NEW YORK – U.S. corporations are donating millions of dollars in cash and supplies to victims of the tsunamis along the Indian Ocean, easily eclipsing the initial $35 million in aid earmarked by the U.S. government.
In addition to cash, donations of everything from diapers, antibiotics, frequent-flier miles and a gel called OdorScreen meant to curb the stench of decaying bodies were on the way to the region in the wake of earthquake-fueled waves that as of late Thursday had claimed more than 117,000 lives in Asia, India and Africa.
The final tally was yet to be known, but it's clear the Red Cross and other aid groups were experiencing perhaps the largest surge in donations since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks or the string of hurricanes that hit Florida and the Caribbean this summer.
"The volume (of donations) that they're seeing in the last few days is several times what they saw during the hurricanes, which was several times what they see on a normal day," said Charlie Cumbaa, a vice president at Blackbaud Inc., which makes software used by the Red Cross and many other aid agencies to process donations.
Among the biggest corporate givers are Pfizer Inc. (PFE), which is donating $10 million in cash and $25 million worth of drugs to relief agencies; The Coca-Cola Co. (KO), which is donating $10 million; Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM), which is giving $5 million; and Citigroup Inc. (C), which is contributing $3 million. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (search) has pledged $3 million.
Pharmaceutical and health-care products companies were among the biggest givers.
Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) and Abbott Laboratories Inc. (ABT) are each donating $2 million and sending drugs and other health-care supplies to the region. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co. (BMY) is donating $1 million in cash and $4 million in antibiotics and antifungal drugs. Merck & Co. (MRK), Roche Group and GlaxoSmithKline PLC (GSK) were also planning to donate supplies and/or cash.
For some corporations with operations in the countries struggling with the disaster, their far-flung enterprises are serving as quick supply routes for aid.
Drug makers with offices or plants in the region sent employees out with antibiotics, nutritional supplements, infant formula, baby food and other supplies. Employees of companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo Inc. and Marriott International Inc. hotels in the region are delivering bottled water, food and other supplies.
"They're sending whatever they can, as fast as they can," said Elaine Palmer, spokeswoman for PepsiCo, which rushed out Aquafina bottled water from one of its Indian bottlers and plans to contribute a minimum of $1 million to the relief effort.
Fresh drinking water is one of the items most needed. Many sources of fresh water, like wells, have been contaminated by seawater, debris and sewage.
In Thailand, Starbucks (SBUX) coffee shops are donating all of Wednesday's profits to the relief effort. The company also made an initial contribution of $100,000 and will donate $2 for every pound of certain coffees sold in January in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and Germany.
Many companies are offering to match employee donations to aid groups and are making it easier for customers to donate.
First Data's Western Union is offering free money transfers from U.S. and Canadian donors to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
Amazon.com (AMZN) had collected about 87,000 donations totaling more than $5.4 million for the American Red Cross as of Thursday afternoon.
Wal-Mart Inc. (WMT) is setting up collection containers at all of its stores, in addition to a $2 million donation from its foundation.
Google Inc. (GOOG) has put a link on its home page to relief groups, and America Online is encouraging members to donate to Network for Good, an online charity the Internet-service provider founded along with Cisco Systems Inc. (CSCO) and Yahoo! Inc (YHOO).
AOL members donated more than $1 million in less than 48 hours, according to spokesman Nicholas Graham.
New York public-relations guru Howard Rubenstein said an opportunity for some good PR was probably not the only motivating factor in the corporate outpouring.
"I think it's a humanitarian instinct," he said. "And the byproduct would certainly be good PR for the corporation, and more importantly for our country."
Among the growing list of donations were some companies that have suffered bad press recently, including $200,000 from Computer Associates International Inc. (CA), which has been dealing with an accounting scandal. Pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Merck Inc., which chipped in $250,000 and medicine, have recently had to deal with stories about increased risks of heart problems for patients taking their painkillers.
"For a company that's had negative PR, I think it will serve to soften the negative image," said Rubenstein. "I would urge all companies, but especially anybody who has made an apology to the public or who has sustained broadside media attacks, to consider this. It's another form of apology and goodwill. But also another form of doing right."