September 11:

More Effective Collaboration Could Enhance Charitable Organizations' Contributions in Disasters

GAO-03-259: Published: Dec 19, 2002. Publicly Released: Dec 26, 2002.

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Surveys suggest that as many as two-thirds of American households have donated money to charitable organizations to aid in the response to the September 11 disasters. To provide the public with information on the role of charitable aid in assisting those affected by the attacks, GAO was asked to report on the amount of donations charities raised and distributed, the accountability measures in place to prevent fraud by organizations and individuals, and lessons learned about how to best distribute charitable aid in similar situations.

Although it may be difficult to precisely tally the total amount of funds raised in response to the September 11 attacks, 35 of the larger charities have reported raising an estimated $2.7 billion since September 11, 2001. About 70 percent of the money that has been collected by these 35 charities has been reported distributed to survivors or spent on disaster relief since September 11, 2001. Charities used the money they collected to provide direct cash assistance and a wide range of services to families of those killed, those more indirectly affected through loss of their job or residence, and to disaster relief workers. Some of the charities plan to use funds to provide services over the longer term, such as for scholarships, mental health counseling, and employment assistance. Charities and government oversight agencies have taken a number of steps to prevent fraud by individuals or organizations, and relatively few cases have been uncovered so far. However, the total extent of fraud is not known and will be difficult to assess particularly in situations when organizations solicit funds on behalf of September 11 but use the funds for other purposes. Overall, charitable aid made a major contribution in the nation's response to the September 11 attacks, despite very difficult circumstances. Through the work of charities, millions of people contributed to the recovery effort. At the same time, lessons have been learned that could improve future charitable responses in disasters, including easing access to aid, enhancing coordination among charities and between charities and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), increasing attention to public education, and planning for future events. FEMA and some charitable organizations have taken some steps to address these issues. However, the independence of charitable organizations, while one of their key strengths, will make the implementation of these lessons dependent on close collaboration and agreement among charities involved in aiding in disasters.

Status Legend:

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  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendation for Executive Action

    Recommendation: The director of FEMA convene a working group of involved parties to take steps to implement strategies for future disasters, building upon the lessons identified in this report and by others to help create sustained efforts to address these issues. The working group should address these and other issues as deemed relevant: (1) the development and adoption of a common application form and confidentiality agreement; (2) the establishment of databases for those receiving aid in particular disasters; and (3) strategies for enhancing public education regarding charitable giving in general and for large-scale disasters in particular, including ways to enhance reporting on funds collected and expended. This working group could include FEMA, representatives of key charitable and voluntary organizations and foundations; public and private philanthropic oversight groups and agencies; and federal, state, and local emergency preparedness officials.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security: Directorate of Emergency Preparedness and Response

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In response to GAO's recommendation and with FEMA's encouragement, voluntary agencies have worked on the development of the Collaborative Assistance Network. It is composed of representatives from national voluntary agencies who signed an initial memorandum of understanding in August 2003 and have worked through 2004 to promote a coordinated approach to providing disaster relief services to families and individuals. The goals of this network include the identification of methods and systems that will produce more efficient and effective service coordination among and between voluntary, as well as government agencies, in catastrophic and major disaster events. These efforts include (1) working with local resources and agencies and include client and agency access to information on available services; (2) common client data elements and confidentiality and legal issues; (3) accepted standards for document verification; and (4) shared information related to levels of overall services delivered to individuals, families or households. The ultimate goal of this effort is to establish a flexible, easy to understand and navigate inter-agency service coordination and delivery system. These steps should produce more efficient and effective service coordination among and between voluntary, as well as, governmental agencies in catastrophic and major disaster events.

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