Pain of tragedy universal, so what triggers our charitable response?

In April, we witnessed three horrible human tragedies, each man-made and each resulting in death, injury and destruction. The philanthropic response to these events varied widely, raising intriguing questions about what motivates people to respond with charity in the face of tragedy.

The first event was the Boston Marathon bombing. This act of terrorism killed three people, injured more than 200 and kept the nation riveted throughout a manhunt. The One Boston Fund was established within one day of the bombing. So far, it has raised nearly $40 million to aid the victims.

Two days later, a tremendous explosion ripped through a fertilizer factory in the small town of West, Texas, killing 15 people, injuring 200 and damaging or destroying more than 150 homes and buildings. The Waco Foundation‘s Disaster Relief Efforts Fund has raised $1.3 million to date.

A week later, in what has been called “the deadliest garment-factory accident in history,” an eight-story building collapsed in Bangladesh, killing 1,127 workers and injuring 2,500 more. In spite of these numbers, there is no organized U.S. or international charitable response. A few European companies that profited from the low wages and unsafe conditions at the factory have promised help.

Resources, attention and empathy are essential

According to family wealth psychologist Jim Grubman, at least three key elements come into play when people decide to make a contribution in response to a disaster: financial resources, attention to the incident in the face of other news, and the ability to empathize with victims of the incident.

Donor fatigue may also come into play as some people tire of giving in response to a long series of global disasters. Many lack confidence that donations to these efforts benefit the victims.

The Boston Marathon bombing dominated media coverage and the country’s attention for a solid week, far eclipsing the West explosion and the Bangladesh collapse.

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in another’s place and understand the other person’s feelings, desires, ideas and actions. The ability of potential donors to identify with the victims of these three events may have played a role in the disproportionate responses to each. This raises important questions.

  • To what extent do the victims’ race, class, gender and nationality influence — consciously or not — a potential donor’s ability to empathize with them?
  • How does geographic proximity to an event affect empathy?
  • Does the fact that we buy cheap products produced by sweatshops in developing countries interfere with our ability to empathize?
  • Does domestic terrorism receive more of our attention and empathy than other tragedies because we can more easily see ourselves as victims?

Paul Bloom’s recent commentary, “The Baby in the Well,” which appeared in The New Yorker, provides one thoughtful answer to these questions: “Our best hope for the future is not to get people to think of all humanity as family — that is impossible. It lies, instead, in an appreciation of the fact that, even if we don’t empathize with distant strangers, their lives have the same value as the lives of those we love.”

Biggest tragedies not driven by events

Peter Singer challenges us to respond to daily human tragedies much bigger than Boston, West or Bangladesh. He points out that 19,000 children die each day from preventable causes, with each mother mourning her loss with the same grief as we feel for our own. Singer is a Princeton University professor of bioethics and the author of “The Life You Can Save” (2010).

Prevention of and response to human tragedy takes time, intention and strategy, involving more than a quick emotional response to the biggest and most recent story in the news. Although every donation is welcome and needed, a more thoughtful and balanced approach to philanthropy produces more just and effective results over time.


Nonprofit of the month

Since 1986, The Gathering Place has been a community of safety and hope where positive relationships, choice and essential resources transform the lives of women, children and transgender people experiencing homelessness and poverty. Services range from providing access to food, showers, phones and computers to offering art programs, creative-writing groups, job-readiness preparation, and health and mental-health collaborative efforts. In 2012, the organization served nearly 10,000 people


Bruce DeBoskey is a Colorado-based philanthropic strategist and adviser, helping businesses, foundations and families design and implement their philanthropic initiatives.