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Charities worry about losing donations to disaster fatigue

Faye Wilhelmi of Langdon, N.D., greets Salvation Army bell-ringer Darrell Azure as she makes a donation at the kettle on Black Friday outside of Cabela's in East Grand Forks, Minn. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service

GRAND FORKS — When Hurricane Harvey blew through Texas and Irma and Maria tore up the Caribbean, they left thousands reeling, wondering when power would return or even when they'd get their next drink of clean water.

Across the U.S., donors and volunteers leapt into action. Pat Berger, who leads Grand Forks' United Way, knows all about it.

For 15 years, the United Way has run "Undies Sundays," a cheeky name for a drive for underwear, personal items and diapers struggling families can use to help make ends meet. This year, it collected more than 29,000 items—down from about 53,000 items last year. Part of that gap, Berger said, was due to hurricane relief.

"We had two churches who said to us, 'We didn't get what we got last year because we were running drives for hurricane victims,' " Berger said. She said she's "not bemoaning that one bit," but explained that behavior offers a window into how charitable organizations contend for support among donors with varying interests, budgets and attention.

"They remember giving. 'Gee, just a month ago, I was buying shampoo and diapers to help these victims' (or) 'I've done that, I've made that donation,' is going through their mind," Berger said. "Perhaps, according to their family budget, they can only do X, and they've already done that."

Berger said her office is making similar considerations with its annual fall campaign. The United Way no longer speaks in dollar amounts or breaks out a big "thermometer" to track the amount of money being raised. Instead, Berger said, proponents speak in concrete terms—helping a family go from marginal living to stable living, or providing a child with a new book every month.

Disaster fatigue

Adam Derenne, an associate professor of psychology at the University of North Dakota, said people have a range of responses to sudden tragedies like this fall's hurricanes, either shifting their giving or even giving more. But people usually have financial limits on what they can give, and for psychological reasons, the empathy it takes to relate to disaster victims' plight can be draining.

"If these feelings occur repeatedly—like when weeks of media coverage are devoted to several natural disasters—a person may begin to experience 'empathy fatigue' and be less able to empathize with the victims of disasters," Derenne wrote in an email. "People can also become desensitized to imagery presented repeatedly in the media. If people are frequently exposed to scenes of destruction and suffering, then the emotional impact of that imagery will gradually weaken."

Lt. Matthew Beatty, who leads the Salvation Army in Grand Forks, said he hasn't seen donations being significantly affected in the Army's red kettle campaign—though he acknowledged that, as he spoke, the campaign was still only on its third day. He said it's his experience that people are often more attuned to giving after a disaster, especially in Grand Forks, where memories of the Flood of 1997 are still pressing.

"It's amazing the appreciation they have," Beatty said. "The folks here have been there and done that."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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