The Better Part of Generosity 

To put it mildly, we were taken aback by recent reports that FEMA and the Red Cross had given up to $2,000 apiece to thousands of Katrina "victims" in the Jackson, Mississippi, area for spoiled food and the inconvenience of lost power.

The stories in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, CNN, and The New York Times reported that up to $60 million might have been given away for such purposes. An emergency-services director said there were more people claiming to be displaced than were homes destroyed. Federal investigators are looking into possible cases of fraud.

There are two issues here. One is greed and misallocation of funds to people no more inconvenienced than Memphians were by the windstorm of the summer of 2003.

The other is the impact of Katrina on charitable giving. There are only so many charitable donations to go around.

"Groups ranging from homeless shelters to symphonies are finding their donors tapped out in a season that's traditionally the year's most generous," The Wall Street Journal noted last week.

Non-disaster nonprofits are especially at risk of getting short shrift. A survey of 3,900 nonprofits in October indicated that 80 percent expect their donations to be flat or down this year.

It isn't realistic for donors to play Scrooge and audit every cause or agency that solicits funds, but it may be a good time to focus more on giving to local groups with non-emergency needs and track records of spending money wisely. Be generous but be wise. Discretion is the better part of giving too.

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