The flood that swept through south Louisiana earlier this month, displacing thousands of people from their homes, is being described as the nation's worst natural disaster since Superstorm Sandy.
But nonprofit organizations responding to the emergency say monetary donations are not meeting the overwhelming demand for assistance.
Many attribute the lack of philanthropy to the dearth of national attention in the initial days of the flood, when the live visuals were of water up to rooftops and people being rescued in fishing boats.
Further complicating fundraising efforts by nonprofit organizations is the rise of crowd-funding websites, such as GoFundMe, which have exploded in popularity in recent years.
As of Friday afternoon, GoFundMe donations — totaling about $8.6 million for Louisiana flood victims — have kept pace with donations to the more traditional nonprofits that state officials have asked people to use for coordinated relief.
Gov. John Bel Edwards said this week he's concerned that GoFundMe pages are splintering private money that is coming in to the state.
"There are thousands of them related to this particular disaster and many of them are worthy, but you can split up the dollars in so many ways that none of the accounts are sufficient enough to have the impact you want them to have," Edwards said. "We've been fairly aggressive in asking that – rather than pushing money every where – I've been asking that people give to the (American) Red Cross and the Baton Rouge Area Foundation."
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Edwards said the nonprofits are working with the state to direct funds as the state needed money for specific efforts.
"They are much more nimble than we are," Edwards said. "All of the money that I can access has so many strings attached to it and there is so much bureaucracy."
Support lags for nonprofits
The Red Cross, which is one of leading nonprofits for disaster response across the globe, had raised $13 million by Friday in designated donations for Louisiana's flood victims, while setting a target of between $35 million and $40 million for emergency response. The organization reportedly raised and spent $300 million after the devastation of Superstorm Sandy in New York and New Jersey.
On Monday, Red Cross donations for Louisiana were only at $4.4 million. President Barack Obama visited flood-ravaged areas in East Baton Rouge Parish on Tuesday, drawing national news coverage.
The other leading disaster relief organization, the Baton Rouge Area Foundation, has only raised about $2.5 million for flood victims, so far.
BRAF CEO John Davies said Thursday the Foundation had already spent $200,000 more in flood relief than it had taken in.
"Money's going out as quickly as it comes in," Davies said. "We're trying to get the money out as quickly as we can in order to help the people most in need."
BRAF, one of the state's largest philanthropic organizations, raised $45 million for Hurricane Katrina victims – $10 million of which was raised within the first week of the storm.
The Louisiana Association of United Way has raised less than half of a million dollars for the disaster, according to President and CEO Sarah Berthelot. The state chapter of the United Way gets 90 percent of its donations from out-of-state.
"You do get a sense there are parts of the country where the awareness of this flood is not known," Berthelot said. "There is a correlation between the support we're getting and the general awareness of people out there."
In lieu of national news attention, Berthelot said, the United Way partnered with 21st Century Fox, which filmed a public service announcement starring the cast of "Scream Queens" talking about the flood damage. The PSA started airing Tuesday and already has resulted in an uptick in donations, Berthelot said.
At St. Vincent De Paul in Baton Rouge, Executive Director Michael Acaldo said he remembers non-stop, on-the-ground coverage during Hurricane Katrina by the national television news networks. He said within two weeks of Katrina, 50 semi-trucks filled with donations showed up at his organization. But two weeks out from Baton Rouge's own flooding event, he's received donations from about five trucks.
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Record-breaking online fundraising
While the traditional philanthropic organizations are seeing a shortage in donations, the opposite is true for GoFundMe.
GoFundMe efforts have raised more than $8.6 million for Louisiana flood victims through more than 5,900 individual campaigns, according to the company. GoFundMe, like KickStarter, allows people to ask for online donations for causes including philanthropy, business start-ups and honeymoons.
More money has been raised through GoFundMe for the Louisiana floods than any previous natural disaster in the company's six-year history.
For comparison, about $7.4 million was raised on GoFundMe following the Nepal earthquake in 2015 that killed more than 8,000 people, and just over $1.1 million was raised for survivors of the flooding across North and South Carolina last fall.
"The benefit of donating on GoFundMe during a time of widespread emergency is that you can see exactly where your funds are going. Families can get help quickly and directly, and donors can follow along with their progress and recovery," said GoFundMe spokesman Bartlett Jackson.
But Mukul Verma, a BRAF spokesman, said recipients of GoFundMe donations are taxed on the gift, because the company is for-profit. Nonprofit gifts are not taxed.
GoFundMe donations are also not exempt from overhead costs that many critics associate with large nonprofit organizations. GoFundMe automatically deducts a 5 percent fee from each donation. Additionally, WePay, the system that GoFundMe uses to process payments, takes another 2.9 percent plus 30 cents from every contribution made through the site. So nearly 8 percent from every donation made through GoFundMe is skimmed from the top before any money reaches its intended recipient.
Nonprofits needed for the long run
Nonprofit and state leaders say cash donations to nonprofit organizations provide more equitable and continued assistance for what will end up being a lengthy recovery period.
"If we have a central distribution, we can get money out to everybody and not Balkanize all the requests, so that no one has the funds to address the needs," Davies said.
The governor's administration earlier this week expressed concern about the Red Cross's response to the floods, saying they would be re-evaluating their partnership in the future amid widespread complaints from people who said the organization was turning away donations and volunteers. But even still, Edwards said, the Red Cross and BRAF are the most effective way to make monetary contributions to aid those in need.
For its part, the Red Cross said they see donations ticking upward as more attention is drawn to the flood, and they don't believe their brand has been damaged by social media complaints and reports critical of their response.
"Public trust in the Red Cross brand remains consistently high year after year, and we believe this demonstrates an enduring trust in our disaster relief program that has been in existence since 1881, and which we continue to strive to improve as the needs of the public evolve over time," said Elizabeth Penniman, vice president of communication for the American Red Cross National Headquarters.
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