US Business: Hurricane Harvey relief brings millions in corporate gifts

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Hurricane Harvey relief brings millions in corporate gifts

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Last Updated Sep 1, 2017 5:18 PM EDT

Corporate America is pitching in to help Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.

U.S. companies have committed more than $170 million for relief efforts in the week since Hurricane Harvey made landfall and deluged Houston, the nation's fourth-largest city.

Companies in ind ustries from energy to airlines are pitching in, led by pledges of $20 million from Walmart (WMT), $10 million from Verizon (VZ) and dozens of $1 million promises. On Friday, a foundation established by Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell and his wife said it would pledge $36 million for Harvey relief efforts in his hometown of Houston.

Most companies are opting for cash and routing support primarily through the American Red Cross, but other companies are mixing it up to capitalize on their own expertise, or to engage employees and customers.

"Companies are really starting to leverage their core assets so it's not just checkbook philanthropy," said Marc DeCourcey, senior vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

FedEx (FDX) and UPS (UPS), for instance, have pledged $1 million each, including the use of their delivery networks to help orchestrate relief efforts. Samsung split its $1 million commitment between cash to the Red Cross and $500,000 worth of washing machines, dryers and other household electronics for distribution by Texas nonprofits. In addition to cash gifts, Scholastic (SCHL) plans to donate books to help restock libraries.

Comcast (CMCSA) is pitching in cable airtime for flood-related announcements, alongside a $500,000 contribution split between the Red Cross and a relief fund set up by the Houston mayor. Teams of JetBlue (JBLU) employees trained in advance and are now deploying with the Red Cross. JPMorgan (JPM) gave $1 million to the Red Cross and waived late fees on mortgages and credit cards for customers affected by the storm.

Healthcare company Abbott (ABT) positioned its products to be ready before the storm, and separately an independent nonprofit called Healthcare Ready is making sure patients have access to medicines and supplies. Amgen's (AMGN) pledge includes $20,000 to help dialysis patients displaced by the storm. The investment bank Jefferies pledged to donate $1 million, plus all trading commissions earned on Aug. 30, and gave employees an opportunity to donate their salary for the day.

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The Chamber is tracking donation totals, DeCourcey said, but it's too soon to predict whether the corpo rate relief efforts for Harvey will reach the $1 billion milestone recorded after Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

"This is the initial donation phase," DeCourcey said, noting philanthropic efforts will now shift to recovery and include deployment of on-the-ground volunteers representing companies large and small. "As more needs become apparent I think companies again will step up and donate additional funds and resources."

Most companies angling to help out are opting for cash donations -- as they should, said Ken Stern, former CEO of NPR and author of "With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give."

"Only a handful of companies can bring more value through their expertise than cash," he said.

In the aftermath of natural disasters, Stern added, it's particularly important for companies and individuals to engage in "smart giving." The two biggest risks: Outright fraud (pa rticularly egregious examples followed Haiti's 2010 earthquake), and well-intentioned charitable organizations that lack the infrastructure to fulfill their promises.

"A lot of people started charities just for (Hurricane) Katrina, and by and large they weren't very successful," Stern said. "The work that goes into responding to a disaster requires infrastructure and logistics and knowledge of the local community. You don't get that from a startup."

Walmart's pledge includes $10 million upfront to support Red Cross shelters and $2 million for the relief fund set up by Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner (and administered by the Greater Houston Community Foundation). The retail giant also plans to pitch in products for storm cleanup and launch a matching program encouraging its customers to get involved.

The home-improvement chain Lowe's pledged $500,000 to the American Red Cross and expedited cleanup supplies to its Texas st ores. Home Depot split its $1 million gift between the Red Cross, Salvation Army, Convoy of Hope, Operation Blessing and Team Rubicon. It also plans to dispatch volunteers to help with cleanup and deliver supplies.

The airlines are getting in the act -- with travel, of course. Southwest said it plans to give five million frequent-flyer points to cover relief-related travel for the Red Cross, veterans-service organization Team Rubicon and disaster-zone staffing nonprofit All Hands Volunteers.

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American and United are giving bonus miles to customers who donate to selected disaster-relief organizations. Delta and JetBlue are matching donations of miles to select charities.

Other companies are making contributions inspired by their own mission. PetSmart promised $1 million for animal-welfare organizations in Texas that are working to reunite lost pets with their owners. The company is also pitching in pet food.

Most corporations also agreed to match donations from employees. In a twist on that model, Kohl's -- which gave $500,000 to the Red Cross -- committed $1 million more to help its own employees affected by the storm. Fast-food chain Whataburger took a similar approach, setting aside $1 mill ion to help its own employees, alongside major cash contributions to the Red Cross and local food banks.

Innovation in giving isn't limited to corporate philanthropists.

Charities are getting in the act, too, with crowdfunding campaigns and Amazon Wish Lists that allow donors to buy specific supplies rather than making a cash donation, said Sara Nason, spokeswoman for the nonprofit watchdog Charity Navigator. The Red Cross, for instance, has asked for baby cribs.

Do-it-yourself donors, particularly if they're considering lesser-known local charities, would be wise to research the organizations on a site like New Jersey-based Charity Navigator, which lists 30 highly-rated nonprofits that allow donors to designate gifts for Harvey relief. The site's traffic is up 300 percent in the wake of Harvey, and most users are coming from Facebook and Twitter, Nason said.

"It's a testament to the generosity of the American people that corporations , individuals and communities all are asking people to help," she said. "We believe everyone is a philanthropist, whether you give time, money or an in-kind donation."

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