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Disaster Giving: What Happened to $12.5 Million in Tornado Relief Donations?

   Jun 16, 2022

"Laurie Styron is the executive director of Charity Watch [sic], a national group that investigates charities and how efficiently they raise and spend the money entrusted to them."

"'It's always a concern when the public asks for a reasonable amount of accountability about how their donations were spent and they don't get an adequate response,' Styron said."

"She added that it's best when charities are transparent."

"'If I give you X amount of money, what will you accomplish with it?' she said."

Watch the videos to see NewsChannel 5 Nashville's investigation into what happened to millions of dollars donated to a community foundation in response to devastating tornadoes in Tennessee in 2020. CharityWatch Executive Director, Laurie Styron, provides commentary. 

In the wake of a natural disaster like a tornado, earthquake, hurricane, flood, or tsunami, evocative imagery of ravaged homes and lost lives can inspire donors to give quickly and generously. Such generosity is a testament to the human spirit and our collective desire to help others through the worst moments of their lives. But such impulsive giving also has a few downsides, which may include:

  • Donations unknowingly being directed towards fraudulent, copycat crowdfunding websites instead of the official crowdfunding sites of disaster victims and their families. 

  • Raising more funds than may be needed to aid the victims of a particular disaster. Excess funds might go unspent or be spent on unrelated programs instead of providing the disaster aid that donors intended. 

  • Excessive funds being directed towards a few people or families whose personal tragedies have been highlighted in the media while others in a similarly dire situation go without due to their stories not receiving as much attention. 

  • Funds being distributed to charities or individuals without adequate accountability mechanisms in place to specifically track and quantify spending to ensure that donations were utilized for their intended purposes.  

  • Disaster aid can in some cases damage local economies. Local store owners or farmers, for example, may suddenly lose most of their income due to the availability of free food and supplies distributed by nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), rendering the purchasing of these items by local residents unnecessary. By the time the NGOs exit the region after the disaster, some businesses may have already folded, leaving locals with less access to food and supplies than was available pre-disaster. 

In the wake of a disaster a balance must be struck between distributing aid quickly enough to meet the emergency needs of victims in a timely manner, and implementing adequate oversight mechanisms to vet potential grant recipients and track how donations to charities or individuals were ultimately spent. While achieving this balance is not always easy, accountability is incredibly important for maintaining donors' trust in the nonprofit sector. When donors lose trust, they stop giving. Public reporting should be detailed enough such that it quantifies what each grant recipient accomplished with the donations it received.