On January 8, 2011, a would-be assassin opened fire in a Safeway parking lot on the outskirts of Tucson just as Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was starting a Saturday morning meet-and-greet with a crowd of constituents.
Knocked face-down by a bullet through the chest, Pam Simon thought she was the only survivor. “I just saw bodies falling,” she told me, “and I found myself on the ground. So I assumed, oddly, that everybody had been killed and it was just a fluke that I was still alive.” Thinking the gunman might return, she decided to play dead. She lay so still, she was mistaken for a fatality. “When the first responders came,” she recalled, “they jumped over me, and one of them hit me with their shoe.” She heard someone near her chide the EMT, “Hey, watch it, buddy!”
As ambulances sped toward Tucson hospitals, few of the injured could anticipate the avalanche of medical, psychotherapy, and rehab bills about to descend. But news of Tucson’s shooting spread quickly and people across the country quickly channeled their sympathy and outrage into private philanthropy. U.S. incidents of mass violence often prompt swift and generous responses. Contributions to Newtown’s diverse nonprofits exceeded $28 million. Compassionate aid for Boston’s bombing victims topped $79 million. But the surge of charity that follows high-casualty crimes brings a tangle of complications to communities hit by freak violence. Accepting the money turns out to be the easy part. Deciding how to give it away equitably is where the trouble starts.
With no widely recognized national guidelines or protocol to follow, local officials and nonprofits in tragedy-stricken towns suddenly face unforeseen issues: As the public reacts to news of a mass assault and begins sending donations to help victims, questions about how to handle the funds fairly soon arise. Who should receive aid—only bereaved families and the gravely wounded? What about individuals with less severe injuries or witnesses with psychological trauma? In private, ad hoc committees struggle over how to proceed and weigh one potential good against another. Confronted with overwhelming needs, each locale works to define the scope of its relief effort and the categories for assistance. Outcomes vary, but the same tough question persists: What is the most ethical way to divide the money?
Some answers prove divisive. For example, shooting victims’ families in Newtown, Connecticut, engaged in a bitter tug-of-war with a local foundation over $11.7 million in donations. The foundation, which had been created solely to distribute the money, announced that only $7.7 million would go directly to the Sandy Hook survivors and victims’ families. Divided among so many, the awards were fairly modest: $281,000 to each of the 26 families that had buried a loved one and $75,000 apiece to two wounded teachers. Twelve families whose first-graders had narrowly escaped death received $20,000 each. The remaining $4 million was set aside to meet community needs stemming from the crime.
The resulting uproar prompted a state investigation, which found the board’s decision legal but faulted the fund for a lack of transparency that led to misunderstandings. The state attorney general and the department of consumer protections summed up the problems in a June 2014 report, warning:
One of the biggest challenges charities faced in the wake of the shooting was ensuring transparency… The public response to this tragedy was immediate and the pure volume of gifts that poured in from all over the world was staggering. Ongoing or existing charities should take the opportunity to learn from this experience and conduct an inventory of their preparedness for future high stress events.
A month after the controversial award amounts were announced, a fund directortold The Stamford Advocate that concerns about the community’s mental health had driven his original decision: "We have to look at this in the long term and not cave in to demands being made to distribute the money immediately." So far, the fund has spent about a quarter million on mental-health services and public initiatives to reconnect the fragmented township.
Fairness was also a sore point in Aurora, Colorado, where a relief fund dispensed more than $5.8 million in tragedy relief. Survivors and victims’ families raised questions when the recovery committee gave $100,000 to several community-service agencies. Several weeks later, survivors received checks for $5,000. Soon after, the group took its frustrations to the media and called for independent oversight of the fund.* Donors had wanted their contributions to go directly to the victims, said one bereaved father, Tom Teves, speaking on behalf of the survivor group at an August press conference. He criticized the relief fund’s website for using the names and photos of victims without their families’ permission. Describing some of the hardship survivors were facing, he said, “Victims are paralyzed, facing multiple and painful surgeries, unable to walk, to work and pay their rent, food and medical bills.”