3 Reasons Charities Can’t Raise Enough Ebola Money

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UNDATED:  In this handout from the Center for Disease Control (CDC), a colorized transmission electron micrograph (TEM) of a Ebola virus virion is seen. As the Ebola virus continues to spread across parts of Africa, a second doctor infected with the disease has arrived in the U.S. for treatment.  (Photo by Center for Disease Control (CDC) via Getty Images)
Photo: Center for Disease Control (CDC) via Getty Images

Last Friday, Planet Money posted a really interesting new episode: In it, reporters Zoe Chace and Robert Smith explain that charities are having a lot of trouble raising money to fight the Ebola epidemic ravaging Liberia and other parts of West Africa, and they run down some reasons why that is the case. They also contrast the current fund-raising issues with previous, much more philanthropically “successful” disasters, most notably the 2010 Haiti earthquake that raised $1.4 billion in charitable donations.

Here are the three biggest reasons for the current, potentially devastating fund-raising difficulties:

1. Americans don’t know anything about Liberia and West Africa. This one’s slightly obvious, but it’s important. Most Americans were at least marginally familiar with Haiti when the earthquake struck there — it’s a country that is very close to the U.S., and which has found its way into the news frequently in recent years. It’s easier, of course, to pull out your wallet (or type in a text-message code) when you know the money will be going to a nearby, familiar place. West Africa is neither. 

2. Doctors and aid workers in West Africa are hoping to prevent things from getting worse, not help things get better. This seems like a fine distinction, but as Chace and Smith note, it matters: After the Haiti earthquake, there had been a single, horrible act of destruction, and it was time to rebuild. From donors’ perspectives, it was easy to imagine their money going to rebuilding a house or school or water main.

The Ebola crisis is different, and is structured in a way that is much less conducive to fund-raising. It’s certainly an ongoing crisis, but it’s unclear when and how it’s going to peak: The world is in a scary, wait-and-see period as everyone keeps an eye on West Africa to determine whether this is “merely” going to be a terrible outbreak as opposed to a historically horrific one. What’s needed to help slow it down is money — money that would flow a lot more freely if the disaster had already happened and potential donors could imagine their $25 helping to rebuild in the post-outbreak landscape. Prevention is a lot less sexy and a lot harder to visualize. 

3. September 11. Bear with me. As Chace and Smith explain, 9/11 produced the largest surge of charitable donations in American history — more than $1 billion, all told, most of it going to the Red Cross. Fairly quickly, the Red Cross realized 9/11 donations had outpaced need, and it quietly started shifting money around for use in future incidents, including terror attacks. When people discovered this, they freaked out — they had donated to 9/11 and they wanted their money to go to 9/11, dammit. A weirdly intense scandal erupted and forced the head of the organization to resign.

Charities around the world took notice,” said Smith in the podcast. “They learned you do not shift money around. They learned when a donor is moved to give money to one disaster, it is an emotional act — it’s not necessarily a rational one. Donors are not thrilled when that money gets shifted to some other need. They feel like they didn’t get what they paid for, which was to feel good about helping a certain person, a certain kind of victim.” This scandal has echoed loudly in the philanthropic universe, and as a result, charities around the world are uncomfortable with shifting money from well-funded areas to underfunded ones like, say, Ebola.

So, how do you get around all this? Mostly, argues Planet Money, you need some sort of big, galvanizing, attention-getting focal point (Haiti’s famous benefit concert helped back in 2010). A possible one came last week with some very scary numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control: In a worst-case scenario, the CDC reported, 1.4 million people could be infected in the current outbreak. A number isn’t quite as attention-getting as a concert, of course, but maybe a full realization of just how horrible this crisis could become could help spur donations for it. Hooray?

(Here’s a link to Doctors Without Borders’ Ebola page, and make sure to listen to the whole podcast.)