Giving Online

Charity: Web sites, e-mail and other Internet tools allow groups to reach more people at less cost.

May 17, 1999|By KATE SHATZKIN | KATE SHATZKIN,SUN STAFF

Her name is Lauren, she has cystic fibrosis. To help her you don't even need to leave your computer: Just click on www.bids4kids.com.

Want to help your local school without selling candy? There's www. YourSchoolShop.com. Give to the Kosovar refugees? Take your pick of sites in cyberspace.

From "virtual volunteering" to online fund-raising auctions to mass e-mail pleas, nonprofits and their causes have jumped onto the Internet in droves.

The benefits: instant contribution forms for donors, less intrusive pleas for money, lower administrative costs and the ability to take fund-raising auctions online.

The downside: a regulatory no-man's land where givers and receivers should tread carefully.

Web sites have provided immediate pipelines for emergency fund-raising efforts, including collections for Kosovo relief groups and victims of the school shootings in Littleton, Colo. They attract potential donors from far away who might not otherwise know how or where to give.

Large commercial sites such as Yahoo! and Amazon.com have jumped into the Kosovo charity fray, auctioning off items that range from autographed basketballs to a chance to brew beer for a day.

Other auction sites, such as Webcharity.com, allow people like Jan Ackley, an Olympia, Wash., PTA president, to raise money for her son's school without leaving the house.

Trying to help pay for a new computer lab, Ackley wrote to television companies and celebrities, asking for autographed scripts and pictures. After two weeks of online bidding for the items, WebCharity.com collected the money and sent it to Ackley. So far, the school has raised $1,400. Webcharity's commissions are paid by the buyers.

"The cost is so low," Ackley said. "For putting on our auction, all we had to pay for was just the postage on the letters we sent to the celebrities."

At International Orthodox Christian Charities, a Baltimore-based relief organization that aids refugees in Yugoslavia, visits to the group's Web site in April exceeded its hits for all of 1998 (www.iocc.org).

"It's explosive growth," said Mark Hodde, the organization's spokesman, who provides content for the site. "I think more people are turning to it because it's instantaneous."

Even so, online contributions for Balkan relief have been relatively modest, about $5,000 at last tally, compared with $100,000 raised through traditional means in the United States since the conflict began -- and $1.7 million gathered overseas. That tells Hodde that the organization can still do its work most effectively the old-fashioned way -- through churches.

Meanwhile, regulators worry that the Internet provides a haven for scam artists, who can set up fancy Web sites or send tear-jerking appeals, collect the money and then disappear.

According to the Better Business Bureau's Philanthropic Advisory Service, one would-be collector asked for donations for tornado victims -- in the form of checks made out to cash and sent to a post office box. In another incident, the American Cancer Society had to disavow a fraudulent chain letter that appealed for money in its name.

The bureau says prospective donors should check the credentials of charities on the Web before giving. That means sending e-mail to ask for program and financial details, watching for phonies who use names that are almost identical to real charities', and ensuring that the organization's Web server is secure before making an online credit-card donation.

Even with these precautions, it's sometimes hard to tell who's for real. Consider Phil Greenspun, a computer scientist, writer and photographer who tells visitors to his site (http:// photo. net) that he will accept credit-card donations on behalf of Angell Memorial Animal Hospital in Boston -- which took care of his dear, departed dog -- and for SARA, a Texas animal sanctuary. He offers free prints of his photos to donors who meet certain minimums.

After a member of a "cyberaccountability" discussion group questioned his site, Greenspun wrote to insist that he was an honest go-between. "It would be nice to pocket the money, but I'm not smart enough to run a scam, given my 700,000 hits per day," he said.

Though his methods are unconventional, representatives of both Angell and SARA say Greenspun has helped them significantly, raising thousands of dollars using technology that they are only beginning to grasp. "He is totally legitimate, and as far as we're concerned, just tops," said John Helton, SARA's co-director.

Online charities can be a headache for regulators. A major issue is which state laws a charity must conform to in cyberspace. Most states require soliciting organizations to register, but theoretically, online soliciting takes place in all 50 states, as well as abroad.

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