Giving in the Wake of Terror: The Charitable Response to the Attacks of September 11

John F. Kennedy School of Government (Harvard)



Case Study Sector


On September 11, 2001, after airplanes commandeered by terrorists crash into the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the Pennsylvania countryside, Americans searching for an outlet for their horror and grief begin giving money to a rapidly emerging relief effort. The resulting charitable response is unparalleled. By the end of 2001, more than 200 charities—ranging from the long-established American Red Cross to the newly created Twin Towers Fund—have raised almost $1.6 billion from individuals, foundations, and corporations. By all appearances, the generous outpouring of cash would be enough to help all those affected by the tragic events. But despite the initial goodwill that arose from the deluge of aid, charities experience an unexpected level of acrimony over how the money should be managed and spent. There is no centralized mechanism to track whether a victim has received aid from many charities or none, nor to help the charities coordinate their giving for maximum effectiveness. Charities have no consistent policies regarding who qualified as a victim or what factors should affect the size of awards. Many organizations don’t even have systems in place to issue checks speedily to victims or service providers. This case describes the response of 9/11-related charities when confronted with intense and often negative media scrutiny, Congressional hearings, and demands for better coordination and larger cash awards, while keeping in sight the longer-term requirements of their own organizations and the communities they hoped to serve. It can be used as the basis for discussion about the proper roles of government and private charity—including the regulation of the latter by the former—and operational issues which arise when hundreds of charities suddenly find reasons, and pressure, to work together. It can be used both for discussion of nonprofit management issues and regulatory questions.



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