amounts raised, the flurry of giving is already starting to fade. At the American Red Cross, donations are down by more than 50%. And that decline could mean more tragedy for Haiti.

"That's really the question: How long people's attention spans will last before moving on to the next thing," said Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. "This is the really critical stage."

Initial relief efforts alone will likely cost around $3 billion, said Timothy Ogden, editor in chief of online journal Philanthropy Action. And billions more will be needed for reconstruction.

"If we don't stay interested, there's going to be another wave of suffering because of a lack of medical attention, adequate food and shelter," said Daniel Borochoff, president of charity watchdog group American Institute of Philanthropy. "You give immediately to help out a bit, but then you also need to think about how you can help with intermediate and longer term needs."

General public involvement: The media's ability to capture the attention of Americans and draw people closer to the crisis was the main reason for the initial surge of giving, said Borochoff. But he fears that this feeling of closeness may taper off with time.

"I don't think it will have the legs of Katrina given that it's viewed as an isolated place by most Americans," he said.

Because Hurricane Katrina took place in the U.S., Americans felt an obligation to help. But it may be easier for Americans to distance themselves from the continuing crisis in Haiti, he said.

"People don't really understand much about the country, and to dispense aid there has to be a certain reliance on the government," Borochoff said. "So it's surprising that we are as concerned as we are because before this there was a lot of indifference toward Haiti."

Pessimism about the U.S. economy will also weigh on generosity. Ogden said he would be surprised if Americans contribute as much as they have in the aftermath of other major crises, such as the Asian tsunami in 2004, for which Americans donated more than $1.8 billion, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

"The economic situation in the country is dramatically different from when the tsunami hit, because everyone was feeling a lot wealthier then," he said. "So if we come close to approaching what was given to the tsunami that's a huge positive display."

Celebrity attention: To rally support, many big names have adopted the cause: Oprah Winfrey dedicated an hour to the crisis on her show Wednesday, hosting rapper Wyclef Jean, singer Rihanna and R&B artist Maxwell.

MTV's "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon on Friday, hosted by George Clooney, Wyclef Jean and Anderson Cooper, gave donations a boost over the weekend. The fundraiser took in more than $58 million in donations from the general public alone.

Larry King Live's two-hour star-studded special last Monday raised nearly $9 million.

"Certainly one of the best ways to attract peoples' attention is the celebrity in the spotlight talking about these things," said Ogden.

But relationships in Hollywood tend to be short lived. Is Haiti just a pet project for celebrities, and ultimately for the public? Will other issues soon take center stage?

"The biggest factor is, does something else happen?" said Ogden. "Does Afghanistan escalate? Is there a confrontation with North Korea or Iran? Is there a disaster in the Congo or some other place in the world? The longer we go without another major disaster or issue with global politics, the longer people will stay interested Haiti."

And if reports of looting, fraud and corruption cause Americans to worry about Haiti's progress, even celebrities like Oprah won't be able to persuade the public to keep giving.

But at least one celebrity, activist and native Haitian Wyclef Jean, isn't giving up on the cause. His Yele Haiti foundation has been raising awareness and aid for the country since 2005.

"My foundation, Yele Haiti, is not something that we started now, when Haiti seems to be famous, and everybody is paying attention," Wyclef said in a press conference. "We've been on the ground, we're gonna always be on the ground ... After the camera is off, I still gotta report back for duty."

Corporate giving: Even Wall Street has even chimed in, letting the American Red Cross ring the NASDAQ stock market's opening bell last Wednesday to raise awareness. And corporate giving by companies such as Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500) and Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500) has accounted for nearly 30% of all donations.

With a total of $106 million as of Friday, this is the fifth largest corporate response to a natural disaster, said Stephen Jordan, executive director at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Business Civic Leadership Center.

"This is well above average," he said. "The response to the earthquake in Peru comes in at $30 to $40 million, so I would have expected something like that."

But while the amount of corporate donations tripled the second day after the earthquake and hit $60 million on the third day, the giving is slowing, said Jordan.

"From here on out you won't see that dramatic escalation that we saw in the beginning," he said. "But it's not going to peak and then be a straight curve down, you'll see little mini peaks along the way."

The "mini peaks" are typically seen after events such as George Clooney's telethon, but Jordan said he is concerned that if companies -- just like celebrities or individuals -- move on to the next thing, these peaks may flatten and aid dwindle.

Right now, Haiti has America's attention, said Jordan. "But is this a new flavor, a fad, a hype, or is it a systemic, 'We've got to get serious about how we deal with this' type of problem?" To top of page

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