Thursday, January 14, 2010

Disaster donations in an age of disruption

Never before have people donated money to disaster relief at the scale and speed and ease that they did on Wednesday in response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti. The reports I've seen show $7 million in text donations in 1 1/2 days. (updated: $12 million in texts, $150 million overall - from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, January 16, 2010) Tens of millions in "old fashioned" online giving. Twitter and Facebook as news sources for millions of people.

Not to be glib or uncaring - but we said the same thing after Katrina. And the Indonesian earthquake. Technology changes so quickly that we have almost entirely new platforms to deploy for each new disaster - so of course each one is the "biggest, fastest" example ever of using the platform of the moment. This time around its Twitter and Texting and social networks. Next time - and sadly there will be a next time - the platforms will be different but the story will be similar "The biggest, fastest use of X tool for giving. Ever."

What can we learn from this from the perspective of technology innovators? Philanthropy has always been a “long tail” market – the $300 billion that Americans give every year comes in millions of small gifts. In many ways, philanthropy is the perfect market for micropayments. Giving to Haiti disaster relief just proved this in a very visible way. I expect every online giving portal to soon offer mobile options, Google Checkout and Paypal and Causes will soon move to your phone, and Donate Now buttons will have text codes on them.

From the point of view of philanthropy and social investing, what can we learn? It may be too early to say - just because we can now give $5 from our mobiles, while walking down the street, doesn't mean I can think any faster than before. So I'm watching the numbers and the tweets and the online coverage and the emails and blogs and tv and trying to make sense of what's going on, all while grieving for the people directly affected.

Donor Attention Deficit Disorder

That people all over the world can be so instantly engaged and moved to donate is certainly a good thing. But does it come with costs?

On Wednesday, January 13, #Haiti was a trending topic on Twitter all day (a measure of what the millions of tweets are discussing). By Thursday, January 14, it was gone. Does the ability to give instantly and painlessly (mobile donors won't even see a charge for the gift until they get their next phone bill) make it extra easy to give and move on? Will "donor fatigue" be replaced by "donor A.D.D.?"

Real time data reporting

In addition to facilitating rapid giving, the text donation movement fundamentally altered the reporting game. Never before have we had hard numbers about how much individuals donated while the donations were still flooding in. All through the day on Wednesday January 13 you could watch almost real-time counts of giving - $800,000, then $1.2 million, then 2, 3, 4,5 million dollars donated to the American Red Cross.

This kind of data and reporting is unprecedented. It will - I hope - continue to move us toward better, more complete, faster data on all kinds of giving.

The power of social networks to spread the word and get the gifts flowing also works when it comes to holding the gift recipients accountable. Note that the tweet above is from the Red Cross - reporting out its receipts to its twitter followers.

New tools for accountability

Just as important was the way the users of twitter - who no doubt overlap quite heavily with those who donated via text - responded when they found out that the companies that facilitate text giving might take some of the funds for their own costs. That did not go over well - where the morning was full of tweets about how mobile companies were charging regular texting fees for donations, by the afternoon the "wires" were abuzz with announcements that all the major wireless carriers (AT & T, Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile) were waiving those fees.

So can these tools also be used to 'watch' how the funds are used once the immediate rush of giving passes and the discussion inevitably turns to "what happened with the money?" Will Tweeters and texters change how those conversations and reports and accountability discussions play out?

Images and data

Of course, technology lets us do more than just give fast. It lets us see what is happening. Part of what moves people to give to disaster relief in other places are the heartwrenching images of devastation and pain. Which we can see on TV, on our computers, on our mobile phones. But we can also use these tools to transmit data that are themselves helpful. Within hours of the quake there were several open access data sites sharing street maps of Port-Au-Prince, Google made new satellite imagery available, and wikis were set up to help coordinate both recovery efforts and share information with, from and for those looking for loved ones.

As it happens I had just downloaded the Sunlight Foundation's Real Time Congress iPhone App the day the earthquake hit . Now I'm not a political junkie but this kind of data access is cool - real time information on hearings, commissions, votes scheduled from both the House and the Senate. What will I do with this information? Well, it gives me a whole new way to think about the news - I can easily now what to look for in tomorrow's paper, before it happens.

New behaviors and expectations

Having access to these data will change my behavior. Just as it changed when the same folks who instantly gave $5 by text stopped and asked themselves "Wait, is my money going to the aid organization or to the phone company?" That's the real power of the technology disruption - it doesn't matter if its online giving or texting - each iteration changes our expectations about speed and data and reporting and access and accountability. In turn we change our behaviors. And develop and deploy new technologies that then fit - and finesse - those behaviors again.


Gabriela Schneider said...

Hi Lucy - so glad you're finding Sunlight Foundation's Real Time Congress iphone app useful. Thanks for the mention!

