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The Boston Globe

Columns

Edward L. Glaeser

One Fund: It’s OK to give on faith

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 at this early date, we don’t know where money will be most needed. For this reason, Governor 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.

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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.

But Boston has a long tradition of smart philanthropy. The Boston Public Library’s McKim building, which stands so near Monday’s tragedy, epitomizes the intelligent generosity of 19th century Bostonians, like Josiah Quincy Jr. and Edward Everett, who believed that “education is a better safeguard of liberty than a standing army.”

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.

The central problem the fund faces is that establishing a well-functioning charity takes time. Feinberg himself will administer the fund, I was told Wednesday; this is quite reassuring. But we don’t know who will serve on its governing board. Goodwin Procter has volunteered to help with the legal work, but the IRS has not yet granted the 501(c)3 status that the fund needs for donations to be tax-deductible. (It surely will.)

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 currently on everyone’s mind, and giving is natural. As media attention wanes, charitable impulses will too. A clever study examined Internet giving after the 2004 tsunami and found that “an additional 700-word story in the New York Times or Wall Street Journal raises donations by 18.2 percent of the daily average.”

In this unusual setting, the fund should be free to meet needs as they appear.

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Of course, it goes against many donors’ instincts to assume that charitable 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 the authorities. Yet even a skeptical economist can see that Monday’s tragedy merits giving money on faith. In this unusual setting, it is better to give The One Fund Boston the freedom to flexibly spend to meet needs as they appear, rather than to tightfistedly require safeguards that will take months to enshrine formally.

Besides, Menino has shown fiscal prudence and passion for his city over the past 20 years. He will surely help select stewards for the fund who share those virtues. 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.

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