Philanthropy in Response to a Major Disaster: Case Study of the September 11 Terrorist Attacks

Citing the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, this paper examines the outpouring of financial and human resources from across the United States and the world in response to the tragedy. Motivated by love, compassion and patriotism, these acts demonstrated some of the most generous acts of philanthropy this country has witnessed. The importance, impact and relationship of philanthropy to a major disaster is discussed.


The best means of benefiting the community is to place within its reach the ladders upon which the aspiring can rise. (Andrew Carnegie 1889, 23)

At no other time in recent history has this country seen an event as devastating as the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Most Americans vividly recall where they were and what they were doing the exact moment they heard of the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. From boardrooms to classrooms, the world seemed to stop.

Yet, answering the bombarding images of death and destruction, a resounding call arose across America. The call was from citizens of all walks of life and profession, insisting they could and would help in some way. Whether an educator or student, a corporate or non-profit leader, a mayor or a president, many served to aid those in need. Who can forget lines of volunteers ready to give blood in countless cities and towns or the kids serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to the workers at Ground Zero? There were images of local firefighters headed to New York City to lend a hand and Hollywood movie stars conducting a telethon to raise millions of dollars.

The outpouring of widespread financial and human resources from across the United States and the world in response to the September 11, 2001, tragedy was motivated by love, compassion and patriotism. It demonstrated some of the most generous acts of philanthropy this country has witnessed. This paper will examine the importance, impact and relationship of philanthropy to this event.

Historic Roots

The citizens and institutions of the United States had little if any precedent that would adequately prepare them for the events of September 11, 2001, or the aftermath in the months that followed. The destruction of that day's historic events challenged the capacity of America's private, governmental and non-profit sectors. Yet, a few events in the country's past had set up a response system to deal with lesser disasters.

The Congressional Act of 1803 generally considered the first piece of disaster legislation, provided government assistance to a New Hampshire town following an extensive fire. In the century that followed, ad hoc legislation was passed more than 100 times in response to hurricanes, earthquakes, floods and other natural disasters.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter consolidated multiple federal programs and policies to form the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA 2002). FEMA was designed as an independent public agency that reported to the president, and was charged with planning for and recovering from national disasters. Following September 11, 2001, the agency has refocused around issues of national preparedness and homeland security. Billions of dollars of new funding have been allocated with the intent of protecting communities against terrorist threats. The 2500-person agency and the newly formed Office of Homeland Security, to which it belongs, have the mission of leading the United States to become "a nation prepared." One is left to question, could our nation ever be adequately prepared for another September 11?

In a recent West Michigan poll, fifty percent of respondents placed September 11 on par with the national disaster of Pearl Harbor (Deiters 2002). One factor that contributes to the comparisons between September 11 and Pearl Harbor is that these events were both surprise attacks by foreign powers. Because of the geography and nature of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the response warranted an immediate military response. For the sake of this briefing paper, Pearl Harbor does not lend itself as an adequate comparative case study in philanthropy and disaster response.

Perhaps the most valuable history lesson for our healing nation comes from the1995 Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. The coordinated emergency response demonstrated effective practices in the midst of a national disaster. Federal agencies, local and national nonprofits, and citizens from across the country responded to the disaster in an immediate fashion with a rescue and recovery effort, monetary and emotional support for survivors and family members of the victims, and an outpouring of public grief and anger. Seven years later, the successful mobilization of time and money can be seen as a model from which we can learn and build. The long-term impact of and response to the survivors in Oklahoma City may serve as a compass for New York and Washington DC in preparing to meet the emotional and economic long-term effects of the September 11 terrorist attacks.


As the emotional and physical damage of the September 11 catastrophe settled within the national conscience, Americans witnessed an outpouring of human and financial support to the victims of the attacks. In fact, "the charitable response was nothing short of remarkable. At least $2.25 billion was raised and two-thirds of American households pitched in" (Salamon 2002). A recent survey conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University (2002) discovered that 74.4% of those surveyed responded to the tragedy with some form of charitable behavior, including giving money, food, clothing, blood; and/or volunteering time. In addition to the tremendous financial response, This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University. It is offered by Learning To Give and the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.