During the first days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Americans overwhelmed blood donor sites and food collection drop-offs. Now, with the help of telethons, the Internet and everything from supermarkets to grade schools, they are donating vast sums of money.
Estimates from interviews this week with disaster relief groups nationally indicate more than $600 million has been raised in the past two weeks. When the money stops flowing in, the donations could top $1 billion.
"It's been an outpouring of love," said George Burke, a spokesman for the International Association of Fire Fighters, a Washington-based union that has raised more than $10 million for the families of the more than 300 firefighters missing and presumed dead in Manhattan.
Yet, while most involved in the effort speak glowingly about Americans' generosity, the rush to give has not been without problems. For starters, most of the groups raising money don't know precisely how they are going to distribute it.
In addition, many of the donations are earmarked for similar purposes, such as "firefighters" or the more vague "victims" term with which many fund-raisers are soliciting donors.
Is the money to help victims' families intended for the short term or far into the future?
Can the money be used for any purpose, or does it come with strings attached?
These are among the growing number of questions that the fund-raising groups are just now grappling with.
The already chaotic situation is heightened by the fact that no one organization is coordinating the various efforts -- an emerging situation that causes concern among fund-raisers as the flow of money has begun to slow in recent days.
"We need to have coordination. It just makes sense," said Frank Ferreyra, president of the 20,000-member New York State Fraternal Order of Police, which has brought in $500,000 for families of police officers who died in the attacks.
"There probably are some bumping heads," acknowledged Theresa Whitfield, a spokeswoman for the Salvation Army headquarters in Virginia, which raised $21 million in two weeks.
State Attorney General Eliot L. Spitzer, recognizing the potential for problems to worsen, on Wednesday brought together two dozen major charities in an effort to ensure efforts are not duplicated and money gets to those truly in need.
The plan includes a database that groups can tap into to see what causes have gotten money. That will not be easy, because turf battles and competition for pots of money plagued the fund-raising community long before Sept. 11.
"The concern is that there would be duplication and overlapping objectives and some fundamental needs might not be met," said Spitzer.
The organizations raising money are accepting staggering, even record amounts:
The American Red Cross has taken in $202 million, far outpacing the $104 million it raised in 1992 for Hurricane Andrew relief efforts.
The September 11 Fund, a consortium of the United Way and the New York Community Trust, has raised $120 million.
The New York City Twin Towers Fund, a fund established by Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani for the family members of deceased firefighters and police officers, has taken in $90 million.
Then there was the celebrity-laden, nationally broadcast telethon on Friday, which brought in $150 million.
A state fund created by Gov. George E. Pataki, the New York State World Trade Center Relief Fund, raised at least $15 million, according to Marc Carey, a state Tax Department spokesman.
Beyond the major groups, there are thousands of fund-raising campaigns under way by individuals such as Lisa Church, an Erie County resident who's organizing a massive garage sale and car wash Saturday in the parking lot of Eddie Ryan's Restaurant in Lancaster.
The cash gifts run the gamut. There's the more than $180 million, according to the Foundation Center in Washington, from deep-pockets corporations, including $15 million from Citigroup and $10 million from DaimlerChrysler, and uncounted millions more from philanthropic foundations.
There's foreign money, such as the $5 million to a state fund from Japan, and money being raised by a London group that, in its Web page, says to potential donors, "This is an hour of need for our friends in America."
"We all know the need is huge," said Gretchen Wolfram, a spokeswoman for the Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment, which last week gave $30 million -- the largest single donation by any group -- to three organizations involved in the relief efforts.
One of the recipients, the American Red Cross, will get $10 million.
And there are the thousands of smaller-scale donation efforts.
"Patriotism, support for the community and wanting to make a difference," said Mike Deeb, a 15-year-old junior at Tonawanda High School, is why so many of his fellow students dropped $3,500 into buckets he and a half-dozen other student fund-raisers carried about school in the days after the attack. "I'm really proud of the students of the school -- it made me feel patriotic."
Is there too much?
Still, there are concerns.
First, even some fund-raisers quietly are asking, could it all be just too much money? Will the enormous crush of cash, much like the donations of blood and canned goods that overwhelmed relief groups, be too much to handle?
Organizers insist no, arguing that the costs will be staggering, both in terms of what's already been estimated for rescue, relief and reconstruction efforts and the unknown costs associated with an attack no one could have predicted three weeks ago.
"I can't tell you precisely," Ani Hurwitz, a spokeswoman for the September 11 Fund, said when asked how her group's money would be spent.
But her organization last year handed out $145 million in grants for various needs around New York City, and so is well accustomed to the fund-raising business, she said.
And the money raised these two weeks will not go to waste, she insisted, noting her group's take so far would be emptied if, for instance, it created a scholarship fund for children of the twin towers disaster.
Much of the money raised is still sitting in charities' bank accounts, or exists only as pledges waiting to be received.
But in the past two days, the funds have started handing out money. The biggest came Tuesday, when the American Red Cross said it will give up to $30,000 to each family with dead or missing members from the trade center and Pentagon attacks to help with burial, housing, utility and other costs; with about 7,000 presumed dead, that could total $100 million.
At the state tax department in Albany, which lost 39 employees in the twin towers attack, 400 phones have been staffed for two weeks raising money for relief efforts.
"They feel so bad for New York," said Karen Dinardi, a tax department employee who has handled hundreds of donor calls from around the nation.
Dilemma for charities
Still, it's not clear where the money is going.
"At this point, the object is to get the money in, then we'll sit down and say exactly where it is to be directed," said Carey.
The agency has taken more than 10,000 credit card donations alone the past two weeks at its Albany headquarters, where calls with donations are taking precedence over those calling with tax questions. Donors to the state fund can earmark their money to family members of victims, relief workers or a general relief fund that, Carey said, "could be everything and anything."
Fund-raising experts worry that the crush of donations to bigger-named groups may hurt the efforts of smaller community groups on the front lines of neighborhood relief efforts, especially those that help lower-income victims and others that haven't gotten the publicity that firefighters and finance executives have.
"They are the invisible victims," said Kathleen McCarthy, director of the Center for the Study of Philanthropy at the City University of New York.
Coordination of donor groups will be key, she said, not unlike the systematized efforts officials in Chicago undertook following the disastrous fire of 1871.
Yet, McCarthy warned, the Sept. 11 attack was not the typical disaster that fund-raising groups are accustomed to handling.
"This was a unique disaster. They were either dead or they walked away. You don't have refugees, so the question is, 'What do you do with the disaster relief funds?' " the history professor said.
The dilemma for charities, she said, is not simple:
"How do you rebuild the moral, social and spiritual infrastructure of this city, as well as provide relief for these survivors?"