Tsunami relief online.

How an idea spread and grew on the Internet.
Jan. 6 2005 7:32 PM

The Givers

Using the Web to promote tsunami relief.

Last week's devastating South Asian tsunami struck parts of the world poorly equipped to predict or prepare for the coming of such a disaster—but it struck at a time when the rest of the world was uniquely poised to help. Three years after the sometimes lackluster, sometimes bungled Internet fund-raising campaign that followed Sept. 11 (Internet donations were only about 5 percent of the total raised), the reflexive response to the tsunami, in the last days of December, will likely be remembered as a remarkable finale to a year of historic growth for Internet fund raising.

Fewer than 12 hours after the initial earthquake first shook Sumatra, the South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami blog (nicknamed SEA-EAT) had begun collecting and posting news and resources for those wishing to donate or volunteer. (It has since been visited over a million times.) The day of the disaster, ReliefWeb started compiling press releases from the relevant aid agencies. Within days, the Economist was emphasizing the international humanitarian opportunity alongside the tragedy that created it. BusinessWeek Online argued that private donations would likely surpass public contributions. At the end of an American election year, during which both campaigns and independent interest groups used Web sites and mass e-mails to raise unprecedented contributions and channel them not just to the candidates, but to hundreds of specialized activist organizations, the inevitable path for giving was through the Internet.

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By Thursday, 10 days after the disaster, American relief agencies had raised more than $245 million, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The American Red Cross alone has raised more than $106 million, $57 million through its Web site ($15 million of which was contributed by 180,000 Amazon customers). UNICEF has received $20 million from 150,000 online donations. Oxfam America received 80 percent of its $15 million online. The American branch of Doctors Without Borders has raised $16 million through Internet donations. The Chronicle features a list of 55 major corporations that have donated a total of $110 million in cash, medicine, and relief material. (Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer alone contributed $25 million worth of medicine.) The total figure donated by private sources is fast approaching the $350 million in public money President Bush pledged last week.

Across Europe, too, the Internet is helping civilians make donations that exceed those of their governments. According to Voice of America, English citizens have contributed $115 million, $20 million more than the United Kingdom has pledged so far. The British Red Cross raised more than half of its $8 million through Internet giving, and the British arm of Oxfam has also received the majority of its 73,000 donations online.

In the wake of the disaster, the Internet has also proven itself a diligent, if many-headed, watchdog, with numerous sites advising the amateur philanthropist on the most reliable charities and warning him about illegitimate and inexperienced groups he should avoid. (According to BusinessWeek Online, "examples abound of fly-by-night" organizations that pocket donations and flee; the FBI and others have already issued warnings about scurrilous operators.) The Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins issued a good but short list of the best participating aid organizations. The American Institute of Philanthropy, which regularly ranks charitable organizations in terms of effectiveness, compiled an all-star team of humanitarian organizations involved in tsunami relief. The AIP awards each group a letter grade, and its rankings are clear and informative. But the list may overemphasize efficient fund raising. For example, an organization with a small cash reserve that historically hasn't spent very much to raise funds might outrank an organization with a large bank of cash and an established presence in the region.

Internet watchdogs also track institutional transparency, the relative ease with which a prospective donor can trace how her money will be spent—X percent to overhead, Y percent to fund raising, Z percent to relief activities—and discover exactly what kinds of field activity a typical pledge would support. Full, if sometimes outdated, financial details from the IRS can be found at GuideStar.org. And InterAction has detailed and tremendously useful summaries of what more than 160 American groups have planned in the affected areas and what's already under way.

The incredible fund-raising success of the past week, coupled with the premium on transparency, has compelled many groups to be remarkably truthful. Having met (and then doubled) their stated goal, Doctors Without Borders announced that much of what was subsequently donated for their South Asian relief effort will ultimately be redirected to its general-purpose fund. And Oxfam International, basically satisfied with the support received for tsunami relief, has turned its attention toward evergreen causes: debt relief, fair trade, and the campaign to "make poverty history."

In a press release, Oxfam points out another entrenched problem that might be fixed by the new, philanthropic infrastructure of the Internet: deadbeat donors. The United Nations received barely half of the $32.6 million pledged toward its last major aid campaign, following the Iranian earthquake in December 2003. Most of the online contributions to tsunami relief were not pledges, but donations by credit card—not much chance of delinquency there. Hopefully the donor nations will follow suit.

David Wallace-Wells is a writer living in New York.

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