“I’m sorry,” apologizes Debra Johnson, as she sobs uncontrollably. “Every time I think that he’s not coming back, I can’t stop crying. I’m supposed to be strong for the kids.
“I cry every night,” she continues, “praying that he will come back. I just want my family to be one again.” On September 11, Johnson, a first-grade teacher in the Bronx, New York, lost David Williams, the father of her two children and her partner for more than 15 years. Williams, 34, was an engineer at the American Business Maintenance Co. in Building Two of the World Trade Center. “He was kind, trustworthy, and a good father,” Johnson, 34, laments. He was also naturally funny, and enjoyed local celebrity as “Dog Face,” the stand-up comedian. “David and several of his co-workers actually made it out of the building. But he ran back in to turn off a machine he thought might blow, causing more harm. That’s the type of man he was.”
Johnson, however, feels that her mate’s heroic deed has been dashed — lost in the smoldering heap of ash and debris we now call Ground Zero. “I feel like you have to be a fireman’s widow to get someone to listen to you.” In applying for aid, Johnson has received only $3,000 to date, from the organization Safe Horizons, to assist with basic living expenses. She has been frustrated and angered by the amount of red tape that never clearly communicates the criteria for aid, shuttles victims from desk to desk, organization to organization, and points to useless voicemails, e-mails, and Websites.
“I get turned off with all the questions and forms,” she says, “I just leave it alone.”
In the aftermath of September 11, scores of organizations solicited for charitable donations, and Americans of every race and creed showed compassion and unity by donating $1.3 billion in record time. The expectation of the donors was that charities receiving the funds would disburse the money to needy victims just as quickly. Instead, public feuds erupted over both the charities’ and the U.S. government’s handling of the distribution of funds.
Such developments have led many consumers to reassess their level of commitment to charitable giving, and charities have come under greater scrutiny as the nation heals from the loss of an estimated 4,500 lives and billions of dollars in property and business damage. Are charities doing enough to help the victims and the nation recover? Or did they use the tragedy as a “business opportunity” to profit from the overwhelming generosity of sympathetic donors? We’ve polled the experts to evaluate the effectiveness of these various efforts and offer tips on how you can assess other solicitors in the future.
A QUESTION OF CONSCIENCE
No doubt, the grand scale of the recent terrorist attacks presented a huge task for charity solicitors. “The problem is that we have no historical precedence to guide us,” observes Rick Cohen, president of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a philanthropic watchdog group. “But things could have been handled differently.” Cohen suggests