Code Orange Philanthropy?

05/12/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Rochelle Lefkowitz President and Founder of a communications firm dedicated to social change

The headline was chilling: "Chile Quake May Have Shortened Days on Earth." Unclear whose days would shrink, just when or by how much.

The change, it turns out, may well be permanent--but minuscule. Each day, I learned upon reading the full story, will be 1.26 microseconds shorter. But in these Code Orange times, we get freaked out by disasters, no matter how small. Unfortunately, because most of us are woefully scientifically illiterate, we're easily rattled by headlines like these, phrased to scare us into anxiously watching, listening or reading what follows, insignificant as it may be. Thank goodness for .

Meanwhile, the nature of other media coverage--or lack thereof--lulls us into shrugging off far more grim, chronic, irrevocable significant transformations, like climate change. Far more damaging and irreversible than the time shift hyped above, its effects are way more wide-ranging and all too real, but don't happen in today's 24/7 news cycle.

It's an argument for a different kind of "Physics for Poets" than the gut course my college offered. Global competence, according to Asia Society's Education Program, among other things, would mean U.S. high school grads would be scientifically fluent enough to spot and shake off junk science. They'd also learn to work in teams with scientists and educators from other cultures, to detect the nuances that would move people to change habits, like using water in desert climates like California to keep golf courses green, and find ways to build climate stability. Because the worst Code Orange disaster dangers are not the acute shake and quake variety, but the long-term, slow bake.

So what, you might say, does Code Orange pseudoscience have to do with philanthropy? We're spooked, as well we should be, by frightening news of natural disasters. The 2004 tsunami, Haiti's recent earthquake, all move many of us to become disaster donors. We who sleep soundly, eat daily and feel safe, warm and well, dig deeply and give generously to disaster relief, adding charitable funds to our planned giving that we didn't budget for because we can't predict Mother Nature's unexpected seizures.

The challenge for impressive organizations like the American Jewish World Service that admirably raised multiple millions of disaster relief dollars for Haiti this winter in just days, is to convert those disaster donors into development donors once the acute crisis passes and the "normal" grinding poverty resumes at a lower plateau.

It's a challenge that's familiar to medicine. SWAT teams rush to the ER, to diagnose and cure patients who need acute care, like first responders parachute into natural disasters. It's much more frustrating and much less appealing to keep treating patients whose stubborn ailments demand chronic care, whether for individuals or entire regions.

Fortunately, the long haul is a huge niche where social networks can thrive. I don't know the research, but I'd wager most disaster donors are first moved as individuals. We read a headline gulping coffee, catch a radio spot commuting, get engaged alone and give that way. But the office that starts a fund, the book club that digs deeper to understand context, the church that adopts a village, are much more likely to hang in longer. Likewise, many nonprofits hope, the Facebook group of hands-on alumni who've been on the ground together, share updates on stop-and-go progress, puzzle together over reforming a region's food system, and, like the Global Fund for Women, take its cues from local leadership, not the experts from abroad, will more likely stay and give effectively for the long term.

What's tough is if everything, like every visit to an airport, is always Code Orange. Constant, low level anxiety starts to feel like the Cause That Cried Wolf--hard to trust, harder to back over time. Penetrating constant, low-level alert, along with nurturing distant social networks--let me know if you're the nonprofit whose catchy Bay Area slogan is "it takes being face-to-face to start to see eye-to-eye"--are key challenges for today's 21st century Code Orange Philanthropy. Please share your solutions below.

Rochelle Lefkowitz is President & Founder of Pro-Media Communications, a bicoastal social issue communications firm. Among the citations, the Asia Society Education Program, is a current client.