How Boston is striving to correctly create a charity to aid bombing victims

April 20, 2013 

A great paradox of terrorism is that an act of terrible evil can bring forth so many acts of good. Since Monday’s awful explosions on Boylston Street, Boston has been a city of heroes: the magnificent first responders, the miracle-working medical personnel and the many ordinary people who have given so freely of their time, money and blood.

Yet to be effective, this flood of charity needs to flow in the right direction, and we don’t know where money will be most needed. For this reason, Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas Menino have established “The One Fund Boston,” which they hope will be able to draw on the charitable impulses of today’s donors in the future, when the best uses of these funds become apparent.

The evil of 9/11 also brought forth massive generosity; $2.8 billion was given to related charities. Hurricane Katrina generated an even larger $5.3 billion charitable surge. But the results of all that giving were uneven. The proliferation of different funds and causes meant that, while many victims received ample aid, some first responders received far too little.

After examining 325 charities “established to serve the victims, their families and their memories,” the Associated Press reported that “in virtually every category of 9/11 nonprofit, an AP analysis of tax documents and other official records uncovered schemes beset with shady dealings, questionable expenses and dubious intentions.” Giving money wisely is never easy, particularly during the emotional maelstrom following a great disaster.

After the Marathon explosions, local and state officials recognized the problems with various 9/11 funds. They went to Kenneth Feinberg, a lawyer who teaches at Harvard and has a distinguished history in disaster relief; he served as special master of the federal Sept. 11 Victim Compensation Fund. Feinberg urged them, a top city official told me, to create a primary repository for charitable responses to the marathon attack, and The One Fund Boston was born.

Establishing a well-functioning charity takes time. Feinberg himself will administer the fund. This is quite reassuring. But we don’t know who will serve on its governing board.

In an ideal world, perhaps, donors could just hold off until these details are finalized, but that is not how disaster-related charity works. The victims of April 15 are on everyone’s mind, and giving is natural. As media attention wanes, charitable impulses will, too.

Of course, it goes against many donors’ instincts to assume that organizations, especially new ones set up by public officials, will do the right thing. My grandfather grew up in czarist Russia, and my father grew up in Nazi Germany, so I don’t automatically trust authorities. Yet even a skeptical economist can see that Monday’s tragedy merits giving money on faith.

Business leaders, who are usually cagey about giving out cash, have shown their confidence by donating generously to The One Fund Boston. John Hancock, the main sponsor of the Marathon, has contributed $1 million.

We owe the victims not only our generosity, but also our good sense. Too much money was wasted after 9/11 by small, unfocused charities. The One Fund offers Bostonians a single repository for their charity – one whose work can then be scrutinized appropriately. But the time to give is now. Let’s trust the mayor and the governor, and donate as much as we can to One Fund Boston.

New York Times News Service

Edward L. Glaeser, an economist at Harvard, is the director of the Rappaport Institute for Greater Boston.

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