I like your take on the real-time reporting on philanthropic and humanitarian aid to Haiti. I think we're witnessing a real change in how people expect to get information AND ALSO how they expect to participate in aid efforts. From my perspective working with the Sunlight Labs community, I'm seeing how more and more coders are dedicating their time and skills to improve citizen engagement in governance, but it doesn't stop there.

This nascent community (I like to call them 'civic hackers for good')
are also collaborating on ways to use technology to augment crisis relief efforts by providing data, information, maps and technical assistance to NGOs, relief agencies, etc. This weekend, many of them are meeting in hackathons in DC, Silicon Valley and London (and maybe more cities?) to pitch in and provide their expertise to help those on the ground in Haiti. I think we'll see more and more of these kinds of activities supplementing crisis relief.

Here's a link for DC's CrisisCamp Haiti that describes it in better detail -- anyone is welcome to attend:


Unknown said...


With hundreds of thousands of texts sending small increments of money that amount to large sums, what kind of threat does this pose to the ways that organizations like the Red Cross are held accountable to using contributions wisely and well.

Presumably with texts, there is greater distance between the donor and the NGO (less transactional information). Additionally with such small funds, donors are less likely to feel a claim to hold larger organizations accountable for results.

The Red Cross and others have been in trouble for this before, how do you think NGOs will handle this, do you think they will, how should they, and in addition to donor fatigue, do you think anyone else stands to lose as a result of the disaster textathons?

Lucy Bernholz said...

Gabriela - Thanks for writing in. First, let me say for the record - The Sunlight Foundation is setting the standard for data, access, behavior change, and engagement. I am so grateful for, and impressed with, the organization's work. Wish we could engage some of the enthusiasm, talent, smarts, and optimism to the efforts to unleash data in the social sector.

Second, thanks for the CrisisCamp link - I knew this was going on in DC but wasn't aware of the west coast options. I will be checking this out - and hope others will as well. It is absolutely critical that we stay engaged and give of our skills and talents over time to help #haiti. This is only the beginning of our time to work together on this.

Finally - a shout out to Tony Pipa's blog about coordinated disaster relief - which may well be an issue where the "hackers for good" can make a difference. Read it here:


Lucy Bernholz said...

You raise good questions. First of all, one of the things that amazed me personally in all this was how quickly folks jumped to give to the Red Cross. It seemed to me that any concerns or hesitancy that had been raised about the organization, post September 11 or Katrina, had vanished - possibly because they were so fast to get out there with text giving. (Which of course has been available since 2004 or so - and was a buzzword here on this blog a few years ago - once again, I was out ahead of myself)

The issue of accountability is an interesting one. B/C the text gifts get intermediated by cell companies and the text donation companies (mGift and others) this seems possible. At the same time - the nature of the text beast - instant, interactive, responsive, as well as the twitter relationships, seems to run counter to this disintermediation. The Tweet I posted in the blog from the Red Cross is an example - I think - of the expectations donors (big and small, $5 or $5 million) now have - "hey I supported you, what are you doing with the money?" So while the technology serves to add a middle man (cell company, text donation firm) it also more tightly connects us to the NGO. This is a fascinating dynamic to watch. My bet - donors will feel more connected, immediately and directly, to the NGO, not less. After all, the donor has their twitter address and can watch, and announce their feelings about, the NGOs.

Thanks for raising this issue - great insight.


Tom W. said...

Lucy - nice piece. What I'm also hoping for, and have been nudging the Red Cross a bit on Twitter for, is more reporting from the field or HQ on what the money is going for.

We can get - and frankly deserve - more of a sense of money moving to the site of a disaster. Not down to the last penny. Not without any overhead. Not as an audit. But at least as an account with frequency. Let us in on the plans, on the movement, on the successes and failures. @redcross on twitter could really lead on this...

Anonymous said...

You might be right about micro-donations being the way to go, but there is still the issue of accountability that you do address somewhat.

Some philanthropic disasters can be foreseen, but others cannot.

You might be interested in the tale of an environmental philanthropist who lost US$35 million trying to do some good in the Caribbean. There is a lesson here somewhere and it relates to your point of accountability.

That only works until the new government of the day changes the laws that had protected the sustainability of the project being funded. Read it and weep for all the wasted money:

Barbados Government takes new steps to destroy foreigner’s US$35 million eco-tourism investment on South Coast – Part 1 in a series

Anonymous said...


Thanks for the very interesting piece on the power of text message donations. Another important point that should be made about the "twitter sphere" is that it can also be used as a source of momentum to create additional donations. As the Red Cross reported the increases in donations in real time, it could provide the impetus for some more hesitant donors to "jump on the bandwagon" and give. It is well known that donors feel more comfortable giving to organizations that have already raised a large amount of contributions.

Among my friends, most of whom are in their 20s, the power of social networks in promoting giving works in a variety of ways. Social networks can to inform them about new ways to give with which they may feel more comfortable. Also, constant updates as friends speaking of their giving experiences can facilitate additional contributions.