Visa U.S.A. is lending a hand to the victims of the floods in Minnesota and the Dakotas.

The San Francisco-based card association has pledged at least $1 million to the relief efforts of the American Red Cross.

The credit card industry has supported philanthropic causes for years and, along with other organizations, has offered to help bail out the casualties of the Upper Midwest disaster.

"Like everyone in the country who saw the scenes of misery on television and in the newspaper, we wanted to do something," said David Melancon, Visa spokes-man.

Mr. Melancon said Visa had anecdotal information that cardholders wanted to contribute but didn't know how to. One anonymous donor pledged $2,000 to every household in Grand Forks, N.D., affected by the flood.

"It's wonderful if you have $10 million to give, but the average person doesn't," said Mr. Melancon.

Every time a cardholder uses a Visa credit or Visa check card this month, a percentage of the transaction will be earmarked for anything from temporary housing to baby formula.

The flood campaign is the latest by Visa in the category of cause- related marketing. In December, cardholder purchases contributed $1 million to Visa's "Reading is Fundamental Campaign."

American Express Co. in March made a four-year commitment to the Red Cross. The card issuer will donate $1.6 million to support relief endeavors.

"American Express' donation was ground breaking," said Shirley Simson, spokeswoman for Fall Church, Va.-based American Red Cross.

"A lot of times we receive donations when these big disasters happen and there is lots of visibility, but we hope organizations will support the Red Cross year round," she said.

The American Express Foundation funds efforts in community service, cultural heritage, and economic independence all year, said Betty Jane Piccinonno, a spokeswoman for American Express.

In 1996, American Express distributed $21.6 million in financial support for several causes, up from $20.4 million in 1995, she said.

MasterCard International's Social Responsibility program endorses several children's charities and sponsors a voluntary literacy program, among other drives.

The Visa, MasterCard, and American Express brands are their companies' biggest assets, said David Gagie, marketing director, Auriemma Consulting Group Inc., Westbury, N.Y. "Anything you can do to increase the positive perception of that brand is valuable, and these charitable donations are very effective in doing that."

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