September 2, 2005

Company donors to set record with Katrina–experts

By Michele Gershberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. companies offered up everything
from bed sheets to sunscreen and cell phones for thousands left
homeless by Hurricane Katrina in what corporate charity experts
believe will be their largest donation drive.

As the enormity of the crisis in Louisiana, Mississippi and
other U.S. Gulf states became apparent, companies pledged over
$100 million in cash and merchandise donations. Much more is
expected in the weeks to come.

"I think it will exceed the tsunami effort," said Johanna
Schneider, spokeswoman for the Business Roundtable, an
association of chief executives from top U.S. companies. "It
was a holiday week and there are still companies to come
forward with offers."

Corporate funds donated in the wake of an Asian tsunami
last December exceeded $500 million and set a benchmark for
involvement in disaster relief. The immensity of such disasters
means companies are expected to contribute from their profits
to help save lives.

The U.S. hurricane victims "all speak English and they all
look like your neighbors and they're all hurting," said Mike
Lawrence, executive vice president at charity marketing firm
Cone Inc. "This is way beyond the scope of any government,
including the U.S. government, to handle."

Discount retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. pledged $17 million,
including free food and clothing to be distributed at
mini-stores set up in hurricane areas. General Electric Co.
promised $18 million. Several foreign-based companies pitched
in, such as French banking group BNP Paribas.

Big oil companies shelled out for relief efforts, in some
cases even as they waited to find out about damage to their
facilities in the region. Exxon Mobil Corp. pledged $7 million
and Chevron Corp. committed $5 million.

But corporations are advised not to trumpet their own good
works to the media.

"We urge them to be humble, to be brief and
nonpromotional," said Lawrence. "It is perhaps not necessary to
know which brand of soup you have donated, which flavor."


Since the tsunami late last year, companies are developing
mechanisms for their role in large-scale disasters, whether
contacting employees in a stricken area, mobilizing executives
to make quick decisions on donations or jump-starting
distribution systems to deliver aid.

The tsunami brought the need for corporate giving to the
forefront, said Rebecca Lucore, executive director of the
charitable foundation at Bayer Corp., which pledged $2 million.
"It helps you almost put a practice in place of how you will
deal with it."

The Business Roundtable established last month its own
disaster relief network for 160 member companies, including a
catalog of cell phone numbers of blue-chip CEOs in the event
disaster strikes late at night or during a holiday.

Kraft Foods Inc. began preparing relief efforts well before
Katrina hit on Monday, coordinating between its warehouses and
the American Red Cross in anticipation of a much smaller
crisis. The company has since donated $1 million and sees its
role as an ongoing commitment.

"This is going to be a longstanding process, so what we do
today in the first few months is probably just the initial
level of support," said Amina Dickerson, senior director of
global corporate giving at Kraft. (Additional reporting by
Caroline Drees in Washington, Ben Berkowitz in New York)