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Why The Tragic Fire At Notre Dame Has Led People To Be So Generous


Ever since fire ravaged the Notre Dame Cathedral two days ago, money has been pouring in to rebuild the Paris landmark. The donations already add up to more than a billion dollars. There was much less urgency and less generosity before the fire. Supporters of the cathedral struggled in recent months to raise money to make basic repairs to the crumbling eight-century-old structure. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: In the last 48 hours, friends of Notre Dame have been raising luxury suitcases full of money. The billionaire businessman behind Louis Vuitton pledged 200 million euros. The cosmetic moguls at L'Oreal did the same. With wealthy benefactors writing big checks like that, ordinary people might be expected to put their pocketbooks away, assuming the need's already been met. But Lisa Vesterlund says in the case of Notre Dame, people have done just the opposite.

LISA VESTERLUND: If the owners of L'Oreal think that it's important to give 200 million euros, then they're saying this is a really important effort; we need to very quickly raise the money so that we can rebuild this amazing cathedral that we all love and enjoy.

HORSLEY: Vesterlund's an economist at the University of Pittsburgh who studies charitable giving. She was intrigued by the big role philanthropy plays in the United States compared to her native Denmark where more is left up to the government.

VESTERLUND: Oftentimes we're sort of puzzled by why people give. I actually find it more puzzling why we don't give more because the need is so big.

HORSLEY: Researchers say some charitable giving is purely altruistic. But some delivers a personal reward, what economists have uncharacteristically labeled a warm glow. Would-be donors apparently weren't feeling much of that glow before Monday, and fundraising for the cathedral lagged. But Bob Kissane, who heads a consulting firm called CCS Fundraising, says the fire changed all that, that many people now contributing to Notre Dame are getting an immediate sense of community, belonging and purpose.

BOB KISSANE: Isn't it interesting how obvious it's become that Notre Dame is so many different things? It's a symbol of faith. It's an architectural masterpiece. It's a cultural place. It's a tourist attraction. It's so many things.

HORSLEY: Researchers also know people are more likely to give to charity when they're asked.

ANYA SAMEK: News reports are the biggest type of ask. We see all over the news that Notre Dame Cathedral needs help, and then we give.

HORSLEY: Economist Anya Samek of USC says high-profile disasters often trigger an outpouring of contributions. In some cases, donations overwhelm the actual need while other less-camera-friendly charities go wanting.

SAMEK: We also see that after the news coverage has died down, disasters often still continue needing help. But yet people forget about it and are on to the next thing.

HORSLEY: One of the biggest challenges is raising money for mundane renovation projects like the one that was underway at Notre Dame. The budget for that project was only about a tenth of what's been raised since Monday. But before the fire, funds were hard to come by. Some even suggested charging admission to the cathedral, an idea that was quickly rejected by French bishops.

Todd Stern, whose company U3 Advisors works with nonprofits, says while Notre Dame might be unique, there are countless aging churches and other buildings that play a vital role in their community and that need both physical and financial support.

TODD STERN: It's not that you're fixing the walls. It's that you are preserving the sanctity of an institution that has a much higher purpose. And I think it's really important to connect to that.

HORSLEY: The challenge is selling that message to would-be contributors before the fire starts. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Horsley is NPR's Chief Economics Correspondent. He reports on ups and downs in the national economy as well as fault lines between booming and busting communities.