What Will Happen To The Millions Of Dollars Donated To The Orlando Victims?

Breaking down the emotional decisions and cold, hard calculations behind compensating victims.

What Will Happen To The Millions Of Dollars Donated To The Orlando Victims?
Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The deadliest mass shooting in our country’s history happened earlier this week, when a gunman opened fire at Pulse, an Orlando, Florida LGBTQ nightclub, killing 49 people and wounding 53 more. In response, another record is being set. Nearly $5 million in victim compensation has been raised through the crowdfunding site GoFundMe, making “Support Victims of Pulse Shooting” the largest and fastest growing campaign in the site’s history.


To date, at least 95,000 people from 105 countries have contributed. That leaves Equality Florida, the gay rights advocacy group behind the effort, with something of an accounting issue. The organization usually lobbies for city and statewide nondiscrimination and anti-bullying legislation. Now it’s tasked with distributing a sum that’s reportedly more than twice its annual operating income. How will that money end up being spent?

Allocating these sad payouts responsibly has become an all-too-common challenge for fundraisers dealing with extreme crises. After Newtown’s Sandy Hook elementary school shootings, for instance, the United Way started a fund that raised $11.7 million, prompting the creation of a separate community foundation to help distribute the money. “The pain point is there is not one charity that exists and then turns on when there is a disaster and then goes dormant when they’ve distributed the funds,” says Sandra Miniutti, the vice president of Charity Navigator, a charity watchdog and evaluation group.

To that end, Equality Florida is working with the National Center for Victims of Crime, which manages the National Compassion Fund, a program trying to formalize the mechanics of how mass shooting- or terrorist-related relief gets allocated and disbursed. The NCF, which is also accepting donations for Orlando attack victims on its website, was founded in 2013 after victims of the Aurora shooting, joined by others who had suffered tragedies now sadly recognizable just by their place or date–Columbine, 9/11, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Oak Creek, Newtown–pushed for a more centralized distribution system to avoid the stress that happens when those suffering or grieving have to authenticate, often to numerous groups, their case for aide. “There is no organization that can really stand up and knows what to do,” says Mai Fernandez, NCF’s executive director. “There’s a bunch of inequality and infighting, and then victims get involved and it is one more traumatization that they have to deal with.”

As the The Atlantic has reported, in Newtown, only $7.7 million from the survivor fund was made available to the families of the 26 dead and two injured. Another $4 million was earmarked to help the community heal. In Aurora, one of the first awards was $100,000 to community-service organizations, not victims themselves. The ensuing debate over fair allocation became so heated that Kenneth Feinberg, who has helped administer support funds after 9/11, BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion, and the Boston Marathon bombing was called to step in and sort things out.

Feinberg sits on NCF’s expert panel and helps guide its disaster math, but, says Fernandez: “The only time you call Ken Feinberg is when everything goes to hell in a handbasket. You need to get in front of a bad situation so money doesn’t get mishandled.”

While fraudsters have popped up–a GoFundMe account impersonating Christine Leinonen, the mother whose son Christopher is among the dead, has been deleted–Equality Florida seems equipped to handle the responsibility. It has a three-star rating on Charity Navigator and gold ranking on GuideStar, another nonprofit watchdog. “They’ve done exactly the right thing here,” says GuideStar president and CEO Jacob Harold about the partnership with NCF. “They’ve said, ‘We need some help doing something we’ve not done before.’”


The complicating factor is whether other fundraising agencies will also be willing to allow NCF to allocate what they’ve collected, because the larger the pool, the more money each victim will get. Equality Florida may have the largest deposit, but others are raising substantial money as well. OneOrlando, an official city fund, reportedly has a balance of at least $4 million. Disney and NBC both contributed $1 million apiece, and there’s been more corporate support from Darden restaurants, Wells Fargo, the Orlando Magic, and Jet Blue. According to the fund’s website, that money will go toward nonprofits supporting survivors but also other things, including the broader gay, Hispanic, and faith-based communities affected, and the “underlying causes” behind the event. That last part may be a main differentiator. Most post-tragedy support is essentially sympathetic, an admittedly inadequate attempt to dull suffering and loss with helpful cash infusions. Fixing the political, legal, and ethical dilemmas that enable such an atrocity could become a far more complicated endeavor.

But before addressing the litany of societal problems that contributed to the tragedy, just deciding which victim gets what will be an incredibly difficult problem. To do that, you need to–in what can seem like a cold and calculating manner–create a scale for pain and suffering.

Both NCF and Feinberg basically have the same ground rule. “All lives are equal,” he says. In other words, victims who sustain similar injuries should be paid the same amount, regardless of their age, earning potential, or family status. (That’s a standard that’s been challenged at times. After 9/11 Feinberg was federally mandated to adjust for things like age and income level.)

