Why the charitable outpouring for Notre Dame Cathedral?

Why the charitable outpouring for Notre Dame Cathedral?
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People, corporations and foundations — not to mention the French government — are rushing in with donations to restore the Notre Dame Cathedral in the wake of this week’s fire. What motivates such an outpouring? Why do we feel compelled to respond to some disasters more than others?

The torrent of gifts follows French President Emmanuel MacronEmmanuel Jean-Michel MacronTrump is right to shake up NATO The problems plaguing NATO France, Brazilian states to announce international effort to fight Amazon fires MORE’s impassioned plea to rebuild within five years. Pledges approached the $1 billion mark by April 17, and almost doubled within 48 hours, bringing the total to $1.8 billion, nearing some early estimates that restoration may cost $1.3 to $2.3 billion.  

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This is a huge amount of charitable giving, especially when compared to the giving seen in response to other disasters in recent decades. In fact, the sums raised to date already rival the totals contributed for even the far more widespread and devastating disasters that have generated philanthropic responses in excess of $1 billion, such as 9

Yet, unlike these previous disasters, the cathedral fire involved no loss of life and virtually no human casualties. Why has so much been committed so quickly for an architectural, cultural and religious landmark, while vital needs such as ongoing starvation tend to receive less attention?

People donate in response to disasters for a variety of reasons, often generously. Some gifts are primarily an emotional reaction to a tragic circumstance, usually involving a large number of casualties and destruction of property. Historically, man-made disasters — such as wars — do not illicit the same level of philanthropic response as natural disasters. The 9/11 terror attacks are the primary exception. On the other hand, large-scale natural disasters such as hurricanes, tsunamis and earthquakes often yield widespread support.

Several factors may affect whether and how much we give for disaster relief and abatement, including the donor’s proximity, the perceived magnitude of the disaster, such as the number of people killed or injured, the number of lives disrupted and the size of the geographic area affected.

The number of people killed is a key indicator of the response, according to research by Kimberly Scharf (University of Birmingham), Sarah Smith (University of Bristol), and my colleague Mark Ottoni-Wilhelm (IUPUI). Their interpretation is that it is perceived to be a reliable measure of the disaster’s severity because it is more directly comparable, albeit grim, across different disasters. It’s likely that the death toll drives media attention more strongly than the number of people affected.

In turn, the nature and extent of media coverage of the disaster affects the response. For example, television coverage has a causal effect on whether aid is provided by the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance in response to natural disasters, research by Thomas Eisensee and David Stromberg (University of Stockholm) finds. In other words, no matter how much human suffering is involved, if the media do not cover it, donations will not be forthcoming. Media of both the news and social variety are almost certainly influencing the response to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. People around the world stopped and watched together as fire ravaged the globally recognized iconic landmark.

National identity may also influence charitable giving for some disasters. Results of research by a team studying the 2010 Chile earthquake suggest that in the aftermath of a disaster, people unite under a common national identity and are motivated to take action. As can be seen in the massive initial pledges to rebuild Notre-Dame Cathedral by the families and leaders of several French corporations, there has been a loud and clear national response by the French. Media reports note large gifts from Francois-Henri Pinault and François Pinault of Gucci and the Arnault family of Louis Vuitton. L’Oreal, French oil producer Total SA and other French companies also have made significant commitments. And the maker of the Assassin’s Creed video game recently pledged an astonishing 500 million euros.

American individuals and institutions, including my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, are contributing to the restoration as well. For Americans and other international donors the propensity to give likely will be influenced by personal connections to the cathedral and their perceptions of its architectural, historical or religious value.

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While there are many similarities between the philanthropic response to the Notre Dame Cathedral fire and other disasters, this is clearly different in some important ways, and we will understand more about that over time. It may be in part simply that the Cathedral holds tremendous meaning for many. It is one of the oldest, most beautiful structures in one of the world’s oldest, most beautiful cities. It had survived multiple wars and political and social upheavals over the last eight centuries, yet seemingly succumbed to efforts to preserve it. It is an architectural reference point, but, perhaps more importantly, it is also a religious icon and the site of many historical moments, as well as the guardian of important art and religious relics.

For many, the fire clouds the events of Holy Week, but the generosity reminds us of the hope that Easter brings to Christians. For others, the Notre-Dame Cathedral may simply be a sign of stability in tumultuous times.

Patrick M. Rooney, Ph.D., is professor of economics and philanthropic studies and executive associate dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.