U.S. companies rally for Haiti

By Richard McGill Murphy, contributor

NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Corporate America has already pledged more than $40 million in donations to support earthquake relief efforts in Haiti. Corporate pledges for Haiti have tripled in the past 24 hours, according to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

By Friday, 22 U.S. companies had already pledged $1 million or more apiece to international relief organizations working in Haiti. They include Amgen (AMGN, Fortune 500), Microsoft (MSFT, Fortune 500), and Coca-Cola (KO, Fortune 500). Time Warner (TWX, Fortune 500), the parent company of Fortune and CNNMoney, is also raising funds for the relief effort.

"We just decided this was the right thing to do," said Lowe's spokesperson Maureen Ricks. In addition to its gift to the American Red Cross, all 1,700-plus Lowe's stores will serve as donation centers for the American Red Cross, Ricks added.

The scale and speed of the pledges has surprised disaster relief veterans. "I wouldn't have expected this level at all," said Stephen Jordan, executive director of the Business Civic Leadership Center at the U.S. Chamber, which is helping to coordinate relief efforts between the business community, the U.S. government and aid organizations on the ground in Haiti. "People are recognizing that this is bigger than Haiti."

Jordan expects total corporate donations to surpass $80 million. This would put the Haiti effort in the top five U.S. corporate relief efforts of all time.

The largest amount of corporate donations ever raised for an international disaster is $566 million, given in response to the Asian tsunami of 2004. Domestically, U.S. businesses donated $1.4 billion in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005, according to U.S. Chamber statistics.

The response is all the more striking given that Haiti is a small, impoverished country (average per capita income: $2 a day) where few U.S. companies have business interests. However, almost 800,000 Haitians live in the United States, and many employees of U.S. firms have friends or relatives in Haiti.

Wal-mart (WMT, Fortune 500), the world's largest retailer, has pledged $600,000 to support Red Cross emergency relief efforts in Haiti. The company also announced that it is sending $100,000 in pre-packaged food kits to Haiti at the request of the Red Cross.

"Our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by the devastation in Haiti, including the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who are our customers and our associates in the U.S. and abroad," Wal-mart Foundation president Margaret McKenna said Thursday in a press release.

Aid professionals are grateful for the help but caution that emergency relief is just the first step in a long-term effort to help Haiti get back on its feet.

"We hope corporate America won't just give generously in the first week but on a long-term, sustainable basis," said David Humphries, communications manager at CHF International, a Silver Spring, MD-based nonprofit with about 170 employees on the ground in Haiti.

CHF normally spends $25 million a year on infrastructure development and entrepreneurship promotion projects in Haiti, according to Humphries. Since the earthquake, the group has shifted gears to supplying food, water and emergency supplies such as plastic sheeting for temporary shelters.

CHF has set up an overland supply route from Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighboring Dominican Republic, to the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

"People are sleeping outside in parks and soccer fields" said Erin Mote, CHF's manager of resource development. "We want to get them out of the elements as soon as possible."

After providing the immediate necessities of food, water and shelter, the international aid community is already planning for a multi-year development effort in Haiti.

"We're in this to create systemic relief over the long haul," said David Owens, vice president of corporate development at World Vision, a Washington state-based Christian charitable organization that helps children in some 100 countries worldwide. World Vision's operating budget in Haiti was close to $50 million last year, Owens said.

Owens noted that five years after the Asian tsunami, World Vision is still heavily involved in tsunami relief efforts. "We're in a marathon, not a sprint," he said.

--Editor's note: An earlier version of this story estimated the number of Haitians in the United States at 600,000. The correct number, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, is almost 800,000. To top of page