To be clear, Feinberg hasn’t yet been asked to consult in the Orlando tragedy, and Fernandez won’t release specifics about the current situation either. But in recent history, most victim compensation plans follow the same playbook. First, injuries are ranked according to the criminal justice scale of harm. As in, being killed is the worst thing imaginable. “Really, top priority for the money goes to the dead,” Feinberg says. The families of the deceased receive the maximum possible payout. This category also applies to those whose quality of life was radically altered: After Aurora, that included people with brain damage or paralysis; after Boston, it was double amputees.

The precedent for maximum payout appears to have been set by the federal-backed September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, which totaled more than $7 billion. Among nearly 3,000 death claims, the average worked out to about $2.1 million per person. After Boston’s OneFund raised $61 million, Feinberg paid about the same—$2.2 million per person for each of the five dead and two double amputees. NCF has an in-house formula that they apply so that they can remain dispassionate in these sorts of situations, but the equation results tend to fluctuate wildly because there are so many variables to consider. In cases where far less money was collected, the payouts can be far lower. The funds for the victims of the 2015 shootings in Chattanooga, when five armed service members were killed when a gunman attacked a military recruiting center and naval reserve station, only reached about $500,000. Those families had to split about $330,000.

“If there’s money left over, meaningful money, it should go to the physically injured, to people who were actually hospitalized,” Feinberg says. To that end, length of hospital stay becomes a good approximation for seriousness of injury.


There’s far more fine print. Victims are only allowed to file for one type of damage, so they are encouraged to pick the one that’s most severe. For instance, if you’ve suffered an injury, it’s assumed there is psychological trauma, so you’d want to choose the higher-valued category. Bystanders who were unharmed fall into the psychological trauma bracket, which is paid only if funds are available. In the example you can see in the sidebar, loss of life is valued at four times more than injury. Death cases should receive a majority of what’s awarded, but there’s certainly not a fixed ratio; amounts shift depending on the number of people hurt, severity of injuries, and how much money is available. “It’s rough justice, but speed and efficiency are key,” Feinberg says. “It’s an immediate response to the tragedy. Life goes on. There should be an end date where the fund dissolves and people try to get back to normal living.” (The key word here is “try.” Feinberg stresses that it won’t be easy.)

Because of a federal mandate, it took about three years to settle 9/11, Feinberg says. Ostensibly, that’s what the complexity and enormity of the situation demanded. But the speed at which these processes are being handled is improving. Whereas Newtown residents had to wait about four months for help, Boston officials released a stopgap payment within about six weeks, and then a larger sum after six months of collecting. In Orlando, NCF hopes to issue a short-term payment in roughly the same time, followed by a similar long-term accumulation.

In most cases, however, there’s still a shortfall. “If you’re physically injured and they sent you home outpatient, unless you have enough money you can’t pay outpatient,” Feinberg says. “It’s really rare where we’ve had enough to pay for mental health or property damage.”

With Equality Florida fund’s current value, the closest approximation is perhaps Aurora. There, the victim support fund that Feinberg eventually administered received $5 million after the movie theater massacre in which 12 were killed and 70 wounded. In that instance, Feinberg designated 70% of the money go toward the deceased, along with three others who suffered brain damage or paralysis. When divided up, that amounted to about $230,000 per victim or family. The remaining $1.5 million was split among different tiers of injury. Divided evenly–it obviously wasn’t–that’s only about $22,000 per person. “Is it perfect? Absolutely not,” Feinberg told the Denver Post afterward. “There’s not enough money. It’s a horrible situation.”

Nearly five times as many people were killed in Orlando as in Aurora, and far less is known about the long-term prognosis for those injured. The good part is that most money should arrive without restriction, meaning it’s not designated for things such as medical bills or rehabilitation. NCF refers to this as “a symbolic effort” on their website. “We are giving it to the victim,” Fernandez says. “We truly believe that the people who are in the middle of this know how best to use these funds. They may decide to support their families over taking care of something for themselves.”

Another bright spot: Equality Florida hasn’t yet established a sunset for their collections, or a time period to dole them out. In fact, they’ve continued to increase their goal. “We feel that we just planted the seed, and the world is what gave the Pulse GoFundMe the water and sunshine and love to grow into what it is now,” says Ida Eskamani, one of the group’s development officers. The initial target was $100,000. It’s been raised several times and currently sits at $7 million as more money continues to pour in. With the continued power of Orlando-related hashtags like #WeAreOrlando, #OrlandoStrong, and #OnePulse, they may smash those numbers, too. “We’ve seen an outpouring of support from the world that hasn’t slowed down, so we will continue to raise as much as we can,” Eskamani says.


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About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.