Commercial Web sites link to aid agencies

Customers quickly donate millions online for relief

December 31, 2004|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Amazon.com revolutionized the retail shopping business. Philanthropy might be next.

Known primarily for selling books, music, housewares and electronics, the Web giant has emerged as a major conduit for donations to help victims of the South Asia earthquake and tsunamis.

Its homepage - as well as the pages of other Web sites that traffic more commonly in commerce than charity - prominently features links to relief agencies and other groups offering assistance.

By yesterday evening, $6.2 million poured in through Amazon.com from more than 96,000 donors, the most of any such Web site. Amazon is poised to surpass the $6.8 million it raised in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

Elsewhere on the Web, donations similarly were approaching new heights.

Record-setting days

"We've never had the kind of response that we've had with the tsunami," says Chief Executive Officer Bill Strathmann of Network for Good, a Web-based nonprofit in Vienna, Va. "It's a gradual trending up as the news sinks in."

The organization was created in 2001 by a small group of high-tech companies to funnel credit card donations to various charities. This week it broke its one-day record - twice.

On Tuesday, Network for Good processed $960,000 in disaster relief donations. On Wednesday, the total climbed to $1.6 million.

A Network for Good survey indicates online giving amounts to roughly $2 billion a year.

The group benefits from promotional links on the Web sites of board member companies such as AOL and Yahoo, plus cooperating news organizations such as NPR and CNN. Amazon.com relies primarily on its everyday Web traffic.

"It's really a tribute to our customers," says Amazon spokesman Craig Berman.

Another dominant Internet presence, eBay, didn't post a notice about the tragedy until Tuesday afternoon, then later added links to a handful of relief organizations, including the American Red Cross, Save the Children and UNICEF.

At least one eBay user noted on an eBay discussion board that the site could have used its popular payment system, PayPal, to establish a simple way of contributing to relief efforts via credit card or direct bank withdrawals.

"We feel it's appropriate to take time to consider the best way we can leverage the desires of the eBay community," says company spokesman Hani Durzy. "We're still investigating where help is going to be most needed."

As pictures swirl around the world of children swept away by floodwaters, of homes reduced to rubble piles, there's not much time for organizational due diligence.

For example, Network for Good lists about 30 relief groups on its Web site, screening them to make sure they're IRS-sanctioned charities and aren't in violation of the USA Patriot Act.

Beyond that, it's donor beware.

Understandably, most money gravitates toward familiar nonprofit names. Oxfam. The Red Cross. Doctors Without Borders.

But cyber-dollars are also floating into coffers of smaller relief agencies such as Samaritan's Purse, a North Carolina-based evangelical Christian organization founded by the Rev. Billy Graham's son, Franklin. It's one of Network for Good's lesser-known links.

"I don't know any specific numbers of what we've raised, but it has been a record amount for our Web site," says spokesman Ivan Giesbrecht. "This has been the largest online giving in our experience."

Effort by friends

Not all of the donations come from high-profile Web referrals.

On Wednesday morning, the Associated Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore sent out an e-mail pitch to members, then later that afternoon added a tsunami-disaster donation link on its Web site.

By day's end, the federation had raised $16,000 from 74 online donors.

"Normally we put an ad in the Jewish Press and people will send in checks," says staff associate Amy Silberman. "This is the first time we've tried credit cards."

Washington photographer Matt Mendelsohn took online matters into his own hands, but went low-tech high-tech. Early Wednesday morning he sent an e-mail letter to 100 friends, requesting they show their collective support for Doctors Without Borders.

"Let's do something together," Mendelsohn wrote. "Let's raise $25,000 by next week."

Friends kicked in more than $2,000 in the first 24 hours.

"Everybody wants to give," says Mendelsohn. "They just don't know where to start. That's the whole purpose of that e-mail."

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