Disaster Donations in An Age of Disruption

by Lucy Bernholz

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.

Lucy Bernholz, Ph.D., is the founder and President of San Fransisco based Blueprint Research & Design, Inc. a strategy consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. Lucy can also be found blogging at Philanthropy 2173.