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Next disaster, will our heads follow our hearts? Chances to match pledges left on the table after Katrina

By Stephanie Tobor

I’ve been dealing with this whole thing one day at a time. It’s stressful late at night … lying … in my tent thinking how I could do so much better than this. But, this is how I’m going to have to start all over.” This is how Daniel Claunch, a Katrina victim living in Biloxi, Miss., deals with the vicious hurricane that plowed through his world and left him homeless.

It’s not as if Houstonians haven’t tried to help Claunch and others like him. Clearly, we’ve cared for Katrina evacuees. We were the first city in the nation to invite them in. We opened our closets, cabinets and wallets. We welcomed displaced friends, relatives, even strangers into our homes. We even opened the Astrodome.

But we missed one of the most obvious ways to ease the pain – matching donations.

After Katrina, my husband and I began researching meaningful ways to contribute. We looked for volunteer opportunities and also examined our family budget to figure out what we could afford to give. Neither of us works for a company that matches donations, so we searched for an organization that would. It wasn’t easy. After hours combing the Internet, we came to the realization that valuable pledges were being wasted because no coordinated source of information exists on matching gift opportunities.

We knew we couldn’t be alone. If more people understood how a $25 donation could almost magically turn into $50, they would make the effort to steer their gifts through organizations that provide matching gift programs.

We read what economists Catherine C. Eckel of Virginia Tech and Philip J. Grossman of St. Cloud State University uncovered when they conducted a study several years ago on matching gifts. They came away with a whole new take on charitable giving when their research led to the compelling question: What if the federal government offered taxpayers a charitable giving match rather than the tax deduction permitted by law? Would this motivate people to give more? Their study showed it would.

Americans are not stingy. Following Katrina, millions of dollars poured into charities. Like other Houstonians, my husband and I watched news reports about local shelters that received so many supplies they began turning away contributions because they ran out of space to store them.

In October, the Chronicle of Philanthropy, the trade newspaper of the charitable-giving community, reported that in 2004, donations to many of the country’s biggest charities grew by almost 12 percent. Furthermore, the publication explained that many professional fund-raisers anticipate a sharp increase in major donations through the end of this month as Americans take advantage of a new law enacted since Katrina that permits taxpayers to write off up to 100 percent for charitable gifts made before Jan. 1.

And yet, with matching gifts, we could raise twice as much. We know where our hearts are, but where are our heads? Anyone, anyone, can donate to a sponsoring organization and watch that donation double. But how likely is this to happen without an accessible resource to locate the information?

Almost immediately after Katrina did her damage, many local and national organizations began relief efforts, including many programs aimed at matching consumer donations. For instance, Lowe’s Home Improvement Centers matched $1 million in consumer donations. Best Buy’s children’s fund matched $2 million. Large companies like these have the resources to promote their fund-raising efforts.

However, we learned that hundreds of smaller companies offered similar opportunities that went largely unnoticed. They simply lacked the capability to get the word out. A sad example: Service Credit Union, headquartered in Portsmouth, N.H., offered to match up to $350,000, but they received only enough money to donate $165,000 to Katrina relief. That’s $185,000 left on the table! What could a fraction of this sum do to prop up Daniel Claunch’s world? Although hurricane relief is the charity of choice today, we now know that corporate matching programs exist year-round to benefit various nonprofit organizations large and small, local and international. Visa, AAA and 7-Eleven are among the many companies that have matching donation programs in place.

Even if we’ve unwittingly allowed many Katrina matching gifts to slip through our fingers, common sense dictates that disasters will continue to rear their ugly heads. The question then is: Will we leave money on the table again?

Tobor, of Houston, is a stay-at-home mother and part-time investment manager.